Exploring the chemical ecology of multi-trophic interactions

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Clay’s introduction to research

This summer we had the pleasure of hosting Clay, a new undergraduate research student from Prairie View A&M, through the Texas A&M Entomology REU program. Clay conducted a project investigating how plant water stress affects the preference and performance of fall armyworms. Working with his graduate student mentor, Natalie, Clay conducted oviposition preference experiments with female moths and measured the mass gain of caterpillars feeding on plants with different levels of water stress. He also learned how to measure plant water status using a Scholander pressure chamber. After a very successful summer of experiments, Clay presented his research at the Texas A&M REU student poster symposium and plans to attend the Entomological Society of America meeting in Vancouver this fall.

“Over the summer while interning in Dr. Helms lab I conducted my first research project of my collegiate career. The environment of her research lab was very welcoming and educational along with the fellow researchers I worked alongside. I never felt out of place or uncomfortable at any moment during my internship which made the experience extremely enjoyable. These factors made my internship and working on my project two times as memorable.” -Clay

Spring/Summer 2022 updates

Congratulations to our superstar undergraduate researcher, Laura Marmolejo! Laura was awarded the prestigious 2022 Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean’s Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Research. Laura was recognized for her many research accomplishments, including multiple award-winning research presentations and a first author publication in the journal of chemical ecology! You can read more about her research on “Defense Suppression through Interplant Communication Depends on the Attacking Herbivore Species” here. This fall, Laura is heading to Michigan State University to pursue a M.S. in the Szendrei lab.

Laura at the Dean’s Awards Ceremony with her parents and grad student mentor Morgan Thompson.

Congratulations to our Ph.D. student, Morgan Thompson, for several achievements this past semester! Morgan received a number of awards this spring for her excellence in research and service. She won a prestigious Sigma Xi ‘Grant in Aid of Research’ for her project on the role of microorganisms in plant defense titled: “Playing the wild card: comparing microbial communities of domesticated and wild plant species for resistance to insect herbivory”. This summer, Morgan is conducting her first experiment related to this project in collaboration with USDA ARS scientists, Charles Suh and Lindsey Perkin. Morgan also received the Texas A&M Department of Entomology Outstanding Ph.D. Graduate Student Award in 2022. This award recognizes exemplary research and service contributions to the department. For her work as the President of Aggie Women in Entomology (AWE) and her mentorship of undergraduate students, Morgan also received the Ethel Ashworth-Tsutsui Memorial Award for Mentoring in 2022 through the Texas A&M Women in Science and Engineering and the Texas A&M Accountability, Climate and Equity (ACE) Women’s Progress Award – Student for 2022, which is awarded to individuals who demonstrate commitment to an improved environment for women. On top of all of that, she advanced to candidacy this semester as well!

Anjel, Morgan, and Laura at the Ethel Ashworth-Tsutsui Memorial Award for Mentoring Award Ceremony

This spring, several Helms Lab members participated in the Texas A&M Student Research Week Symposium and the Southwestern Branch Entomological Society of America Meeting and were recognized with multiple presentation awards.

The Aggie Research Program Team (Jayda, Rachel, Jack, and Gage) recently won 2nd place in their category during Student Research Week for their presentation, titled “Signals From Down Under,” which examined the effects of belowground herbivory on neighboring aboveground plant defenses.

At the Southwestern Branch ESA meeting, Laura Marmolejo was awarded first place in the undergraduate student competition where she presented her research titled “Different interpretations: Herbivore-induced plant volatiles elicit different defense responses in inter-plant communication between heterospecific and conspecifics.” Morgan Thompson presented her recently-published review paper in a talk titled “How the chemical ecology of host-associated differentiation improves natural enemy selection for biological control”. This manuscript can be found here. John Grunseich presented a poster on his recent findings titled, “Linking maize enzymes to herbivore defense.”

Morgan and John also competed in the Entomology Games on the Texas A&M team where they won first place and will now be traveling to Vancouver, Canada to compete at the national Entomological Society of America meeting in November.

In May, Natalie and Anjel traveled to their undergraduate alma mater, Pepperdine University, to participate in a symposium honoring the research and teaching legacy of their former mentor Stephen Davis. Anjel gave a talk on “The Case for Engaging Undergraduates in Research: Sparking Inspiration and Building Practical Skills”.

Natalie, Janet, Steve (Dr. Davis), and Anjel at the Pepperdine Symposium

In April, Anjel also got to travel to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln to present a seminar on “Chemical Cues Linked to Risk: How Organisms Navigate Conflict in a Chemical World.” She was able to meet with many of the UNL graduate students, members of the Louis lab, and researchers at the local USDA ARS.

