Mentors: Jonathan Colen, Mark Rausher, PhD
Department of Biology
Recent research has shown that introgression between species through hybridization is common. Despite this, some traits are seen to resist gene flow between species in sympatric environments. One organism that this is seen in is the morning glory. When I.lacunosa and I.cordatotriloba are present in the same area, lac populations are seen to stay practically the same while cord populations are seen to change. Furthermore, we commonly see limb color resist introgression but a loss of throat color when these species are in sympatry. This renders I.lac and I.cord good model organisms to study species boundaries and gene flow. This project is asking two questions with these species. One being how often does pink I.cord sire offspring, the other being what is the recombination rate between the limb color and throat color gene. While research is still ongoing, preliminary data has shown that these two genes have a low but noticeable recombination rate.
As I am working with plants too, Ali’s chalk talk on pitcher plants stood out to me. Ali’s project involves looking at different species of pitcher plants that grows in different regions. Her lab is analyzing going in these different regions affected the composition of their digestive fluid. They are looking at three different species in particular, one that has a little lid and one that has no lid Lastly, they are looking at a species of pitcher’s that are formed from by these two species of pitchers hybridizing with a little lid off to the side. These different structures change what can get into the liquid.
I think the science behind Ali’s project connects a lot with mine even though they are looking at different things than my lab. Plants are amazing model organisms to look at evolution, adaptation, and speciation. There is so much diversity within the plant world. Just the fact that you can see the diversity of pitchers plants traveling from the north to the south is amazing. I liked the fact that her project shows that diversity is not just found in brightly colored flowers in the greenhouse, but something as nuanced as the percentage of microorganisms in digestive fluid.
An average day in Rausher Labs is full of bags of soil, bright blooming flowers, and soggy wet floors. I start my days in our office space. I am always greeted by my mentor Jonathan Colen around 10:00 is every morning, 11 am on programming days. Then, we walk down to the greenhouse for our first tasks of the day, flower scoring, detangling, and seed collection. Morning glories are beautiful flowers, but one of the most annoying things about them is their ridiculous need to get tangled with each other. Because we don’t want cross-pollination, we detangle the flowers one by one every morning. As we do this, we also inspect each plant for seeds. These seeds will be used in the field for the field experiment later on in the summer.
Around halfway through detangling my mentor goes back to the office to work while I finish up collecting seeds. Once I am done in the greenhouse, the next stop is the growth room. The growth room is filled with our young morning glories that have yet to set flowers. Here I water the plants, detangle them, and if any of ready to be transplanted, I transplant them into bigger pots.
By the time I am done in both the greenhouse and growth room, it is usually around 3 pm. On Fridays, after work, my mentor and I have paper discussions over past papers done on our topic. After that, we usually walk back to the office and break for the day.
Talking with Dr.Rausher during our interview he made it clear that it is easy to get discouraged in the field of research. Hurdles like competing for grants with your peers, or your experimental plants never germinating make it hard to see the finish line. No student or faculty member at Duke is immune to this. However, that does not mean you do not have a place in research, and you should always remember that there are options.
Dr. Rausher described his path to being a researcher at Duke as conventional, at least conventional for his time. Unlike now, many undergrads in the past did not get hands-on wet-lab experience. Most of Dr. Rausher’s lab experience was in the field working with insects. It is hard to imagine going to grad school without much wet-lab experience. Even starting at Duke my freshman year, I was terrified the first day of Chem Lab, especially experimenting on my own over zoom. However, Dr. Rausher said that it is all a matter of figuring out what you want to do, and then learning the skills to do it after, “The hardest part is coming up with a question that builds off known knowledge in the field, but also advances it.” In grad school, Dr. Rausher decided to make the transition to plants, mostly because they did not run away from you.
There are some downsides to working with plants though, the main one being they are kind of unpredictable ways. You can have a batch of perfectly healthy seeds never germinate, or geminate 3 weeks late. What do you do then when your data is reliant on those plants? This is how Dr. Rausher and I started talking about options. As you spend more time as a researcher, you will realize you do have options. You can try again, or if you realize the project is not feasible you can scrap it. Then, try and figure out the question with different methods. but Dr. Rausher was not just talking about your experiments he also meant in life. All of us as Duke students are good at seeing a goal and then hurdling towards it with all of our time and energy. However, Dr. Rausher encouraged me and all of us to maybe look around and see that there are other things we could be running towards. Even though many of his students started as researchers in his lab, not all of them are researchers now. Some are working in the government, some are working for farms. And all of them are working in fields where there can use the skills they gained in the lab. So when you run into hurdles one option is always getting up and trying again, but sometimes what is best for us is to look around and see what else we could be running towards.
This summer I will be working in Rausher Labs. Much of their research deals with different evolutionary biology concepts, and their main focus is plants. My project specifically is looking at species boundaries, which I am just now starting to wrap my head around. Since middle school, many of us were told that if ” Two organisms cannot make viable offspring, they are from two different species”. However, the lines are more blurred than that. There are examples (especially in the plant world) that prove this wrong. I work with one of the biggest examples everyday in the lab, morning glories.
When you look up the scientific names of many plants, like your common maple, or sunflower, you’ll find the full scientific name including the species of the plant However, it is a little harder to find a clear scientific name for morning glories. This is because different kinds of morning glories are constantly interbreeding. So now they have just became a tangled mess of what used to be distinct species. That is not the only issue. These hybrids can make viable offspring as well, so the previous rule I learned in high school has been made blurry.
The goal of the experiment is to see what specific species boundaries there are for morning glories. Also to see if there are any specific phenotypes that are always passed to hybrids and if there are any that are rarely passed down successfully. We are doing this by growing different kinds of morning glories in the greenhouse, many of them hybrids made from other plants we grew in the lab. Everyday we collect seeds, detangle, an score the flowers of each plant. We are looking at the limb and throat color of the plants, specifically we are looking to see if the limb and throat colors turn out white, or if the bloom pink limbed and purple throated flowers.
I remember my jump from environmental science to plant biology being pretty, spontaneous. However, it was a good spontaneous. The kind where you do something you never considered, or talk to someone you would never usually cross paths with and think to yourself, “Hey I really like this!” Before that point, I did not even know I could do a focus on plant biology. I had always loved plants, but I did not know there was a place here where I could work with them all the time. I would not have known about plant biology here at Duke if I had not reached out to someone in that department. That one conversation encouraged me to look more into a plant biology concentration here at Duke, and through that conversation, I have made so many connections and found out about opportunities all over campus, in the greenhouse, and out on the field. So if there is one thing I am excited about this summer, it is making new connections in the plant biology department and being a part of the scientific community here at Duke.
For my research, I am working in Rausher Labs and my mentor is Jonathan Colen. We are working on a type of flower called Morning Glories (Ipomoea). While training in the greenhouse with plants was fun, my favorite part of today, and what I am most excited about in the future, was meeting the greenhouse staff and Jonathan’s peers in the lab. They were all very knowledgeable about their research and the research going on around them. Also, they would always end their introductions with “If you ever need any help or information, just let me know” It was nice getting to know all these passionate individuals who were willing to help me, and it was only the first day. I know that through BSURF I will have many more spontaneous, path-changing conversations, and make many friends in the department while having them. So that is the thing I am most excited about through my research
Crafton, Linda. “Hinge Bindweed Flowers.” Owlcation, 2012, owlcation.com/stem/The-Hedge-Bindweed-or-Morning-Glory-An-Invasive-Plant.