, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 109–133 | Cite as

Chemical ecology in coupled human and natural systems: people, manioc, multitrophic interactions and global change

  • Doyle McKey
  • Timothy R. Cavagnaro
  • Julie Cliff
  • Roslyn Gleadow
Review Paper


Chemical ecology provides unique perspectives for managing plant/human interactions to achieve food security. Allelochemicals function as chemical defences of crop plants, enhancing yields. While ingested allelochemicals can confer health benefits to humans, at higher concentrations they are often toxic. The delicate balance between their positive and negative effects in crop plants is influenced by many factors. Some of these—how environment affects optimal levels of defence, how metabolic interactions with nutrients affect toxicity of ingested allelochemicals—are the province of chemical ecology. These biological factors, however, interact with social factors, and neither can be studied independently. Chemical ecologists must work together with social scientists to understand the overall system. Here, we illustrate such an integrative approach, analysing the interactions between people and the major tropical crop manioc, which contains cyanogenic glucosides. Polymorphism for cyanogen levels in manioc facilitates analysis of how costs and benefits of crop defences vary among social systems. We first show how people/manioc interactions diversified in this crop’s Amazonian homeland, then turn to the remarkable cultural adaptations of African farmers since manioc’s introduction 400 years ago. Finally, we evaluate new coevolutionary challenges in parts of Africa where people are still unfamiliar with a potentially dangerous crop. Current environmental and social catastrophes have restricted farmers’ options, resulting in acute problems in health of humans and ecosystems. We show that high cyanogen levels confer important agronomic advantages, but also impose costs and constraints that can only be understood when biology is coupled with analysis of social, cultural and economic factors. Detoxifying manioc technologically requires know-how, time, water and other resources. Detoxifying residual dietary cyanogens metabolically depends on being able to grow, or to buy, the nutrients required for detoxification, primarily sulphur-rich proteins. Solutions that appear adaptive today may not be in the future, as changing climate, rising atmospheric CO2 levels and decreased access to fertilizers affect productivity of crops and the nutrient and allelochemical composition of the foods they are used to produce.


Cassava Cyanogenesis Toxicity Konzo Food security Climate change Socio-ecological systems Elevated CO2 



DM would like to express his gratitude to JM Delwart for his generosity and the excellent meeting he organized in November 2008. We thank J. Pasteels for providing us the opportunity to write this review paper, and Charles R. Clement (INPA, Manaus, Brazil) for his comments on the paper. DM’s research on manioc and other clonally propagated crops is funded by various agencies of the French government (Bureau of Genetic Resources, Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, Ministry of Research, and Contrat Plan Etat-Région Guyane), and by a grant from the Institut de France/Fondation Yves Rocher (Terra Ficaria Prize). TC and RG’s manioc research is generously supported by the Australian Government through AusAid. JC thanks Howard Bradbury for being an unfailing source of support and ideas along the years. Howard is acknowledged for his pivotal role in connecting manioc researchers from different disciplines all over the world.


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Copyright information

© Springer Basel AG 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Doyle McKey
    • 1
  • Timothy R. Cavagnaro
    • 2
    • 3
  • Julie Cliff
    • 4
  • Roslyn Gleadow
    • 2
  1. 1.Université Montpellier II, Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive (CNRS UMR 5175)Montpellier Cedex 5France
  2. 2.School of Biological SciencesMonash UniversityVictoriaAustralia
  3. 3.The Australian Centre for BiodiversityMonash UniversityVictoriaAustralia
  4. 4.Department of Community Health, Faculdade de MedicinaUniversidade Eduardo MondlaneMaputoMozambique

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