Dr. Morris studies the chemical ecology of plant interactions. This requires eavesdropping on the conversations that plants have with each other and with insects and microbes in their environments. These conversations can be friendly when plants warn neighbors that dangerous herbivores or pathogens are in the area, or not so friendly when plants actually try to kill neighbors to reduce competition for resources. Plants have these conversations by producing a huge variety of chemicals called secondary metabolites and releasing them into the environment. Other organisms take up these secondary metabolites and alter their behavior as a result.
In order for communication to occur, the secondary metabolites produced by the plant have to travel through the environment and be taken up by other organisms. Many of these compounds are released into the soil, and their delivery to other organisms is greatly enhanced by fungi that form symbioses with plant roots. These fungi grow into plant roots and throughout the soil, forming highly interconnected networks linking the roots of almost all the plants in an area. Dr. Morris is investigating exactly how these fungal networks mediate plant communication by eavesdropping on both the nasty and nice conversations that plants have.
Dr. Morris uses highly controlled greenhouse experiments to explore the mechanisms of plant communication, and uses high performance liquid chromatography to identify and quantify the secondary metabolites produced by plants. She also conducts experiments in the field in order to understand how specific plant conversations alter community dynamics on larger scales.