How, when and why do plants synthesize metabolites that cure our illnesses and flavour our foods? The lab is figuring out the answers to questions related to plant specialized metabolism.
Plant defence against invaders is largely mediated by an intricate chemical language of plant specialized (a.k.a. secondary) metabolites. These compounds have crucial roles in ecological interactions, for example, to deter invading pathogens or to recruit help from insectivores. However, we understand very little about the evolutionary origins of these metabolites, their role in nature, and the mechanism by which they exert toxicity or repellency. The long-term objective of the Gonzales-Vigil lab is to understand this biochemical response by exploring how plant specialized metabolites are made, how genes/enzymes specialize, and how an arms race between plants and their enemies leads to an escalation of metabolic diversity. An emphasis will be placed in understanding the role of specialized metabolites for the plant and the evolutionary forces that shape the acquisition of new traits. Addressing this question requires a systems biology approach that integrates genomics, proteomics and metabolomics with molecular biology and phenotyping platforms. For our research, we use the fantastic phenotypic diversity present in natural populations. Currently, we are exploring the natural variation in the lipids found in the cuticle of poplar trees.