Research Group Biochemical Ecology and Molecular Evolution

Secondary metabolism - a arms race in nature

Secondary metabolism, also called specialized metabolism, is essential for the survival of plants in their environment. The products of secondary metabolism often have an immense benefit for human life but might also do harm. Already since humans use plants, they benefitted from plant secondary metabolism in its huge diversity. But only in the last decades we start to understand this specific part of plant metabolism.

Natural products have ecological functions for the plants producing them

It is not difficult to explain secondary metabolism. This part of the metabolism results in products that are not essential for the living functions of a cell but for the plant's survival in its environment. This was recognized already by the scientist Julius Sachs in 1873. Plants have a fundamental problem by being rooted to the ground eliminating any possibility to move. They cannot escape in the case of an attack by herbivorous animals and are reliant on pollinators for the successful transfer of pollen. But: How can plants fend off herbivores? And how can they attract pollinators? The solution are the compounds produced by plant secondary metabolism.

Natural products have been optimized for millions of years for their activity in animals

Natural products are part of pigments and fragrances that paint and perfume flowers to attract pollinators. But they are also toxins and hot or spicy to make plant tissues unattractive for herbivores. In millions of years of evolution this interaction between plants and animals developed. Pigments and fragrances became more and more attractive, while other compounds became more and more toxic and deterrent. Each adaptation, animals developed to overcome the plant defense, a counter-adaptation of the plant followed. Today, we profit from these compounds that have been optimized for their activity in animals: Spices, essential oils, or even toxins are used for their unique function in humans, the latter for example as medicines.

Further background informations

Here you find a short introduction to aspects related to our research.

icon-secondary metabolism
alkaloids (PAs)