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Finding the Perfect Match

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  February 6, 2013 — 2 Comments
PHOTO: Norm Wickett looks at moss.

Dr. Wickett looks for liverworts growing under the cover of other vegetation on a previous research trip to Costa Rica.

In the deep green landscape of Vancouver, British Columbia, Norm Wickett stood spellbound.  As an undergraduate biology major at the University of British Columbia, he was enchanted by the seemingly endless ribbons of moss wrapped around the region’s natural areas.

“My heart is in mosses,” he shared during our recent conversation in his office at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “My first love in biology is mosses.”

Many of us non-scientists might consider this common plant—often seen lurking in shadowed, damp areas, to be a turnoff. But to Wickett, Ph.D., now a conservation scientist at the Garden, it presents an irresistible puzzle. How did this plant, likely one of the first to have lived on land, evolve from relatively few species during the Jurassic period to the 15,000 species living today? How did it adapt to all of the environmental changes that occurred?

“I’m attracted to more primitive plants,” said Wickett. He enjoys observing early species in the Garden’s Dwarf Conifer Garden.

As the recipient of a new grant from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Wickett is working to put the pieces together. “This grant is going to allow me to get back into mosses and it’s a great opportunity,” he said.

Part of the National Science Foundation initiative called “Assembling the Tree of Life,” Wickett’s project is one of many branches of study the organization is funding to explore how all life is related.

His work, he believes, will answer important questions about the evolution of all plants from mosses to the conifers and flowering foliage that ensued. Also, it will allow him to identify the ways in which past environmental events, such as climate change, influenced the evolution of mosses, other plants, and animals. This type of knowledge will help researchers predict how plants could respond to future environmental changes.

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The spore-bearing capsules of a species of Dicranum moss drew Wickett’s attention while he climbed to a high elevation in Costa Rica.

Wickett’s research process begins in growth chambers in the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. There, he nurtures plants for study. He then takes samples of them to capture the many strands of RNA, or genes, in each species. An expert in plant genetics, he uses new computerized technology to compare the genes of many species of moss and look for patterns.

Why are genetic patterns important? They draw a mazelike course scientists can follow to answer vital questions. Wickett will trace them from species to species in order to see which mosses share RNA and are therefore related. He will also use this information to determine when new species, which share some genes with earlier moss species but also carry some slightly different genes, emerged and what the environmental conditions were at the time that allowed them to thrive.

Timing is everything. He explained that the arrival of new genes must happen at the same time as a complimentary environmental condition for a new species to endure. For example, a plant which developed the ability to hold more water would have been successful during a drought, while it may not have survived during a flood.

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Wickett noticed this patch of Sphagnum moss in Costa Rica at a high elevation.

The genetic change can only last, according to Wickett, if it occurs at a time when it gives the plant a benefit in its environment. “It’s a combination of genetic changes in the moss and changes in the climate and finding the change that is most successful,” said Wickett. “For all these things the first step is that there has to be a change in the genes.” Then, he said, “we can go back in time using computer modeling to see what caused the changes.”  These are the pieces Wickett plans to assemble into a bigger picture of evolution during the next three years of his research project.

It is too early to predict where his discoveries may take him, but for now, at least, it is clear that his heart is in the right place.

 

Look for liverworts, a relative of moss, growing in the Greenhouses on your next visit!


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