Public Release:  Pitt biologist receives $2 million to study genetic diversity of plants worldwide

Research will provide clues to the genetic diversity of 30-80 percent of all plants worldwide

University of Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH--Although polyploids, which are plants with more than two sets of chromosomes, are common, how they contribute to the biodiversity has remained a mystery--until now. With the help of a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Oregon State University will use wild strawberry plants (Fragaria) to identify what role genetic diversity plays in polyploids, which make up 30-80% of all living plants. This will help scientists predict the ecological responses plants may have to environmental change.

"This deeply integrated comparative study of the wild relatives of the cultivated strawberry--a species of world-wide economic importance--will provide foundational knowledge and contribute unparalleled resources that may be harnessed in efforts to ensure the sustainability of the strawberry and related crops such as the cherry, peach or apple, in the face of stress from non-living factors," said Tia-Lynn Ashman, principal investigator of the study and professor and associate chair of Pitt's Department of Biological Sciences.

The strawberry, a plant with 20 species (nearly half of which are polyploids), has centers of diversity in China and America and possesses numerous features that make it the perfect plant to examine. For example, Fragaria is susceptible to climate change, due to its early spring flowering and northern latitude or high-elevation distribution. Ashman says the wild strawberry will be the key to helping biologists resolve uncertainties about polyploidization's impact on the biodiversity.

"We will use common garden studies of natural and synthetic polyploids in the greenhouse and at climatically diverse sites to quickly identify the factors that underlie its functional traits and gene expression diversity," said Ashman.

This will allow her team to forge links between gene expression and functional variation, says Ashman, allowing them to determine where in the lineage the majority of genetic/functional diversity resides.

In addition to solving the unknown mysteries of multi-chromosome plants, the project also facilitates training by broad participation and international collaboration, including middle school science curriculum, involvement of high school teachers, next-generation sequencing workshops, cross-cutting training, and communication of research through academic journals.

Ashman's project falls under "Dimensions of Biodiversity" in NSF's investment in Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability program (SEES). The goal of the Dimensions of Biodiversity campaign is to transform, by 2020, how we describe and understand the scope and role of life on Earth. The SEES program addresses challenges in climate and energy research and education using a systems-based approach to understanding, predicting, and reacting to change in the natural, social, and built environments. Initial SEES efforts focused on coordination of a suite of research and education programs at the intersection of climate and environment, including specific attention to incorporating human dimensions.

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