Functional trait evolution

One of my current research interests is in understanding how functional traits in Sphagnum peat mosses have evolved.

In a recently-accepted paper, my Ph.D. advisor and I show that variation among species in certain traits, thought to underlie niche differentiation in the group, is driven by shared evolutionary history. For example, the trait of biomass decomposability is phylogenetically conserved meaning that closely related species are more similar in trait values that species selected at random. We also show that evolutionary covariance in many of these traits may represent 'adaptive syndromes' that relate to niche and its construction.

Right: Ancestral state reconstruction of one trait that has phylogenetic signal.

Biosynthetic pathway evolution

New genomic resources for early land plants provide insight into the evolution of the enzymatic pathways governing the production of plant pigments.

Red-violet flavonoid pigments are found in many plant lineages that span some 500 million years. While the biosynthetic pathway governing the production of these pigments is well characterized for flowering plants, we know very little about how early-diverging lineages produce these molecules. I am using full genome data to determine how conserved this canonical pathway is and identify genes that may represent novel pathways that have evolved independently to produce convergent phenotypes.

Right: Male Sphagnum russowii plants showing expression of a pigment class known as the sphagnorubins.

Ecological and evolutionary genomics

An outstanding interest of mine is the concept of the 'extended phenotype' where genetic variation contributes not only to variation in organismal traits but also to how organism's can engineer their ecosystems. Much like how a beaver's dam can modify a river ecosystem, the ability of Sphagnum to produce peat (or incompletely decomposed biomass) both creates and modifies boreal peatland ecosystems.

As part of an ongoing collaborative effort funded by the National Science Foundation, I am studying the genetics underlying Sphagnum's ability to manipulate its environment. By identifying gene family expansions and signatures of natural selection, I am attempting to identify molecular correlates of trait variation that scale to impact the ecosystem.

Right: A synthesis of research aims in the collaborative effort.