Ecological Research

Current position:

At present, I live and work in Freising, Germany, where I am a research associate in the Terrestrial Ecology Research Group at the Technical University of Munich, led by Prof. Wolfgang W. Weisser.

As a research associate, I lead a small team that includes technical staff, PhD students, MSc students and student helpers. My team and I currently work on various exciting projects in which we try to understand various aspects of interactions between plants, microbes and insects.

Some of our current projects:

Plant chemodiversity – In two DFG-funded projects, we investigate the role of plant chemodiversity in shaping insect communities, using the tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) model system. Specifically, one PhD student, Lina Ojeda Prieto (Feb. ’21) investigates how diversity of chemotypes at the stand level influences insect herbivores, predators, and pollinators in a field experiment in Jena. A second PhD student, Annika Neuhaus (Nov. ’21) investigates how belowground organisms and aboveground organisms may affect each other on a shared host plant, and how this is mediated by chemotypic composition. This work includes field surveys, greenhouse and field experimentation. Our projects are in close collaboration with the DFG FOR3000 Research Unit, and the Schnitzler lab at HelmHoltz Zentrum Neuherberg, respectively.

Microbe-induced resistance – In a DFG-funded project, we investigate the interactions between beneficial microbes, barley plants, and their insect pests. Specifically, PhD student Oriana Sánchez Mahecha (Feb. ’19) investigates how microbe-induced resistance against cereal aphids (Sitobion avenae) in barley (Hordeum vulgare) is affected by multiple abiotic and biotic variables including nutrition, CO2, extreme temperatures and soil water availability, using climate chamber studies. This project is led by Dr. Sharon Zytynska at Liverpool University, and co-led locally in Freising by me. The project is a close collaboration with the Rothballer lab at Helmholtz Zentrum Neuherberg.

Endophytic microbiomes – We investigate interactions between fungal pathogens, fungicides, microbial endophytes, and aphids in barley. Specifically, potential PhD candidate Stephan Grassl investigates efficacy of fungicides against fungal pathogens, and how these two factors may interactively shape the endophytic plant microbiome, using climate chamber and greenhouse studies. We are especially interested in how these effects mediate plant resistance to pests. This project is currently unfunded, and executed in part-time by the candidate. The project is in close collaboration with the Schloter lab at Helmholtz Zentrum Neuherberg, and the Phytopathology group at TUM.

ALAN – We investigate the ecological side effects of artificial light at night (ALAN) on plants, and more particularly on the phytobiome. Our experiments include more mechanistic work on a barley-aphid model system. Furthermore, we work on a range of common wild plant species that are commonly found in road verges. We investigate whether plant growth, and functional properties are affected by ALAN, and also study how insect performance is affected. This project is currently unfunded, and is executed in collaboration with several PhD students, technicians and student helpers as collaborations.

Our experimental work ranges from work in petri dishes to manipulative field experiments, and everything in between.

Feel free to get in touch to discuss collaborations or to ask for more specific information.

My own PhD project – Soil legacy effects on aboveground plant-insect interactions

Plants, during their life time, can have strong effects on the soil they grow in. Some accumulate pathogens in their rhizosphere, i.e., the soil around their roots, whereas others may accumulate more beneficial organisms. You could say that plants leave some sort of ‘microbial footprint’ in the soil. When plants disappear (naturally, by death, or less naturally, by removal) these footprints may remain present in the soil, which can influence other plants that grow in the same soil. This effect can be in any direction depending on what grew there, and what grows there now… So, what has been growing on a certain soil in the past, determines the performance of plants that come later.

Soil microbial footprints, or soil legacy effects, may affect the growth of plants. Fairly straightforward, and quite easy to grasp. To make it a bit more complicated, they also can alter chemistry of the plant. So, basically, plants could become more, or less tasty, or nutritionally valuable, just because of the living soil they grow in. As you can imagine, this can affect plant-associated herbivores, via changes in the plant. And it turns out that they do exactly this.

Very recently, we also discovered that these soil microbial legacies do not only affect the insect herbivores via plants. In fact, they may also do so via the plant, and more importantly via the soil microbiome.

My PhD work has yielded a great number of collaborations that are in part still ongoing. You can find the most recent discoveries in my publication list.

Find my PhD thesis here!