One of the fundamental processes that generates biodiversity on our planet is the interaction between species. This project focuses on antagonistic interactions between plants and the insects that attack them to understand the diversity that has arisen within a single genus of milkweeds in the new world. Over 130 milkweed species differ in the abundance, distribution, and diversity of plant defense strategies expressed, and this species diversity is hypothesized to have arisen in response to predation by Monarch butterflies. Using an integrated approach that combines modern methods in chemical analysis of plant hormones and toxins, greenhouse studies, and cutting edge genome manipulation, the investigators will determine the function of multiple plant defense traits and their contribution to the diversification of the milkweeds.
Research results will significantly advance understanding of one of the major unresolved questions in ecology and evolution: the origin and maintenance of species diversity. They also will inform management strategies; for example, the study of plant resistance in wild species can provide a basis for novel pest control strategies in agriculture. Plans for education and training encompass K-12 students, undergraduates, graduate students, and the general public, and are particularly convincing because the study involves the popular Monarch butterflies. K-12 education on biodiversity and species interactions will be facilitated by support of a graduate outreach assistant through an established program at Cornell. Thus, this project will support local educational efforts by engaging educators and students at all levels and in diverse ways. Finally, the PI strongly supports open access to published data, and will continue to make raw data available.