Our lab was the first to demonstrate communication between plants via Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) (Baldwin and Schultz 1983). At that time Ian Baldwin was a student working in the lab; plant volatiles were part of his undergraduate honors thesis at Dartmouth College.
Since then our interest in and work with VOCs have gone in two directions. We demonstrated within-plant priming, in which exposure of leaves on poplar saplings to VOCs emitted by other leaves in the same plant make the ‘recipient’ leaves more responsive to subsequent herbivory (Frost et al. 2007). Self-priming may be one of the most significant functions of plant-emitted VOCs.
We have also worked with engineers to develop a device that could be used in agricultural fields to identify infested plants and target them for individual pesticide treatment. Our collaborator, Xudong Fan (University of Michigan) and his students have produced a ‘micro gas chromatograph’ about the size of a shoebox for this purpose. Unfortunately, funding ran out before we could complete this development, and the project is on hold.
One outcome of our research on volatiles has been a change in all experimental procedures. Since anything a plant experiences can cause emission of VOCs that have diverse impacts on neighboring plants (ranging from gene expression to growth and defense), we never do experiments with experimental and control plants in the same airspace.