Botany is not dead, but this plant is: The importance of herbaria in the 21st century and beyond
Herbarium. For many, this one word invokes images of a dark, dusty place, a mortuary for plants you might say. But for me, it invokes images of carefully examining plant specimens for taxonomic studies, lively scientific debate, group collaborative efforts to key out difficult plants, and students talking and working and most of all learning.
Thanks to a grant from microMORPH Research Coordination Network, I had the great opportunity to go to Germany for five weeks this past spring, to the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, to learn a whole bunch of brand new things from all the really smart and, dare I say, hardcore, scientists here. With the great help of my collaborators, I’ll be treading into new floral and fruit developmental biology waters. It turns out one of my weeds, Chorispora tenella, is a bit of a beautiful weirdo among the Mustard family (Brassicaceae). I also learned how the most precious historical samples are handled for genomic analyses, much of which I will apply to my own historic samples of Chorispora. Hint: clean rooms and bunny suits are involved.
Biological invasions of non-native plant species present compelling motivation to understand how human-induced changes in the environment and species distributions influence ecological and evolutionary processes. Their documented geographic spread across time makes them ideal for study using historic collections, allowing better insight into evolutionary change over short time scales. Applying advanced genomic approaches to historic samples is key to understanding the processes that allow plants to rapidly establish and adapt to new environments. Theory predicts that dramatic ecological and evolutionary changes affect invasive species soon upon arrival in a new habitat. Yet current research relies on sampling contemporary populations, and therefore reveals little about the initial stages of invasion. The fellowship research is a study of the history of an invasive weed by exploiting an untapped historical resource to observe “snapshots” of the initial stages of invasion and the genetic changes that occur as a plant species spreads. It involves sampling genetic material from dried plant specimens collected throughout the course of an invasion, from herbarium collections across North America, including the New York Botanical Garden, the University of Kansas, the California Academy of Sciences, the University of British Columbia, Colorado State University, and others. I will use techniques for ancient DNA originally developed to study long extinct organisms such as mammoths and Neanderthals to study evolution over the course of the 100 year invasion of North America by crossflower (Chorispora tenella, Brassicaceae), a widespread and governmentally listed noxious invasive weed.