Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory

Finding Answers to Survival at the Molecular Level

There are thousands upon thousands of plant species. Within each is a tremendous amount of diversity, ensuring its adaptability and therefore survival. This diversity is encoded in plant DNA, its genetic material. Chicago Botanic Garden scientists are learning about plant populations by studying plant genetics, particularly among rare and endangered plants.

PHOTO: Prairie PlantsHow Plant Genetics Benefits You—and the World

Genetic diversity is critical to the overall health of a species and is a vital aspect of biodiversity. Genetic diversity plays an important role in the survival of a species, especially in a changing environment. A population that has greater genetic diversity will have a better chance of persisting in the presence of new diseases, climate change, or other changes in the environment. Genetic diversity therefore benefits you by keeping the ecosystems upon which you depend viable.

PHOTO: labOne easy way to understand the importance of diversity within and among all plants is to consider the consequences of low genetic diversity. It is well known that inbreeding increases the likelihood of disease and illness. This is because inbreeding results in a small gene pool, which in turn leads to low genetic diversity. One reason scientists are concerned about habitat fragmentation is that it can decrease the size of a population and the number of potential mates, and therefore increase the risk of inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity. This could cause small populations to spiral into extinction.

Garden scientists at the Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory employ a variety of molecular techniques to answer important scientific questions, including the following:

  • Paternity Analysis to study bee (and pollen) movement within a prairie
  • Genetic Fingerprinting to measure genetic diversity in restored and fragmented habitats
  • Measuring Gene Flow to look at distances pollinators move pollen or seed disperse
  • DNA Sequencing to investigate at taxonomic and ecological relationships between species

This work, along with quantitative analysis, helps scientists understand how genetic diversity is distributed and maintained in healthy plant populations, and identify what we need to do to ensure that current populations persist and new populations can thrive when restored to a particular area.

Case Studies

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Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., studies how genetic diversity relates to restoration success and population persistence. Studying two rare thistle species in the Chicago region, he is comparing genetic diversity and reproductive health at multiple populations. In both species he has found that genetic diversity is maintained through increased recruitment, which is correlated to habitat quality, highlighting how degradation of site conditions can lead to loss of genetic diversity in populations.

PHOTO: hummingbirdAndrea Kramer, Ph.D. (working with Jeremie Fant, Ph.D.), studies how landscape and pollinator interact to influence population genetic structure of plant populations. By comparing populations of different Penstemon species that are pollinated by bees and hummingbirds from the mountains of the Western United States she was able to show that hummingbirds are more likely to carry pollen from mountain to mountain than are bees. This has important consequences for restoration efforts using these species.

Jennifer Ison, Ph.D. (working with Stuart Wagenius, Ph.D.), uses paternity analysis to look at fine-scale spatial patterns of pollen movement within a prairie. Working on purple coneflowers (Echinacea) she found that at peak flowering, seed set is higher but pollen travels a smaller distance on average, whereas later in the season seed set is lower but pollination distance is greater. Her research demonstrates that flowering phenology does affect seed set and pollination patterns and that these effects also depend upon plant density.

PHOTO: flowerKrissa Skogen, Ph.D., studies gene flow in the Colorado Springs evening primrose (Oenothera harringtonii, Onagraceae), a species endemic to southeastern Colorado. The flowers of Oenothera harringtonii open soon after sunset and are pollinated primarily by hawkmoths. Hawkmoths can travel up to 20 miles in just one night, and may therefore contribute significantly to long-distance gene flow among populations. This species is found in an increasingly fragmented landscape; however, little is known of the impacts that fragmentation and light pollution may have on the community of pollinators upon which it relies for reproduction, genetic diversity, and long-term population persistence.

PHOTO: mushroomsAndrew Wilson, Ph.D., uses systematic analysis of molecular data to address questions regarding the evolution, ecology, diversity, and conservation of Basidiomycete (mushroom-forming) fungi. Fungi are among the most diverse groups of organisms on the planet and are responsible for numerous, vital associations with plants. Molecular tools such as DNA sequencing and genetic fingerprinting can be used to describe the many mysterious symbiotic interactions between plants and fungi, from plant pathogenic interactions to mutualisms such as mycorrhizae. Molecular tools help us identify the species involved in these relationships and how these relationships might have developed over evolutionary time.

take action:
What can you do?

PHOTO: milkweed

Change your actions:
Choose native plants from local sources to landscape your yard. To help restore and preserve local natural areas, support and volunteer for Chicago Wilderness organizations.

Change your community:
Get involved in tracking endangered plants through Plants of Concern, and encourage your local officials and legislators to protect natural areas.

In the Laboratory

A combination of molecular and quantitative techniques enables Garden scientists to understand the level and distribution of genetic diversity within rare and endangered species. A DNA sequencer is helping these researchers gain an understanding of the molecular genetics of such plants, ultimately enabling plant populations and their habitats to be better managed and preserved. The Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory and the Economic Botany Laboratory together are 2,000 square feet.

Staff Scientists

Jeremie Fant, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist, Molecular Ecology
Lab Manager

Andrea Kramer, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Botanic Gardens Conservation
International U.S.

Krissa Skogen, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist
Manager, Conservation and Land Management Internship Program

Andrew Wilson. Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Associate

Nyree J. C. Zerega, Ph. D.
Plant Biology and Conservation
Director, Master's Program in Plant Biology and Conservation