March 1, 2010

Cornell Professor Earns Prestigious Award Through Discovery of Plant Senses

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It’s been over 24 years since Cornell, along with Stanford and Indiana Universities, established the David Starr Jordan prize to honor young scientists who make innovative contributions to evolution, ecology and population and organismal biology. In that time, the University had never seen one of its own researchers win –– that is, until now. Prof. Anurag Agrawal, ecology and evolutionary biology, was chosen as this year’s recipient of the prize, which is awarded every three years, for his insights into plant evolution. He was honored on Feb. 18 with a ceremony and will receive $20,000 from a combined contribution of Cornell, Stanford and Indiana.

The pioneering aspect of his research is his discovery that plants, like humans, have senses.

“Certain plants can actually detect infections before they form and prevent plants from becoming infected,” Agrawal said.

Once he made this discovery, Agrawal set out to understand the evolution of a plant’s senses and how those senses shape ecological communities of insects and other organisms that interact with those plants.

He believes that his research can ultimately help shed light on what makes certain plant species successfully evolve, while others die out.

“Which [infection-fighting] chemical compounds are unique to which plants and how [they are] involved in natural selection is something that will probably continue to be looked into,” he said.

According to Agrawal, his discovery may also aid crop breeding if scientists can figure out how to alter certain senses amongst different plants.

Nelson Hairston, department chair of ecology and evolutionary biology, said he was pleased that Agrawal was recognized with the award.

“He is a really brilliant man and incredibly modest, so its wonderful that he got this award,” Hairston said. “His work is of pretty fundametal importance to how natural eco-systems are structured, how organisms interact and the strength of those interactions.”

Original Author: Ben Gitlin