In natural ecosystems, most terrestrial plants have symbiotic relationships with other organisms. The microbial symbiotic partners can influence the host plant's development, health and distribution. Some fungi, for example, provide plants with water and nutrients and in return receive carbohydrates for their own metabolism. Even in healthy plants, over a hundred different species of fungi can be found on a single leaf or the tip of a root.
Professor Imke Schmitt studies the evolution of such symbiotic fungi. Her research is directed toward discovering whether symbiotic microorganisms help plants to locally adapt to specific microclimates. It is well known that fungi have an effect on plant physiology. However, since most fungi cannot be cultured, we know little about the exact composition of plant-associated fungal communities, the nature of the interaction between the partners, and the ecological role of the fungal microbionts. Using techniques that are not dependent on culture techniques, Schmitt and her team analyse fungal deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in order to obtain a molecular fingerprint of all the fungi occurring in a microhabitat. "One of our study systems is the fungal community found on the leaves of balsam poplars in North America. We want to understand the relationship between the species composition of fungal partners and the genotype of the host plant, as well as the relationship between the fungal community and the climatic conditions along a geographic gradient of the host tree", Schmitt explains.
Schmitt's team also focuses on analysing numerous natural substances produced by fungi. Such substances may play a role, for example, in communication between symbiotic partners, as defence against predators, or as a sunscreen. Many of these natural compounds are also of pharmaceutical interest. Schmitt investigates the evolution of the gene families involved in the biosynthesis of fungal natural substances to gain insight into the evolutionary mechanisms that have spawned their diversity.
In the "Ecology and Evolution" Master's Programme, Schmitt focuses on communicating the interrelationship between climate and the diversity of organisms, to her students and in the process allows her students enough latitude to be able to present their own research ideas.
Imke Schmitt studied Biology, English and Physical Education at the University of Duisburg-Essen and obtained her doctorate on the molecular phylogeny of a group of lichen-forming fungi. She received an Emmy Noether postdoctoral fellowship for outstanding young researchers from the German Research Foundation (DFG) and worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the Botany Department of the Field Museum in Chicago, U.S.A., for three years, and later at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology in Jena, Germany. From 2007 to 2010 she was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, U.S.A., and is still an adjunct professor at the Department of Plant Biology there. Since 2010 Schmitt conducts research as a professor at the Institute of Ecology, Evolution and Biodiversity of the Goethe University Frankfurt, and at the Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, BiKF, Frankfurt of the Senckenberg Nature Research Society and of the Goethe University Frankfurt.
Prof. Dr. Imke Schmitt
Institute for Ecology, Evolution
and Diversity/Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre
60325 Frankfurt am Main
Telephone: +49 (0)69 7542 1851