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As an active leader in international research collaborations, the Chicago Botanic Garden is participating in an initiative to set the stage for new partnerships.

Patrick Herendeen, Ph.D., senior director, systematics and evolutionary biology at the Garden, served as co-coordinator of “A Workshop to Explore Enhancing Collaboration Between U.S. and Chinese Researchers in Systematic Biology,” held in late February at the South China Botanical Garden in Guangzhou, China.

Funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and Natural Science Foundation of China, the workshop brought systemicists from both countries together to explore research techniques and opportunities. (Systematics is the branch of biology that aims to understand the diversity of life and relationships among different groups of organisms, and spans subjects from plants and fungi to primates and viruses.)

Patrick Herendeen leads a discussion among systemisists from various fields

Patrick Herendeen leads a discussion among systemisists from various fields.

“People bring different expertise to a research project, and people with different areas of expertise ask different questions or think about things differently,” explained Dr. Herendeen.

Greg Mueller, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Garden, also attended and spoke at the workshop. “There is an ongoing and increased interest in collaboration,” he said. “Chinese science is very mature…and China would be a great international collaborator.” In his presentation, Dr. Mueller addressed his experiences with international collaborations and offered advice to attendees.

Collaboration is key to scientific research. Diverse questions require multifaceted solutions. Often these approaches are best identified and pursued by a team of individuals with unique specialties, who at times may just happen to be sitting on opposite coasts of an ocean.

More than 60 scientists—about half from the United States and half from China—participated in two days of lectures, panels, and small group discussions. Speakers included Garden postdoctoral researcher, Fabiany Herrera, Ph.D., who discussed data and collections. Dr. Hererra works with his academic adviser, Herendeen, on a research initiative with partners in Japan, China, and Mongolia, in which they are studying plant fossils from the Early Cretaceous period.

Also in attendance was Chen Ning, a Ph.D. student in the joint degree program at the Garden and Northwestern University. Under the guidance of his adviser, Mueller, Dr. Ning is studying fungal communities in native pine forests and exotic pine plantations in south-central China.

Garden researchers Fabiany Herrera, Patrick Herendeen, Greg Mueller, and Chen Ning

Garden researchers Fabiany Herrera, Patrick Herendeen, Greg Mueller, and Chen Ning in the field in China.

One of the greatest takeaways of the conference, according to Mueller and Herendeen, was the opportunity for attendees to learn about the many similarities between the education and research systems in both countries. “We had very good discussions and everyone was very open about talking about how research works and the kinds of motivations that people have in the United States and China,” said Herendeen. “I think one of the things that surprised people were the similarities of the two programs. The systems are similar enough that it is possible to figure out how to do those collaborations,” added Mueller.

Workshop attendees also had an opportunity to participate in field trips to rural areas of Guangdong Province including Dinghushan and Heishiding Nature Reserve. They visited high-quality forested areas to discuss restoration work, seed banking, and related topics.

The workshop “gave everyone a chance to meet a lot of new people and talk about possible collaborations, and there were a number of new or potential new collaborative pairings or groups that formed as a result,” said Herendeen, who looks forward to continued—and new—collaborations.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

For more than two decades, leaders in conservation science have come to the Chicago Botanic Garden each summer to discuss timely topics from monarch butterflies to assisted plant migration.

Butterfly on Liatris

Butterfly on Liatris

Seeds will be planted again on Monday, June 13, when regional stewardship professionals, academics, restoration volunteers, and interns gather for the Janet Meakin Poor Research Symposium. The annual day of lectures and discussions covers the latest findings in conservation research and best practices in restoration, while inspiring conversations and new partnerships.

“I think the science that pertains to land management is always evolving, and therefore best practices are always evolving,” said Kay Havens, Ph.D., Medard and Elizabeth Welch senior director, Ecology and Conservation, and the moderator of the symposium.

The 2015 symposium focused on restoration solutions for large-scale implementation, and this year’s theme, Seed Sourcing for Restoration in a Changing Climate, builds on the concept of seed management. “It focuses on conservation research and restoration and tries to make links with the land management community—so not just reporting the science but also reporting how that could influence land management,” explained Dr. Havens. This subject is especially timely, according to Havens, as it follows the first year of the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration. The Garden has played a key role in establishing the seed strategy, which will create a network to ensure native seeds are available in restoration efforts, especially in fire-ravaged western rangelands.