The Helms Lab also got together for dinner to celebrate the end of a successful school year, many student awards, several presentations, our new M.S. student (Adriane), and 2 students (Natalie and Morgan) passing their qualifying exams!

Summer 2021 Updates

After an eventful year, we have some summer updates from the lab to share!

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The Helms Lab was very successful during the student competitions at the Southwestern Branch ESA Meeting. Laura and Emma both placed in the undergraduate competition, John placed in the master’s competition, and Morgan received an award in the PhD competition. Congratulations to all! And a special congratulations to Laura for receiving the Undergraduate Student Achievement Award in Entomology. Incredibly well-deserved!

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Morgan participated in the Symposium on Insect-Plant Interactions (SIP) 2021, and she was honored to be selected for an oral presentation. Her talk, titled “Systemic plant responses to belowground herbivory deter aboveground herbivores”, was well-received and she enjoyed networking with folks at the virtual conference. Nice work, Morgan!

Natalie had a busy summer traveling to Pepperdine University in California to work on experiments for her dissertation. While she was there, she also worked with undergraduate students doing research on native plants in the Santa Monica Mountains and she was invited to give a research seminar for the Natural Science Division. Once Natalie returned to Texas, she completed her dissertation proposal defense and began working on more experiments! It’s been a great summer!

Our lab recently published a manuscript titled, “Chemical Cues from Entomopathogenic Nematodes Vary Across Three Species with Different Foraging Strategies, Triggering Different Behavioral Responses in Prey and Competitors” where we investigated the important role that volatile insect-cadaver cues play in mediating predator-prey interactions along with how differing predator hunting modes may influence the composition of these cues. This research revealed that belowground insect herbivores respond differently to chemical cues from differing EPN species and suggests that mobile EPN species also use these cues as an indicator for greater probabilities of prey availability. This article can be found at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10886-021-01304-8

Emma graduated in May 2021 with a bachelor’s in entomology. They spent the summer at the Invertebrate Ecology Lab in the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center participating in native bee and aquatic macroinvertebrate research. In the fall, they will begin their master’s program in Fisheries Science at Oregon State University as a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) National Needs (NNF) graduate fellow.

Along with attending the SWB meeting, Laura was able to spend her second summer in our lab continuing research on plant priming in Cucurbita pepo. Laura also was able to meet with her EntosMentos mentor Dr. Rupesh Kariyat from the UTRGV Biology Department, and tour his lab where he researches plant defense against insect herbivores. Thanks so much for reading our summer update! We can’t wait to share more information for this upcoming school year.

Spring/Summer 2020

The Helms lab members had a productive spring and summer as we adjusted to online courses, virtual meetings, and socially distant research. Here are a few updates we would like to share:

Congratulations to Morgan Thompson for receiving awards for her virtual presentations at the Southwestern/North Central Branch Entomological Society of America meeting and the Texas A&M Entomology Graduate Student Forum!

Congratulations to John Grunseich for receiving the Entomological Society of America P-IE Outstanding Master’s Student Award! John also recently published the first chapter of his thesis in the journal Functional Ecology! Check out “Risky roots and careful herbivores: Sustained herbivory by a root‐feeding herbivore attenuates indirect plant defences” to learn more! This research was also featured in a post on the Functional Ecologists blog.

Winter 2020 updates

Winter came and went quickly for the Helms Lab! As we gear up for spring break, we want to share some exciting highlights from our semester so far:  

Congrats to undergraduate researcher, Laura Marmolejo, for receiving second place on her oral presentation at the Aggie Women in Entomology Undergraduate Research Symposium at Texas A&M! Her presentation shared her work on cucumber beetle host-plant preferences. Laura was mentored by Morgan, who will continue to help Laura develop research projects in the future. Great work, Laura! For more information on this event, see: https://entomology.tamu.edu/2020/02/18/undergraduate-mentorship-symposium-showcases-quality-research/

Morgan, Laura, and Anjel after Laura’s presentation

On Valentine’s Day, the Helms Lab participated in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Program’s annual Darwin Day, a celebration of all things biology. The event usually coincides with the birthday of Charles Darwin, Father of Evolution, whose discoveries still shape our understanding of biology today. Researchers from different disciplines brought specimens and live organisms, including insects, plants, fish, birds, reptiles and microorganisms. Helms lab members explained the coevolution of Curcubitaceae plants and a specialist herbivore, striped cucumber beetle (Acalymma vittatum), through a small experiment. In addition, lab members showcased squash bugs (Anasa tristis) and their characteristically fragrant alarm pheromone. It was a very exciting day when science brought together researchers and society.

