For the past year, I have been working closely with Dr. Andrea Weeks toward understanding the phylogeography and population genetic diversity of a small but charismatic semi-parasitic plant native to the United States and Canada, Melampyrum lineare. I find M. lineare to be a very elusive species at this point in my research. Its morphology can vary greatly but, oddly enough, it does not fit cleanly into subcategories known as a species variety. There are also competing hypotheses as to how this plant made its way to the eastern United States over geological time. A biologist in the 1930’s predicted that this plant might have found refuge in the southern Appalachians when the last glacier covered the top half of the United States (about 20,000 years ago), whereas the research of a GMU graduate student suggests that M. lineare may have actually resided in western Canada before it made its way to our neck of the woods in Virginia.
If that’s not enough of a reason to peak into the genetics of this plant to see what’s really going on, then this is: comparatively, parasitic plants are poorly understood despite their important role in the ecology of their residing ecosystem and the answers they hold in their genome to the current global crisis of a changing biosphere. Understanding the phylogeographic movement of M. lineare will give us a better sense of how it responded to the changing climate during the last glacial period and in turn help us make more accurate predictions on how similar parasitic and interdependent plants will respond to today’s changing climate and forest compositions. In conclusion, this little plant with flowers the size of a fraction of your pinky fingernail is a pretty big deal.
As an OSCAR URSP student turned OSCAR research assistant, I have worked, studied, and mingled alongside some of the most incredible scientists in my field. My work with Dr. Andrea Weeks has given me insight into the professional world of a plant scientist, an invaluable experience at this early stage of my career. This past July, I was awarded a travel grant to present my research at the largest and most cohesive North American plant science conference, Botany 2015. Subsequently, Dr. Weeks and I went on a weeklong botany hunt for Melampyrum lineare in Alberta and British Columbia provinces in Canada to bring back to the lab at GMU. Since the start of the 2015-2016 academic year, we have been working hard in the lab towards collecting and sequencing mass data from the chloroplast and nuclear DNA of almost 300 individuals of M. lineare. Contingent on the flow of grant money needed to obtain sequence results, we expect to have this study ready for publication just in time for my graduation from George Mason.