The Dixon Prairie in July

The Dixon Prairie in July

“I think the need for restoration increases annually,” said Havens. “We are facing a more and more degraded planet every year, and as the climate changes and natural disasters like hurricanes and floods increase, the need for restoration increases.”

Read more about the symposium or register online for Seed Sourcing for Restoration in a Changing Climate today.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Evening Primroses, Pumps, and Pollinators

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  May 16, 2016 — 2 Comments

Rick Overson is fascinated with insects—especially the kinds that love desert climates like in Arizona, where he grew up and earned his Ph.D. in biology. After completing a postdoctoral assignment in northern California, he decided it was time to get to know the little buggers even better, so Dr. Overson hopped on a plane for Chicago and stepped out into the subzero temperatures of the polar vortex to do just that.

PHOTO: Dr. Rick Overson with hawkmoth specimens.

Dr. Rick Overson with hawkmoth specimens

The devoted entomologist didn’t expect to see the insects in Chicago, but he was eager to join research at the Chicago Botanic Garden. A multidisciplinary team was assembling there to look for scent variations within Onagraceae, the evening primrose family, and connections from floral scent to insect pollinators and predators. The findings could answer questions about the ecology and evolution of all insects and plants involved. Overson is a postdoctoral researcher for the initiative, along with Tania Jogesh, Ph.D.

“Landscapes of Linalool: Scent-Mediated Diversification of Flowers and Moths across Western North America” is funded by a $1.54 million Dimensions in Biodiversity grant from the National Science Foundation. The project is headed by Garden scientists Krissa Skogen, Ph.D., Norman Wickett, Ph.D., and Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. It was developed from prior research conducted by Dr. Skogen on scent variation among Oenothera harringtonii plants in southern Colorado.

“For me, the most important thing coming out of this project is documenting and showing this incredible diversity that happens inside a species,” said Overson. “It’s vitally important for me to break down this idea of a species as a discrete unit. It’s a dynamic thing that is different in one place than another. That factors into conservation and our understanding of evolution.” In this case, he and his colleagues theorize that the evolution of the insect pollinators and predators is connected to the evolution of the scent of the plants.

PHOTO: Evening primrose in bloom on the plains of New Mexico.

Evening primrose in bloom on the plains of New Mexico. Photo by Dr. Rick Overson

The first two years of field work brought Overson back to his desert home. He traveled across Arizona, Utah, and nearby states with a group of about five scientists during summer months when the flowers were blooming. The team visited several populations each of 16 species of flower for a total of 60 locations. Overson and the team identified and documented the insects visiting the plants and compiled scent chemistry from the flowers. Their tool kit included a pump to pull the scent from a flower onto tiny polymer beads that held the scent inside of a vial. From there, they extracted the scent chemicals at the end of the research day or night. “It’s definitely the case that this pattern of scent variation inside a species is very common in this group,” he said of the team’s preliminary findings.

PHOTO: Hawkmoth on evening primrose.

A beneficial pollinator, the hawkmoth, visits an evening primrose (Oenothera harringtonii).

In the field they also took video recordings of pollinator behavior to see who visited which flowers and when. The pollinators, including hawkmoths and bees, follow scents to find various rewards such as pollen or nectar. The insects are selective, and make unique choices on which plants to visit.

Why do specific pollinators visit specific plants? In this case, the Skogen Lab is finding that it is in response to the scent, or chemical communication, each flower releases. “In the natural world those [scents] are signals, they are messages. Those different compounds that flowers are producing, a lot of them are cocktails of different types of chemicals. They could be saying very different things.”

PHOTO: Closeup of a wasp on a closed evening primrose bloom.

Nature is complicated. Here, a wasp lays eggs through a flower bud into a hidden Mompha moth inside. Its larvae will eventually destroy both the moth and the flower. Photo by Dr. Rick Overson

A destructive micromoth called a microlepidopteran (classified in the genus Mompha), has also likely learned how to read the scent messages of its hosts. The specialist herbivore lays eggs on plants leading to detrimental effects for seed production. The team’s field work has shown that Mompha moths only infect some populations of flowers. When and why did the flowers evolve to deter or attract all of these different pollinators? Or was it the pollinators who drove change?