Andreísa, Natalie, John, and Morgan with their Darwin Day booth

The Helms Lab recently published a review paper in the journal ‘Plants’ on how plant-associated microbes modify insect herbivore host-plant selection. We surveyed scientific literature to identify studies on both beneficial and pathogenic microbe-altered plant cues affecting insect herbivore host-plant preference. Our review revealed context and species-specific effects of beneficial plant-associated microbes on insect herbivore preference. In contrast, mode of pathogen transmission (insect-vectored vs. non-vectored) determined insect herbivore preference for pathogen-associated plants. To get the full story, check out our paper here: https://www.mdpi.com/2223-7747/9/1/6.     

Plant-associated microbes modify plant cues (olfactory, visual, gustatory)

Natalie was chosen as a 2020 winner of the Grant A. Harris Fellowship, which provides graduate students up to $10,000 of research instrumentation through METER Group, Inc. The award recognizes outstanding environmental science research proposals in honor of Dr. Grant Harris, an esteemed and beloved plant ecologist. Natalie will study the relationship between plant volatile release and stomatal conductance using a Porometer. She looks forward to combining her interests in plant physiology and defense responses to insect herbivores. Way to go, Natalie! For more information on Natalie’s project, check out: https://www.metergroup.com/company/grant-harris-fellowship/grant-a-harris-fellowship-2020-recipients/.

Graduate students receive Ecolab grants

Congratulations to Natalie Aguirre and Morgan Thompson, both of whom received funding from the Texas Ecological Laboratory (“Ecolab”) Program for their respective dissertation research projects. Natalie’s project will focus on the prevalence of oak wilt disease in Texas and how this disease affects oak-insect interactions. Morgan’s research will examine the chemical ecology underlying insect interactions with a weedy gourd species. Natalie and Morgan are eager to begin their fieldwork in the spring, and we are excited to see where these research projects take them!

Natalie showing off her fieldwork skills
Fruits from Morgan’s new study organism, buffalo gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima)

Welcome, Andreísa!

The Helms Lab welcomed a new student, Andreísa Fabri Lima, in mid-December 2019. Andreisa joins us as a visiting doctoral student from the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil where she works under the advisement of Dr. M. Fernanda G.V. Peñaflor. Her project in our lab will explore how insecticides alter plant-insect interactions. We look forward to exchanging ideas and learning from one another over the coming months! 

2019 Entomological Society of America Meeting in St. Louis

Members of the Helms lab traveled to St. Louis, Missouri in November to participate in the 2019 Entomological Society of America Meeting. John and Morgan both presented their research and participated in the Linnaean Games. John also received 2nd place in the student competition for his poster presentation on cucumber root volatile-mediated interactions. Anjel co-organized a symposium with Dr. Loren Rivera-Vega from Texas A&M and Swayamjit Ray from Penn State called “A Microbe, an Herbivore, and a Plant Walk into a Field…Microbes in Plant-Herbivore Interactions”. Anjel also presented a talk in the symposium titled “Entomopathogenic nematodes and their bacterial symbionts influence plant defenses and herbivore performance”. Overall, it was a great time to catch up with friends and collaborators, meet new people, and learn about some of the latest entomology research.

John, Morgan, and Anjel with John’s poster

October fun

The Helms lab had an exciting month of October filled with international conferences, seminar visits, cucurbit carving, and paper writing.

Anjel was invited to speak at the Asia-Pacific Association of Chemical Ecologists (APACE) biennial meeting in Hangzhou, China. She presented her talk “Chemical cues linked to risk: Plants and insect herbivores respond to chemical cues from entomopathogenic nematodes” in a symposium on ” Signaling and perception in plant-herbivore interactions” organized by Matthias Erb from the University of Bern in Switzerland and Yonggen Lou from Zhejiang University in China.

The Helms lab also had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Eric Yip from Penn State for a seminar visit. Eric presented his talk on “Exploring the ecology of a plant that eavesdrops on its specialist herbivore” as part of the TAMU Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Program seminar series.


After Eric’s visit, we hosted Anjel’s Ph.D. advisor, Dr. John Tooker from Penn State. John gave a guest lecture on gall insects for our graduate-level chemical ecology course and presented a seminar on “Toxic slugs chart a path back to IPM” as part of the TAMU Entomology Department seminar series. To thank John and give him a proper Texas welcome, we hosted a reception complete with smoked pork and brisket and put him to work hanging up lights around the yard.


We finished out the month and celebrated the submission of our review paper by carving cucurbits on Halloween.


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


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