Chemical ecology is the field of research that explores how natural products serve the organisms that produce or harbor them. The compounds could be chemical defenses to deter predators. For example, some fish "taste" food items before swallowing them, sometimes spitting the item out and sucking it back in several times before rejecting or eating it. Some could be natural anti-fouling agents that stop a creature that does not move, like a sponge, from being overgrown with other sea life. Others might be released into the seawater as pheromones to encourage larvae to join an existing colony, or to attract a mate.
Molinski's group is collaborating with Jay Stachowicz, assistant professor in the UC Davis Section of Evolution and Ecology and his graduate student, Amy Larson, at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, and with Joe Pawlik, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, to address some of these questions.
Discovering natural products is a great training tool because it requires skills in all areas of chemistry and a wide view of allied disciplines, Molinski said.
"It's like a crossword puzzle where you have to find the clues," he said. "Natural products engage your intellectual curiosity with a sense of wonder that comes from standing at the shores of new worlds."