At the Garden, Overson is currently focused on exploring the genomes, or DNA set, of these plants to create a phylogeny, which looks like a flow chart and reads like a story of evolution. “Right now we don’t know how all of these species are interrelated,” he explained. When the phylogeny is complete, they will have a more comprehensive outline of key relationships and timing than ever before. That information will allow scientists to determine where specific scents and other traits originated and spread. He will explore the evolution of important plant traits using the phylogeny including the color of the flowers and their pollinators, to answer as many questions as possible about relationships and linked evolutionary events.

In addition, the team is looking at population genetics so they can determine the amount of breeding occurring between plant locations by either seed movement or by pollinators. They will also look for obstacles to breeding, such as interference by mountain ranges or cities.

“Relationships among flowering plants and insects represent one of the great engines of terrestrial diversity,” wrote principal investigator Krissa Skogen, PhD, in a blog post announcing the grant.

The way that genes have flowed through different populations, or have been blocked from doing so over time, can also lead to changes in a species that are significant enough to drive speciation, or the development of new species, said Overson. “The big idea is that maybe these patterns that are driving diversity within these flowers could ultimately be leading to speciation.”

By understanding these differences and patterns, the scientists may influence conservation decisions, such as what locations are most in need of protection, and what corridors of gene flow are most important to safeguard.

PHOTO: Dr. Rick Overson in the field.

Dr. Rick Overson in the field

“We absolutely can’t live without plants or insects, it’s impossible,” remarked Overson. “Plants and insects are dominant forces in our terrestrial existence. Very few people would argue that we haven’t heavily modified the landscape where these plants and insects live. I think it is crucially important to understand these interactions for the sake of the natural world, agriculture and beyond.”

When Dr. Overson is taking a break from the laboratory, he visits the Desert Greenhouse in the Regenstein Center, which feels like home to him.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How Love and Science May Defend a Wild Orchid

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  February 18, 2016 — Leave a comment

Life on the prairie hasn’t been a breeze for the beautiful eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Once common across the Midwest and Canada, the enchanting wildflower caught the attention of collectors and was overharvested throughout the 1900s. At the same time, large portions of its wet prairie, sedge meadow, and wetland habitat were converted to agriculture. By 1989, just 20 percent of the original population of Platanthera leucophaea remained, and the orchid was added to the federally threatened species list.

PHOTO: Claire Ellwanger takes a leaf sample in the field.

Claire Ellwanger takes a leaf sample in the field.

The struggles of the captivating orchid did not go unnoticed. Its lacey white flowers and unique biological attributes sparked a passion in scientists and volunteers across the Midwest who began gathering leaf samples for genetic analysis and recording measurements on the health of certain populations. Some volunteers dedicated decades to this work, and many continue to monitor their assigned location today.

As long ago as the mid 1800s, an earlier generation of the wildflower’s enthusiasts had preserved samples of actual plants, pressing them onto archival paper with their field notes and placing them in long-term storage facilities called herbaria, for future reference. As it turns out, some of the plant materials they saved are from populations that no longer exist.

Now, all of that data is coming together for the first time in a research study by graduate student Claire Ellwanger.

The master’s degree candidate—in a Plant Biology and Conservation graduate program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University—is using modern analysis tools to uncover the genetic history of the species. What she finds will give scientists a better picture of the present-day status of genetic diversity of the species, and insight into the best ways to manage it for the future.

PHOTO: Clarie Ellwanger measures orchid seed pods in the field.

Claire Ellwanger measures orchid seed pods in the field.

“This orchid is a pretty interesting species because there has been this massive volunteer effort for over 20 years to restore it in Illinois,” noted Ellwanger, who said that Illinois currently houses more populations, or locations, of the species than any other state.

She is focused on collecting and analyzing genetic information on the remaining plants, working with field collectors in the Midwest from Iowa to Ohio, and also from Maine. She is examining the genes, or DNA, of each of the sampled populations, along with genetic information she collected at eight sites right here in Illinois.

