The Ecology of Plant Secondary Metabolites: From Genes to Global Processes (Ecological Reviews), edited by Glenn R. Iason , Marcel Dicke and Susan E. Hartley . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 335 pp. ISBN 9780521157124 (paperback); ISBN 9780521193269 (hardback). Paperback £35.


  • Olwen Grace

This volume in the Ecological Reviews series is the product of a British Ecological Society Symposium in 2010 and comprises 16 papers by over 50 contributors. At 335 pages, the paperback edition is by no means a tome, yet the scope is impressive: the breadth and the depth of subject matter covered provide a snapshot of current research trends and stimulating ideas for future research. These features combine to make this one of the most useful and authoritative titles I've seen recently in the field of plant chemical ecology.

The economic importance of primary plant metabolism, which yields carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and oils, sustains an intensive research agenda. Plant secondary metabolites, also known as special metabolites, are arguably just as important to global productivity and ecological functioning in the plant kingdom, yet research into how, why and where they work is a comparatively younger field. Once thought to be the waste products of primary plant metabolism and of little consequence, secondary metabolites are now understood to be pivotal to the way in which plants interact with their environment. They function both internally, affording the plant protection from external forces of nature, as well as externally, effectively allowing the plant to elicit change in its environment. The potential for plants to ‘manipulate’ their environment was something of a revelation in biology. However, the interaction between plants and the elements of ecosystems in which they occur – both living and non-living – is central to the study of plant chemical ecology. In their preface, the editors provide a useful historical background to the field and an accessible context for the subsequent chapters, each of which is based on a paper presented at the symposium.

A range of topics is covered. Several assessments of the role of plant secondary metabolites at the ecosystem level are given, while the majority of the chapters deal with their anti-herbivory effects, a predominant theme in plant chemical ecology. Other chapters describe research testing the role of secondary metabolites in enabling plants to cope with environmental stress, the factors governing shifts in compound levels over time, and the influence of carbon dioxide levels on plant secondary metabolites. All this makes for fascinating reading. As is usually the case with biology, pioneering work tends to focus on model organisms and some of the most important new findings described in this volume are based on Arabidopsis and Nicotiana experimental systems. It is exciting, then, that a range of plant groups is represented in the volume, with clear links to optimising production of secondary metabolites in economically important taxa such as Pinus and Thymus. Another research trend represented in the book is a cross-cutting approach, considering secondary metabolism and the production of different compound classes in taxonomically distant plant groups. Ecosystem-wide perspectives reveal that certain secondary metabolites, at least, have a measurable impact at surprisingly large scales. A glance at the index, which helpfully includes figures and tables as well as subjects, affirms the extraordinary array of organisms and environmental factors relevant to plant chemistry which warrant study. As the title suggests, one of the main focal points of this volume is the emerging view of the genetic mechanisms regulating plant secondary metabolites. One chapter, for instance, considers how secondary metabolite production differs between individual plants and between populations, due to underlying genetic differences. A wealth of discovery awaits as new technologies become available.

A minor criticism relates to presentation: colour plates for five chapters are placed on numberless pages towards the rear of the book, curiously inserted within the references for Chapter 15. There is a note to this effect in the table of contents, but the plates (and the information they contain) are easily overlooked. In the same vein, several black and white figures would have benefitted from being in colour. Such small faults barely detract from the impact of the volume; the authors have succeeded in providing an excellent synopsis of current thinking and research opportunities for anyone interested in ecology and plant chemistry.