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Chemical defenses of pioneer plant seeds

Project Full Title:

Chemical defenses of pioneer plant seeds, and their influence on demography and community structure

Project Mentor(s):

Brown,Kenneth; Sanford,Elizabeth

Project Mentor(s) EMail:;

Project Start Date:


Project End Date:


Project Description:

Dr. Sanford is will be on sabbatical during the Summer of 2022 and is not accepting students. Please contact her for the Fall of 2022 if interested in joining her research group. This interdisciplinary project will incorporate perspectives from both Biology and Chemistry to elucidate the basis of chemical defense in tropical pioneer plant seeds. Tropical rainforests are legendary for their biological diversity and for the complexity of interactions among their species. The interactions between animals and plants are especially prominent – animals are important as pollinators, seed dispersers and seed predators, and plants are under strong selection pressure to reinforce the positive interactions with animals and to weaken the negative ones. “Pioneer” plants – those that specialize on colonizing recently disturbed patches of forest but which cannot compete in the shaded understory – constitute a model system in which to study tropical plant-animal interactions because their seeds must survive in the soil for years despite intense threats from both animals and pathogenic fungi. Our research group seeks to understand how seed dispersers, seed predators, microbial pathogens, and physical disturbance interact to influence the demography of tropical pioneer plants and thus the maintenance of forest structure and species composition. We are especially interested in questions that encompass several levels of biological organization, or that combine the approaches of other disciplines (e.g., mathematics, computational science, and organic chemistry) with those of ecology. This summer, we will continue our characterization of the chemical defenses of pioneer plant seeds, focusing on species whose seeds can survive for decades in tropical soils, despite threats from seed-eating animals and microbial attack. Students involved in this research will employ a variety of extraction, chemical separation and analysis techniques, as well as toxicity bioassays against fungi and arthropods. They will also gain experience in hypothesis formation and statistical analysis, in analyzing the scientific literature critically, and in presenting their research results in written and oral formats.

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