Ellwanger is also extracting DNA from the older herbarium samples to better understand how much genetic diversity was a part of the species in the past. “The herbarium samples will allow us to get a sense of historic genetic variation to compare to levels today,” she explained.

Along with her thesis advisor, Garden molecular ecologist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., she is especially interested in finding ways to maintain genetic diversity. “We know that if you are able to preserve the most genetic diversity in a species, it is more likely to persist for longer,” she explained.

PHOTO: Extracted DNA is ready for analysis in the laboratory.

Extracted DNA is ready for analysis in the laboratory.

In the lab today with her research assistant, Laura Steger, she uses a genetic fingerprinting technique on all groups in her study subjects. By watching the same sequence of genes over time and locations, she can see clear patterns and any changes. The bonus to it all is that “understanding more about these plants and their genetic variation will be pretty applicable to other species that have undergone the same processes,” she noted.

As scientists and volunteers worked in the field over the last several decades, they did more than collect genetic information. They also took steps to boost new seed production by hand pollinating plants or conducting a form of seed dispersal. Through her study, Ellwanger is also tracking the success of each technique. “I’ll be able to complete a genetic comparison over time to see if these recovery goals are achieving what they set out to do,” she said, by comparing the genetic composition of a given population from the recent past to today.

PHOTO: A compound light microscope reveals some plump, fertile embryos inside seeds

A compound light microscope reveals some plump, fertile embryos inside seeds.

At sites Ellwanger visited personally, she collected seeds as well, and brought them back to the lab for examination. There, looking under a compound light microscope, she checked to see what percentage of seed embryos from the sites were plump and therefore viable. Her findings offer an additional perspective on what her genetic analysis will show. After examination, the seeds were returned to their field location.

In early analysis results, “it looks like reproductive fitness does differ between sites so it will be really interesting to see if those sites that have lower reproductive fitness also have higher levels of inbreeding,” noted Ellwanger. Inbreeding, the mating of closely related individuals, can result in reduced biological fitness in the population of plants. In such cases, it could be helpful to bring in pollen or seed from other populations to minimize mating with close relatives and strengthen populations for future generations.

PHOTO: Eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)

The eastern prairie fringed orchid will soon be better understood than ever before. The findings of the study may also provide insight into other problems that may be happening in the prairies where they live. “Orchids will be some of the first organisms to disappear once a habitat starts to be degraded. If we can better understand what’s going on with this plant it, could help out similar species,” said Ellwanger.

The researcher is looking forward to the impact this work could have on the future of the plant and the habitat that sustains it. “What motivates me about research is definitely the conservation implications,” said Ellwanger, who developed her love of conservation while growing up on the East Coast and learning about the complex systems that play a role in the health of the environment.

Read more about orchid research at the Garden, and don’t forget to visit the Orchid Show, open through March 13, 2016.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Water Works

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  January 2, 2016 — Leave a comment

In a first-time summer internship research project, two college students set out to understand how plants were responding to the Garden’s shoreline restoration projects. They took a deep look into how variations in water levels may be affecting the health of the young plants. The results of their work will help others select the best plants for their own shorelines.

A silent troop of more than one-half million native plants stand watch alongside 4½ miles of restored Chicago Botanic Garden lakeshore. The tightly knit group of 242 taxa inhibit erosion along the shoreline, provide habitat for aquatic plants and animals, and create a tranquil aesthetic for 60 acres of lakes.

PHOTO: The North Lake shoreline.

The North Lake shoreline restoration was completed in 2012. Photo by Bob Kirschner

Now ranging from 2 to 15 years old, the plants grow up from tiered shelves on the sloping shores. Species lowest on the slope are always standing in water. At the top of the slope, the opposite is true, with only floods or intense downpours bringing the lake level up to their elevation.

Wading In

Jannice Newson and Ben Girgenti moved through clusters of tightly knit foliage along the Garden shoreline from June through August, taking turns as map reader or measurement taker. On a tranquil summer day, one would step gingerly into the water, settling on a planting shelf, before lowering a 2-foot ruler into the water to take a depth measurement. The other, feet on dry land, would hold fast to an architectural map of the shoreline while calling out directions or making notes.

