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Chemicals may explain why there are so many plants on our planet

Sloth in Brosimum in the Panamanian rainforest
Beckman Lab
A sloth navigates the rainforest in search for food. The research being conducted by Beckman and Whitehead aim to uncover roles chemicals in the fruits play to better dispurse seeds.

Fruits are vital but did you know their main purpose is to disperse seeds? Researchers from Virginia Tech and Utah State University speak about the ecological mysteries of plants, their fruits and the chemicals they produce to spread seeds.

“Fruits are in a really tough place ecologically, they need to be attractive to their seed dispersers, and still defend against insects, and fungal pathogens that would attack roots, and damage the seeds. We think that chemistry might be really key to mediating these really complex interactions," Susan Whitehead said.

She is an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech. Whitehead is conducting research with other scientists who are taking a deeper look at why plants evolve to produce so many complex chemicals.

She says a lot of relationships with “all kinds of organisms, from fungi to birds” are studied to better understand how plants navigate their competitive environment.

Noelle Beckman, an assistant professor in Biology and the Ecology Center at USU, is the lead researcher of this project. She uses chemistry to uncover the way plants interact with outside pressures such as predation and resource competition.

“One huge question in evolutionary ecology is why there's such a huge diversity of chemical compounds in plants. Our project is investigating that question. We propose that fruits might be the key," Beckman said.

The project is taking place at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Barro Colorado Island in Panama.

“BCI is a dream location for a project like this, because we have so much existing data. It provides so much context for the data that we're collecting on the chemical traits of plants. Now we can really ask how those chemical traits relate to all of these other ecological and evolutionary factors," Whitehead said.

UPR will be sending reporters Sheri Quinn and Colleen Meidt to the island this week to follow this research deep in the rainforest. Listen for more stories this month!

Colleen Meidt is a science reporter at UPR as well as a PhD student at Utah State University. She studies native bees in the Mojave Desert and is particularly interested studying the conservation status of the Mojave Poppy Bee. In her free time, Colleen enjoys photography and rock climbing in the canyons.