We study chemical ecology to understand how genetic and ecosystem interactions drive the evolution of acquired chemical defenses.
Trophic Ecology and Poison Frog-Ant Interactions
Toxins, Immunity, and the Microbiome
Dreamfish and Chemical Ecology of Hallucinogens
What marine molecule(s) cause hallucinations and how do they come to circulate within ecosystems? Hawaiian mo'olelo (legends) dated to the 1400s speak of “nightmare fish” that induce severe hallucinations, nightmares, and dizziness. Effects of consuming the Hawaiian goatfish U. taeniopterus (weke pueo) and M. flavolineatus (weke’ a) peak in summer months, suggesting an environmental source of toxins.
Respect for traditional ecological knowledge (in this case, native Hawaiian practices) is crucial to our research process. Fieldwork involves collaboration with fishing communities, researchers and schools on Moloka’i, Hawai’i Island and ‘Oahu. Kelson Poepoe leads all fieldwork strategy and data collection efforts with Robert Bobby Alcain’s logistical support. Moloka’i high school students learn about the experimental methods and processes through class presentations and sampling field trips.
Lab methods include DNA barcoding to construct a diet profile in tandem with chemical analysis to isolate the hallucinogenic molecule(s). We aim to understand these toxins at their molecular level and in their ecological context, through to neural and eventually psychological effects, with downstream therapeutic applications. Collaborators: Kelson Poepoe and Robert Alcain.
Hallucinogens of the Sonoran Desert Toad
How do Sonoran Desert Toads get their hallucinogen? Incilius alvariustoads carry a unique chemical, 5-MeO-DMT, which binds to serotonin receptors and causes hallucenogenic effects in predators. However, too much 5-MeO-DMT can be lethal and these toads kill more pet dogs in Arizona than rattlesnakes. We are investigating the adaptations and biological source of this compound by studying toad genetics and diet as well as their microbial symbionts.