Marcel Benoist 2023 Prize for plant communication

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)

The Marcel Benoist Foundation awards the Prix Marcel Benoist 2023 to Ted Turlings of the University of Neuchâtel "for his outstanding contributions in the fields of chemical ecology and plant-insect interactions". Biologist Ted Turlings made a fundamental discovery in the early 1990s: plants emit odors to attract predators of insect pests that attack them. His work led to fundamental advances in our understanding of plant-insect interactions. It has also led to the development of new approaches to biological, pesticide-free pest control, a key aspect of sustainable agriculture.

The Swiss Marcel Benoist Science Prize 2023 is awarded to Ted Turlings, a biologist at the University of Neuchâtel. His work has elucidated complex biological phenomena and has had a worldwide impact in the environmental sciences. It has opened up new avenues in sustainable agriculture in the context of biological pest control, without the use of pesticides. The biologist has pursued highly innovative approaches and made an essential contribution to understanding the role played by chemical signals in communication between different species - what is known as chemical ecology.

When plants communicate through scent

Ted Turlings’ research has developed around the fundamental discovery he made in 1990: plants can defend themselves against insect pests by producing volatile compounds - odors - that will attract the pests’ predators. It is a substance present in the pest’s saliva that triggers the plant to produce odoriferous molecules.

His team’s work ranges from fundamental to applied research. It has opened up new possibilities for using fewer pesticides in the field by relying on the natural predators of pests, an approach known as "biological control". This is a crucial element for sustainable agriculture, which includes protection against insect pests, which destroy up to forty percent of crops worldwide.

For example, detecting the presence of defensive odors emitted by plants during a pest attack would enable farm managers to be alerted before visible damage to the crop appears, and thus target the use of phytosanitary products more effectively. Ted Turlings’ research is also looking into the selection of plant varieties that produce more odoriferous compounds to attract beneficial insects or repel pests. Another possibility is to synthesize odoriferous molecules in plants to attract pest predators before they have a chance to damage crops. Ted Turlings’ team is pursuing such approaches in collaboration with agricultural research institutes and non-governmental organizations, such as the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI).

This award is a great honor," confides Ted Turlings. It’s recognition of the work we’ve been doing over the years with extremely competent colleagues, as well as the type of research we’re carrying out. Our current system of food production is a major contributor to climate change and environmental problems. We have the means to do better, and science has an important role to play."

How plants attract insects to defend themselves

Ted Turlings’ work has elucidated in detail the mechanisms involved when a caterpillar eats a corn leaf. A compound in the insect’s saliva, called volicitin, triggers receptors on the leaf. These trigger the plant to produce volatile molecules: aromatic compounds and terpenoids. These attract wasps, which inject their eggs into the caterpillars. The wasp larvae eventually devour the pests from within. In the end, the plant is able to protect itself by calling an enemy of its enemy for help.

"I’m delighted to see Ted Turlings rewarded, a great personality in biology research," comments Didier Queloz, President of the Marcel Benoist Foundation. His fundamental research has led to spectacular results with the potential for profound impact for society and for sustainable agriculture in particular."

The Marcel Benoist Swiss Science Prize will be awarded to Ted Turlings on October 30, 2023 in Berne at a joint ceremony with the Latsis Swiss Science Prize.