Exploring the chemical ecology of multi-trophic interactions

Author: anjelhelms

Herbvar Collaboration


Today we teamed up with the Eubanks lab for a sampling trip as part of the Herbvar collaboration coordinated by Will Wetzel at Michigan State University. The Herbvar project is a global collaboration to quantify the distribution of herbivory for diverse plant species in multiple ecosystems across the world. The goal of this work is (1) to assess if variability in herbivory is indeed a common feature of plant–herbivore interactions, and (2) to examine how the amount of variability and skew varies among different types of plant species, herbivore communities, and ecosystems.

The Helms and Eubanks labs are planning to measure herbivory on some of the native Texas flora across different seasons. Check back for future updates on what we find! Today we focused on Wolly Croton or Hogwart (Croton capitatus).




Morgan and John recording plant height data


Natalie measuring out the quadrats while Mackenzie, Micky, and Constance record herbivory data


Fall 2019 updates

The fall semester is off to a great start for everyone in the Helms lab. Anjel is teaching a graduate-level chemical ecology class this semester (Entomology 689). This course has both a lecture and lab portion for students to learn important concepts and get hands-on experience with techniques used in chemical ecology. It will be offered again in Fall 2020 and is open to graduate students in all programs.


Helms Lab Fall 2019



We also welcomed a new student, Natalie Aguirre, to the lab. Natalie graduated from Pepperdine University and spent a year as a Fulbright scholar at the Universidad Politecnica in Madrid, Spain. Most recently she was working for the Everglades Foundataion in Miami, Florida. Natalie will be pursuing a Ph.D. through the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) program here at Texas A&M. For her dissertation research, she is interested in combining chemical ecology with her background in plant physiological ecology and plant pathology.



Lab lunch at the Dixie Chicken to start the semester off right



Summer 2019 updates

The Helms lab celebrated the end of a successful spring semester. Tammy graduated from Texas A&M and has been accepted to the Entomology master’s program at Purdue. John finished his first semester as a master’s student, Laura completed her first year as an undergraduate, and Anjel completed her first year as a faculty member at Texas A&M.


Allison Hay was accepted to the Applied Biodiversity Sciences Conservation Scholar Program for a summer internship where she is focusing on how small carnivores utilize the old growth and recently cut areas.



We also welcomed a new student, Morgan Thompson, to the lab. Morgan recently completed a master’s degree in entomology from the University of Maryland. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. in entomology from Texas A&M where her dissertation research will focus on the chemical ecology of multi-trophic interactions.



Anjel recently traveled to south Texas to present a seminar and meet with collaborators at the Agrilife Research Center in Weslaco. She was also able to reconnect with a former grad school colleague, Rupesh Kariyat, who is a faculty member at UTRGV.


Congratulations to John for a successful ESA Southwestern Branch Meeting!

John Grunseich recently represented the Helms Lab at the Entomological Society of America Southwestern Branch Meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He presented a poster on his master’s research and was awarded a second place prize in the student competition. John also participated in the student Linnaean Games on one of the Texas A&M teams. His team finished in second place and will be advancing to the ESA national meeting in St. Louis, Missouri this November. Congratulations, John, for a successful meeting!


New paper on nematode chemical cues

Our lab recently published a paper in the journal Functional Ecology investigating the influence of chemical cues from entomopathogenic nematodes on plant defenses and herbivore behavior. (Helms et al. 2019)

We found that insect cadavers infected with entomopathogenic nematodes (EPN) produce characteristic odors different from those of uninfected dead insects. We also found that potato plants responded to the presence of these predatory nematodes or their odors by enhancing defenses that reduced performance of Colorado potato beetles. Our findings also revealed that female Colorado potato beetles laid fewer eggs on plants when odors from entomopathogenic nematodes were present, indicating they detected these cues as warning of a threat to the performance and survival of their offspring. These findings suggest that chemical cues from entomopathogenic nematodes enhance plant defenses and deter insect herbivores. By linking plant detection of chemical cues from organisms that play a beneficial role in their ecology, with herbivore detection of cues from their natural enemies, we can gain additional insight into the complexity of adaptations in interactions among organisms at different trophic levels.

IMG_9053        IMG_8938

Feeding bioassay with Colorado potato beetles on potato plants exposed to EPN chemical cues and William Grisales setting up an oviposition choice test with female Colorado potato beetles.

New paper on defense trade-offs in tall goldenrod

Our paper examining trade-offs between anti-herbivore defenses in tall goldenrod was recently accepted at Arthropod-Plant Interactions (Yip et al 2019)!
This project was started by Rosie Sowers who conducted research with us as a high school and undergraduate student. Rosie also presented this research at the Entomological Society of America meeting and was awarded the President’s Prize for best undergraduate student presentation.

20151118_020304025_iOSRosie and Anjel at the ESA meeting

Here we investigated whether goldenrod plants with an architectural defense, effective against gall-forming flies, experience a trade-off in their defense against goldenrod aphids. A minority of tall goldenrod genotypes exhibit a “ducking” morphology, where the tip of the apical stem bends downward. Previous research by Wise and colleagues found that ducking plants were less apparent and thus better protected against gall-forming herbivores that attack the apical buds. We hypothesized that signaling related to the ducking defense might interfere with investment in chemical defenses, making ducking plants more susceptible to some herbivores, such as goldenrod aphids. To test this hypothesis, we compared aphid survival and preference on ducking and erect genotypes and measured terpenoid concentrations to determine whether plant investment in these compounds was correlated with either ducking or aphid performance. We found that aphids had higher survival on ducking plants and typically preferred ducking vs. erect plants. However, we did not find a correlation between ducking and plant terpenoid concentration, indicating a different mechanism is likely responsible for the differences we observed in aphid preference and performance.

rosie research

20151106_210124448_iOSchoiceRosie collecting goldenrod herbivores, analyzing plant samples, and conducting aphid- choice tests




Wrapping up a busy fall semester

We celebrated fall birthdays and our cucurbit research by carving pumpkins.



