Selby Gardens has recently developed, equipped, and implemented a molecular-based research program, known as Molecular Programs. Not simply a project at the Gardens, Molecular Programs is a new resource for Selby scientists to address the Gardens mission of researching and conserving epiphytes and their relatives.
Systematics and Diversity
A major part of the research conducted by Selby Gardens involves systematics, the study of plant diversity and how and why species have evolved over time. To do this, we use classical taxonomy, the study of physical characters to distinguish and classify organisms, as well as molecular systematics, the use of gene sequence data to understand evolutionary relationships. These tools allow us to identify and classify species and genera of plant families of interest and help us understand evolutionary relationships within the entire plant kingdom. Information obtained from systematics research is used to construct phylogenetic trees. Phylogenetic trees are hypotheses of relationships between organisms and are used to address other questions such as how species have evolved, what characters have influenced speciation, and why species are found where they are. These methods are computationally complex and require sophisticated computers and software to conduct analyses.
A major part of the research conducted by Selby Gardens involves systematics, the study of plant diversity and how and why species have evolved over time. To do this, we use classical taxonomy, the study of physical characters to distinguish and classify organisms, as well as molecular systematics, the use of gene sequence data to understand evolutionary relationships. These tools allow us to identify and classify the species and genera of gesneriads and help us understand evolutionary relationships, not only within the gesneriad family, but within the entire plant kingdom. The GRC uses the information obtained from systematics research to construct phylogenetic trees. Phylogenetic trees are hypotheses of relationships between organisms and are used to address other questions about gesneriads such as how species have evolved, what characters have influenced speciation, and why species are found where they are. These methods are computationally complex and require sophisticated computers and software to conduct analyses. GRC researchers are currently exploring advanced computational methods to understand ancestral range evolution in gesneriads.
Molecular Programs-Welcome to the 21st Century Gardens!
Perhaps no better example of this is the impact of our increased understanding and utilization of DNA, the genetic code, to unravel the mysteries of evolution. Once the stuff of science fiction, molecular research, and its implications in medicine, forensics, and other fields, is commonplace. One can barely turn on the radio or television, or surf the net, without hearing something about DNA – convictions in long unsolved homicides (or overthrown convictions of the wrongly accused), research in gene therapy, the human genome project, the neandertal genome project, paternity tests, etc. The point is that DNA, more precisely molecular research geared towards utilizing DNA to understand life, is changing the way we look at and explore the world around us. The study and conservation of plants is no exception.
Plant systematics, the study of evolutionary relationships between plants and the classification and naming of them, is one of the oldest fields in science. Systematics research had been conducted more or less the same way for a few centuries, that is until DNA analysis came along in the mid-1980’s but most notably in the 1990’s through today. Since then our understanding of the relationships among plants has changed dramatically. Much in the same way DNA is used to identify the father of a child, DNA can be used to understand the relationships of plants in populations, the relationships between different species of plants and even relationships between plant genera, families, and beyond.
Molecular research has been highly informative in notoriously difficult to classify groups, including orchids, bromeliads and gesneriads, and is even providing valuable data useful in conserving these and other plants. Molecular research is indispensable in understanding the genetic diversity of plants in threatened populations, in how those populations are related to other populations, and in determining which individuals or what populations should be used for propagation and reintroduction efforts. Molecular research has also been employed in understanding how non-native plants are impacting rare and endangered native species through habitat competition and cross-species hybridization between introduced and native species.
The new Molecular Programs at Selby Gardens allows research staff to conduct cutting edge science that has become the hallmark of basic evolutionary and conservation research. Dr. Lucinda McDade, Director of Research and Professor of Botany, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, remarks that a functioning molecular program “permits gardens and museums to be fully engaged players in our discipline [of evolutionary research and education], keeps them current, keeps them contributing, keeps them relevant.” The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and several other gardens around the world have initiated molecular-based programs and have positioned themselves to provide indispensable services to their public and the scientific community in the form of basic research and education. Furthermore, these gardens are at the forefront of innovation in plant research and act as regional hubs for molecular-based training of future scientists. The Molecular Program at Selby Gardens is an investment in institutional capacity that allows Selby scientists to provide similar services in Southwest Florida where no regional institutions are exclusively focused on plant molecular-based research. Molecular-capabilities also provide advanced training opportunities for students and raise the status of Selby Gardens as a leader in scientific research thereby advancing the goals of Selby Gardens’ Strategic Plan.