You may not think about insects communicating—they don’t talk and they certainly don’t text, after all—but the fact is that they rely on communication just as much as we do. They just do it a little differently: by using chemical, rather than verbal, messages. These messages help them find food, find a mate, and protect themselves against predators. This kind of chemical signaling isn’t exclusive to insects though–all organisms do it to some degree, even human beings.
The man who first uncovered these chemical messages is Jerrold Meinwald. An organic chemist by training, Meinwald spent his career working in partnership with biologist Thomas Eisner. Together, they founded the field of chemical ecology—a discipline that bridges their specialties and has revealed a treasure trove of information about the intricate ways the natural world is connected.
Meinwald not only helped to identify plant and animal interactions–such as snakes protecting their eggs by using a toxin from toads they eat—he also uncovered the chemistry of the molecules behind such phenomena.
He was able to isolate, study, and, in some cases, synthesize these chemicals. While fascinating from a scientific perspective, many of these compounds have potential for use as therapeutic drugs or in agricultural applications.
Meinwald and Eisner share not only a love of chemical ecology, but of music as well. Meinwald, who plays flute and recorder, and Eisner, who played piano and harpsichord, often played together. In 1989, they joined Swedish colleagues to play a program of 18th-century chamber music during a meeting of the International Society of Chemical Ecology.