Newson, a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) intern and sophomore at the University of Missouri, and Girgenti, a Garden intern and senior at Brown University, worked under the guidance of Bob Kirschner, the Garden’s director of restoration ecology and Woman’s Board curator of aquatics.

PHOTO: Interns Ben Girgenti and Jannice Newson.

Interns Ben Girgenti and Jannice Newson gather plant data on the shoreline.

When the summer began, Girgenti and Newson had hoped to locate and measure every single plant. But after the immense scope of the project became clear in their first weeks, they decided to focus on species that are most commonly used in shoreline rehabilitation, as that information would be most useful for others.

View the Garden’s current list of recommended plants for shoreline restoration.

“We’re interested in which plants do really badly and which do really well when they are experiencing different levels of flooding, with the overall idea of informing people who are designing detention basins,” explained Girgenti, who went on to say that data analysis of the Garden’s sophisticated shoreline development would be especially useful for others.

“The final utility of this research will be to inform other natural resource managers,” confirmed Kirschner, who added that successful Garden shoreline plants must be able to withstand water levels that can rise and fall by as many as 5 feet several times in one year.

Steering the Ship

Along the shoreline, the interns followed vertical iron posts that were installed as field markers during construction, in order to find specific plants shown on the maps. “The posts are pretty key to being able to map out the beds,” said Girgenti.

PHOTO: The Malott Japanese Garden shoreline 3 years after the 2011-12 restoration project.

The Malott Japanese Garden shoreline two years after the 2006 restoration project.

Once they found a target plant, they then counted clumps of it, and put it into one of six categories based on the amount of current coverage, ranging from nonexistent to area coverage of more than 95 percent.

They also measured the average depth of water for beds with plants below the water line, noting their elevation. For plants above the water line, the elevation was derived from the architectural drawings.

Data about the elevation and coverage level of each measured plant, together with daily lake water level readings dating back to the late 1990s, was then entered into a spreadsheet and prepared for analysis to identify correlations between planting bed elevation and plant survival.

Beneath the Surface

For her REU research project, Newson was careful to collect data for one species in particular, blue flag iris. “As a preliminary test of the project hypothesis, data relating to 101 planting beds of Iris virginica var. shrevei were analyzed to see if there was a significant correlation between the assessed plant condition and each planting bed’s elevation relative to normal water,” she explained in her final REU poster presentation in late August.

PHOTO: Southern blue flag iris.

Southern blue flag iris (Iris virginica var. shrevei), photo by Jannice Newson

An environmental science major, she initially experienced science at the Garden as a participant in the Science First Program, and then as a Science First assistant, before becoming an REU intern.

Girgenti began his Garden work in the soil lab, where his mentor inspired him to focus on local, native flora. “I was kind of pushed up a little bit by the Garden,” he said. The following year he did more field work in the Aquatics department. “I wanted to come back because I really enjoyed being here the last two years,” he said. “Every year I’ve come back to the Garden, I’ve been very excited about what I’m going to do.”

Aside from the scientific discovery, the two also refined their professional interests. “I do enjoy being out in the field as opposed to maybe working in a lab; it’s a lot more interesting to me. And also just working in the water with native plants is very interesting,” said Newson.

“I was really interested in getting into more of the shoreline science and also learning which native species were planted there,” said Girgenti. “I really love working here. I’ve never really been involved this much in science, so this has been a really great experience—just all of the problem solving that we’ve had to do over the course of the summer.”

Newson also enjoyed the communication aspect of her work, as Garden visitors stopped to ask what work she and Girgenti were doing along the shoreline. She was especially excited to share with them and her fellow REU interns that “the purpose of why we are doing this is that it provides a beautiful site for visitors to see, it helps with erosion, and also improves aquatic habitat.”

PHOTO: View of the Kleinman Familly Cove.

A view of the Kleinman Family Cove highlights the small bay where our youngest science explorers can learn about the shoreline.

Although the interns have left the Garden for now, the data they collected will have a lasting impact here and potentially elsewhere. Kirschner is currently working with his colleagues on the data analysis to complete a comprehensive set of recommendations for future use.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org