We study chemical ecology to understand how genetic and ecosystem interactions drive the evolution of acquired chemical defenses.

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Trophic Ecology and Poison Frog-Ant Interactions

Lab member: Katie Fiocca

How does variation in diet and habitat influence poison frog toxicity? Some poison frog species carry toxic chemicals to avoid predation. Poison frogs do not make their own toxins, but rather sequester toxins from the ants and mites in their diet. Thus, the frogs' ability to defend themselves is tightly linked to their environment. We are studying the trophic ecology of poison frogs toxicity by linking together information about habitat, diet, and toxins across many populations and species. Collaborators: Luis Coloma (Centro Jambatu) and David Donoso (Escuela Politécnica Nacional).


Toxins, Immunity, and the Microbiome

Lab member: Amanda Munõz-Meneses

How does toxicity modulate host immunity and microbial communities? In many animals, both the immune system and microbiome play an integral role in protecting the host from potentially pathogenic microbial invaders. Poison frogs also have another player in this mix: toxins. Their alkaloid toxins may modulate both host microbial communities and the host immune system. The extent to which these changes influence frog health and susceptibility to disease is unknown. We are studying the interaction between alkaloid toxins, the immune system, and the microbiota by comparing across poison frog species in the wild, studying frog physiology in the lab, and experimenting with synthetic microbial communities in vitro. Collaborators: Luis Coloma (Centro Jambatu)David Relman (Stanford University), and Tadashi Fukami (Stanford University).


Hallucinogens of the Sonoran Desert Toad

Lab members: Marina Luccioni

How do Sonoran Desert Toads get their hallucinogen? Incilius alvarius toads 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. Collaborators: Jules Wyman and the Clark R. Bavin National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory



Dreamfish and Chemical Ecology of Hallucinogens

Lab member: Marina Luccioni

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.