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2010 | 2011

2011 microMORPH training grant awardees

Benjamin Blackman
  Dr. Benjamin Blackman, Post-doctoral Researcher
Duke University
Willis Lab

Host institution: University of Kansas, Lawrence
Host Lab: Hileman Lab

My research program takes a highly integrative approach to connecting allelic variation in plant life history traits in two classic ecologically-rich and phylogenetically-informed systems, Helianthus (sunflower) and Mimulus (monkeyflower).  My work leverages recently acquired genetic and genomic resources to study how the regulation of developmental timing has evolved during habitat adaptation and domestication. I have focused on developmental timing because flowering time plasticity exhibits abundant variation that is often associated with key microevolutionary transitions in both species.

With the rapid decline in sequencing costs in QTL mapping or association studies, is it now feasible to generate genome-wide genotype data on large panels, allowing causal substitutions to be localized to intervals containing just a handful of loci.  Thus, the next major hurdle will be to conduct functional studies and identify the causal molecular changes.  I travelled to Lena Hileman’s lab at KU to receive training in two such techniques.  First, I developed a construct targeting a sunflower gene for virus-induced gene silencing, a transient transformation technique that will allow functional studies in sunflower genotypes resistant to stable transformation.  Second, I built artificial microRNA constructs targeting genes in fine-mapped Mimulus developmental rate QTLs and learned tissue culture protocols for plant growth, transformation, and regeneration necessary to attain stable transformants expressing these constructs.

Dilara Ally
  Dr. Dilara Ally, Post-doctoral Researcher
San Diego State University
Waters Lab

Host institution: Michigan State University
Host Lab: Sharkey Lab

The goals of my research program are to integrate evolutionary genetics with physiological/molecular studies to understand how plant development may constrain or facilitate plant diversification and adaptation to the environment. My current research focuses on Boechera (Brassicaceae), a group of species that are native to California and which inhabit very different climatic regions (coastal, high-altitude mountain, and desert). The Boechera species complex provides an excellent opportunity to examine adaptation to a wide range of environments and the close relationship with Arabidopsis provides ample molecular and genetic resources. I will determine, if in the face of heat stress, photosynthetic resilience changes across different life history/developmental stages (young seedling, flowering adult, and seed set). How well plants are able to both maintain photosynthesis and avoid stress (water, heat, etc.) can have a significant impact on plant fitness. Ultimately, this knowledge will help us to learn more about this ecologically important trait and provide the groundwork to study natural variation in different Boechera species.

Anne Beulke
  Anne Beulke, Undergraduate Student
University of Minnesota
Cavender-Bares Lab

Host institution: University of Notre-Dame
Host Lab: Romero-Severson Lab

The live oaks in series Virentes of the genus Quercus, though a small clade on the oak Tree of Life, spark the interest of researchers in multiple fields. The species in Virentes span the tropical- temperate divide, a region where climate shifts may have driven fundamental changes in adaptive responses. I will be studying the diversification of four live oak species across Central America to understand the physiological and genetic adaptations that occurred in response to climate conditions. In the field I will participate in research focusing on oak fitness at various life stages in relation to water availability at two sites in Costa Rica that differ in seasonal precipitation patterns. In the lab I will sequence candidate genes in the four oak species to look for evidence of microevolution of drought tolerance across a hydrological gradient in Central America. The fitness component measurements of oaks in common garden plots subject to different levels of water stress and the DNA sequence data from the same oaks will enable me to compare the response to water stress with changes in DNA sequences.

Gracie Benson-Martin
  Gracie Benson-Martin, Undergraduate Student
University of California, Berkeley
Specht Lab

Host institution: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Host Lab: Kress Lab

As an undergraduate researcher I have been working as part of a larger, NSF funded study in Heliconia for over a year. Dr. Specht's research is broadly focused on the evolutionary ecology, phylogeny, and the genetic programs underlying floral development in the Zingiberales. My experience in the Specht Lab has introduced me to the practical tools and theory of molecular phylogenetics as well as those of molecular developmental biology. At the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History I will be working under principal investigator and curator Dr. John Kress, a systematist and expert in Heliconiaceae. This collaboration brings together my background in molecular genetics and evolutionary ecology with the expertise in systematics and morphology of Dr. Kress. Completing this internship will give provide the singular opportunity to work alongside a world-renowned research scientist in an unmatched research setting.

Christopher Smith
  Dr. Christopher Smith, Assistant Professor
Biology Department
Willamette University

Host institution: University of Georgia
Host Lab: Leebens-Mack Lab

The central challenge for evolutionary biology is to understand how ecological and population genetic processes acting over generations can give rise to macroevolutionary patterns that take shape over epochs. At the dawning of the genomic era we may finally be able answer this challenge by identifying the genes underlying phenotypic differences that are the focus of selection, and revealing how specific genetic and developmental changes are involved in producing large-scale evolutionary patterns. As an evolutionary ecologist studying plant-insect interactions, I am interested in determining the role of coevolution in speciation and adaptive radiation in flowering plants. I will use the microMORPH training grant to learn how to use genomic tools to evaluate the form and strength of selection acting on variation in floral development in Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia). My hope is to ultimately identify the genetic and developmental mechanisms that underlie this variation. This research will connect changes at a genetic level to morphological differences within and between species, test the hypothesis that these differences reflect adaptations to different pollinators, and evaluate the role of these features in driving adaptive radiation.

Daisie Huang
  Dr. Daisie Huang, Post-doctoral Researcher
University of California, Santa Barbara
Hodges Lab

Host institution: Harvard University
Host Lab: Kramer Lab

Aquilegia is emerging as a model system for examination of genetic mechanisms underlying adaptive traits, particularly those involved in pollinator choice and thus reproductive isolation. Unlike its nearest generic relatives, species of Aquilegia have a broad range of pollination syndromes with variation in floral color, spur length, and orientation. Field studies have shown that these traits are under natural selection and that these traits influence pollinator behavior and pollen dispersal. In addition, these traits vary between cross-compatible taxa, making this group ideal for genetic dissection such as using QTL analyses. While these types of research can lead to strong inferences about the specific genes underlying variation in these traits, functional analysis is required to verify their involvement in development of the traits. I am using a microMORPH training grant to go to Dr. Elena Kramer's laboratory to learn the technique of viral induced gene silencing (VIGS) so that I can test the function of structural genes and the presumed regulators of the anthocyanin biosynthetic pathway (ABP) in Aquilegia.

Raffica LaRosa
  Raffica LaRosa, PhD student
Michigan State University, Kellogg Biological Station
Conner Lab

Host institution: Oklahoma State University, Stillwater
Host Lab: Fishbein Lab

To study adaptation in milkweed floral traits, I have measured natural selection on five species of Asclepias from four different habitat types, over multiple years in three of them. I have chosen six floral traits that I hypothesize to be adaptations for pollinator attraction and efficiency. I found at least one instance of selection on each of the six traits across four of the species. I will map these traits as well as pollinator types onto a phylogeny of the genus Asclepias. This analysis will identify ancestral trait values as well as patterns of convergent and parallel trait evolution that suggest adaptation. I hypothesize that traits that are more labile across the phylogeny develop later in the floral ontogeny compared to more conserved traits. Additionally, if the data show evidence of parallel evolution, we can test for the lack of incipient forms of the trait in the buds of related species that do not have the trait at maturity to further validate multiple instances of independent evolution.