Our new equipment is up and running! The Helms lab and our collaborators are working on a variety of projects analyzing VOCs, CHCs, sugars, amino acids, plant defense compounds, and a whole lot more.



Anjel joined the faculty in the Texas A&M Ecology and Evolutionary Biology PhD program and was invited to present an EEB seminar “Chemical cues linked to risk: eavesdropping by plants and insect herbivores”.



Congratulations to John Grunseich who graduated  from Texas A&M in December with degrees in Entomology and Crop and Soil Science! John was recently accepted into the Entomology Graduate Program and will be sticking around in the Helms Lab as a master’s student.




Welcome to the Helms Lab website! Anjel Helms recently joined the Department of Entomology at Texas A&M University as an assistant professor of chemical ecology. The research in our lab focuses on chemically mediated interactions among plants, insect herbivores, and herbivore natural enemies. Some of our research interests include belowground chemical ecology, multi-trophic interactions, plant and insect defense strategies, and chemical communication.

Helms Lab Summer 2018
John, Caroline, Anjel, and Allison

Helms Lab Improvements

As of April 2018 the Helms Lab has been hard at work getting set up in our new lab space in the Entomology Research Laboratory on the Texas A&M campus. Here are some photos of our progress.

ERL building

ERL greenhouses getting some TLC

Inside the Helms Lab




GRC/GRS Plant Volatiles 2018

GRC VOC 2018

Planning is in full swing for GRC/GRS Plant Volatiles 2018! It looks like it will be a great program in a great location and we hope to see you there! The meeting will take place February 3-9, 2018 at the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco hotel in Barga, Italy. Ainhoa Martinez-Medina (iDiv, Germany) and I are coordinating next year’s Gordon Research Seminar (GRS) on Plant Volatiles and we are working together with the GRC coordinators Harro Bouwmeester (University of Amsterdam, NL) and Florian Schiestl (University of Zurich, CH) to put together a great scientific program. We will begin accepting applications for this meeting soon (April 2017) and attendance will be limited, so please apply on the website as early as possible to ensure your place at the meeting. Speakers for the GRS program will be selected from the submitted abstracts. For more information about the conference, and to see program updates, please visit the GRC and GRS websites.

GRS Plant Volatiles 2018
Plant Volatiles Across Multiple Scales: From Molecular Mechanisms to Ecological Functions

The Gordon Research Seminar on Plant Volatiles is a unique forum for graduate students, post-docs, and other scientists with comparable levels of experience and education to present and exchange new data and cutting edge ideas.

The 3rd Plant Volatiles GRS will bring together young international scientists from diverse research backgrounds ranging from plant biology, entomology, microbiology, and ecology to genetics, biochemistry, and pharmacology. Attendees, representing the next generation of scientists, will participate in highly interdisciplinary and interactive discussions of current topics in the field of plant volatile research. Through poster and oral presentations, the 2018 GRS will feature new, unpublished progress on the following topics:
1. Biosynthesis and metabolism of plant volatiles
2. The role of plant volatiles in interactions among plants and other organisms
3. Volatiles across a changing environment
4. Volatiles in agroecosystems

The Plant Volatiles GRS will also feature a mentoring program where attendees can receive professional and career advice from experienced scientists and leaders in the field of plant-volatile research. The mentors will include both an early-career mentor and an established senior-career faculty mentor and each will provide a keynote address. The program of the Plant Volatiles GRS will provide ample time to discuss science and career choices with peers and members of the mentoring team.

The early-career mentor, Dr. Ana Pineda (NIOO-KNAW, Netherlands), is a postdoctoral scientist in the research group of Prof. Dr. Martijn Bezemer at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. Her work has focused on understanding how microbes influence plant-insect interactions at different trophic levels, and how these interactions can be applied for crop protection.

The senior-career mentor, Dr. Martin Heil (Cinvestav, Mexico), is a professor and leader of the plant ecology research group at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute. His research interests include damaged-self recognition in plants, ant-plant mutualisms, and plant communication.

GRC Plant Volatiles 2018
The Role of Plant Volatiles in Communication

Plants produce thousands of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are emitted from organs such as leaves, flowers and roots. These small, chemically diverse molecules are responsible for the aroma of plants and plant products – so are important in agriculture – and have important roles in the communication of plants with other organisms. Hence they are of vital importance for reproduction, growth and development as well as protection against a range of plant enemies. For example, plant volatiles attract pollinators, fruit dispersers and organisms that control pest insects; they repel herbivores, exert anti-microbial effects, protect plants from abiotic stress and activate resistance traits in neighboring plants via airborne plant-plant signaling.

The goal of the GRC Plant Volatiles is to enhance our understanding of the incredible diversity of plant volatile-mediated interactions of plants with their environment and our awareness of their potential applications. Topics at the GRC Plant Volatiles 2018 will cover an array of disciplines ranging from pollination and VOC-mediated resistance in plants to pests and pathogens, bacterial VOCs that promote plant growth and resistance, to the genetic and enzymatic control of the synthesis of VOCs or their perception in plants and animals. Methods cover the entire range from molecular genetics and next-generation analytical tools to field studies. The interdisciplinary character of the meeting should create an atmosphere for lively interdisciplinary discussions, creation of new ideas and the establishment of new collaborations.


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