Hitchcock Center for Chemical Ecology 2024 symposium merges disciplines at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe

A group talks at a table outside

Hitchcock Center for Chemical Ecology 2024 symposium merges disciplines at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe

A group talks at a table outside

The Hitchcock Center for Chemical Ecology hosted its annual symposium at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe, May 28-30, 2024. The cutting-edge field of chemical ecology combines knowledge from biology, chemistry, ecology, agriculture and anthropology to better understand the complex interactions between plants and animals. The symposium brought together scientists across several disciplines to share their novel research on everything from lichen’s UV-resistant properties to how plants have developed complex chemical structures to deter their herbivore enemies.

“I like the integration of chemical synthesis, the idea that molecules are being made for a reason,” Mick Hitchcock, biochemist and developer of life-saving anti-viral drugs, said. “Evolution to me is about creating options. Random DNA changes create options and some of these are successful, and they get carried forward, and some of them are not successful and they go into the wastebasket of history. The whole thing is fascinating.”

The formalization of the Hitchcock Center was largely funded by a generous donation from Hitchcock.

Featured at the Symposium was the Hitchcock Center’s National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Traineeship Program to support graduate students in chemical ecology. Led by Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology Graduate Program Director Marjorie Matocq, the trainee program pairs graduate students, one from biology and one from chemistry, to work on novel solutions to questions in ecology and natural products chemistry. The benefits of the initiative have the potential to ripple far across Nevada, according to Matocq and Hitchcock Center Director and Professor of Chemistry Chris Jeffrey.

“There is a certain buzz with the students – they feel that they are connected to something larger than their projects,” Jeffrey said. “They saw how these traditionally siloed fields must work together to address some of the biggest, most complex questions in science. I haven’t seen such enthusiasm throughout an entire group ever.”

The research can spur innovation among private companies in industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to agriculture, strengthen the management of natural resources, and generate discoveries that will keep Nevada’s universities at the forefront of science and innovation.

“I'm a biochemist with leanings toward drug development,” Hitchcock said. “A lot of the enthusiasm for studying these compounds has been built around the idea that we could potentially use them, or modify them, to make interesting drugs.”

The symposium keynote speaker, Paul Alan Cox, shared real-world examples of how chemical compounds found in plants and animals have led to novel drug development. Cox, named one of TIME magazine’s eleven “Heroes of Medicine” for his discovery of a new HIV/AIDS drug candidate, is currently exploring a novel treatment for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s using the simple amino acid, L-serine. His work with L-serine was recently featured in CNN’s reporting for “The Last Alzheimer’s Patient” documentary with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta.

Other symposium lectures featured leaders in the field of chemical ecology, highlighting their advanced approaches to deciphering chemical interactions between organisms. These included the discovery of new anti-microbial compounds through analyzing insect-microbial interactions (Monica Pupo, University of São Paulo and Emily Mevers, Virginia Tech) and the analysis of anti-cancer compounds from Antarctica and the Pacific Ocean (Alison Murray, Desert Research Institute and Tadeuz Monlinski, UC San Diego). Other research presented employed ecological approaches to solving the chemical structures of the most complex materials – a novel approach (Peter Harrowell, University of Sydney, Australia).

A man asks a question during a lecture.
Research Assistant Professor Casey Philbin asked a question during one of the many research presentations hosted in the Prim Library.

A special session highlighted the contributions of more exotic exchanges between fields, showing how laser spectroscopy (Matthew Tucker, University of Nevada, Reno) can sort out everything from the most complex light-based communication between insects to the origins of reddening desert landscapes and its role in understanding the surface of Mars (Henry Sun, Desert Research Institute).

“It felt great as a mentor and director to see the freedom of scientific exchange and enthusiasm for creative ideas that have been a long time coming since the COVID pandemic,” Jeffrey said.

Group photo outside at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe
University and Hitchcock Center for Chemical Ecology leadership at the University of Nevada, Reno from left to right: Professor and Hitchcock Center Director Chris Jeffrey, biochemist Mick Hitchcock, keynote speaker Paul Cox, Executive Vice President and Provost Jeff Thompson, Dean of the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe Doug Boyle.

About the Hitchcock Center for Chemical Ecology

The Hitchcock Center was founded in 2018 and continues to expand its impact globally. The Hitchcock Center brings together faculty across disciplines to examine the chemical origins of natural products and their role in ecology, evolution, medicine and agriculture.

"In science, interaction across fields is more difficult than you would think," Jeffrey said. "The questions in science right now are so big that they require the integrated efforts and expertise of disciplines. I think the subject of chemical ecology drives the training, research innovation and collaborations that allow us to address these large questions."

Latest From

Nevada Today