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A 300 million year conversation

For over 300 million years plants have provided insects with food, shelter and sites for reproduction. Every plant communicates uniquely with its own small group of specialist insects. The plant manipulates its specialists to ensure its survival. Some insects will pollinate it and allow it to reproduce, while others will protect the plant from attack by other animals. A third group of specialists is able to feed on the plant.
Flowering plants have developed a special visual signalling organ, the flower. Its colour, size and shape attract the right pollinating insects at the right time. Plants can also use chemical messages to signal to insects. Volatile chemicals are also used by the plant as attractants, most notably in the floral scents, but also to call in predators when under attack. All plants can contain complex mixtures of compounds that repel all but specialist insects. The combinations of these signals are unique to every plant.
Identifying plant signals allows us to understand the interactions between plants and insects, and the changes in these relationships caused by agriculture, habitat destruction and climate change. By using plant signals we can produce insect attractants and repellents for use in agriculture and the home.
This exhibit, jointly staged by Imperial College at Wye and Quest International, shows how plants use scent, taste and colour signals to attract helpful insects and to repel unwelcome herbivores. It brings together findings from major research studies by entomologists, biochemists and horticulturists from Imperial College and Quests fragrance experts.