Peeeuuuuuuw! Most people can tell when they have crossed the path of a frightened skunk by the powerful odor that lingers long after the skunk has scurried away. This odor, which skunks use as a defense mechanism, is composed of various chemicals that can cause nausea and retching and will act like tear gas if it gets in the eyes.
According to Nancy Targett, professor of marine biology-biochemistry at the University of Delaware, this is just one example of how organisms use chemicals to influence their environment. Chemicals can do much more than simply frighten predators — they can protect an organism from being eaten, be used as camouflage, and also be used as a means of communication.
On Thursday, September 19, at 7:00 p.m., at the UD College of Marine Studies in Lewes, Targett will discuss the various ways that marine organisms utilize chemicals in her talk titled “Scents from the Sea: How Marine Organisms Communicate Using Chemistry.” Her presentation will conclude the 2002 Ocean Currents Lecture Series, which has been held monthly at the Lewes campus from May through September.
Targett will begin her talk by providing some familiar and not-so-familiar examples in which organisms — both plants and animals —use chemicals to interact with their environment. For example, flowers use their scent to attract honeybees,a key pollinator. And the monarch butterfly protects itself from predators by eating a plant that provides the butterfly with chemicals that make it extremely distasteful.
“This use of chemicals to communicate is also seen in marine organisms,” says Targett. “As the snail crawls along the ground, it lays down a ‘slime’ trail that is composed of a thin layer of mucus. If the snail senses danger, it secretes a chemical scent in its slime that warns other snails.”
In addition, Targett also will briefly describe her current research in chemical ecology — the study of how organisms use chemicals to influence their environment. For example, in one project, she is working to develop an artificial bait that is based on the chemical compound that makes female horseshoe crabs irresistible to eels and conch.
Targett will conclude her talk by describing how these natural chemicals have been adapted for human use — from the herbs and spices used in cooking to perfumes to household pesticides. In fact, over 25% of all pharmaceutical drugs have their chemical origins in the natural environment.
A member of the UD faculty since 1984, Targett recently completed a one-year sabbatical at the University of Liverpool’s Port Erin Marine Laboratory on the Isle of Man and the Dunstaffnage Marine Lab in Oban, Scotland, where she conducted research on the biochemistry and molecular biology of marine brown algae. She received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology from the University of Pittsburgh, her master’s degree in marine science from the University of Miami, and her doctorate in oceanography from the University of Maine.
The lecture will begin at 7:00 p.m. in Room 104, Cannon Laboratory, at the Hugh R. Sharp Campus, 700 Pilottown Road, Lewes. The hour-long talk will be followed by light refreshments.
While the lecture is free and open to the public, seating is limited and reservations are required. To reserve your seat, please contact the college at (302) 645-4279.