Understanding Biodiversity

Studying the Microbiome of Vanilla Orchid Roots

vanilla bean

Vanilla is an economically important crop used for flavoring and fragrances. The vanilla "bean" isn't a bean, it is the fruit of the vanilla orchid. This project is investigating if different cultivation practices influence the associated fungi and bacteria (benefical as well as pathogens) found in the roots of vanilla orchids using NextGen sequencing approaches. The study is being undertaken as part of an international team focused on factors influencing the production of vanilla (Mueller, Johnson, and colleagues).

Pollination in Genus Artocarpus (Moraceae)

The Moraceae family (ca. 1,000 species) includes figs (Ficus), mulberries (Morus), and breadfruit (Artocarpus). Mulberries are wind-pollinated, while figs have one of the most fascinating pollination modes, which is often used as a classic example of coevolution between plants and insecrts. In the obligate mutualism found in all fig species, female fig wasps use the enclosed fig inflorescence as a brood site, laying their eggs in some of the ovules and pollinating others. The offspring hatch and mate inside the fig.

Revision of the Genus Artocarpus (Moraceae)

jackfruit market

With a National Science Foundation grant, the Chicago Botanic Garden is working with international collaborators in Southeast Asia to study the distribution and evolution of an economically important group of plants. With approximately 70 species, Artocarpus is the third largest genus in the plant family that contains figs and mulberries (Moraceae). Artocarpus contains numerous economically important species (grown for timber and fruit) native to Southeast Asia. Two species, jackfruit and breadfruit, are cultivated throughout the tropics.

Fossil Plants in Mongolia


Mongolia has an abundance of fossil deposits that date to the early Cretaceous (approximately 100 to 130 million years ago), when flowering plants first appeared in the fossil record and then rapidly diversified. The fossil record is the best source of evidence to document the origin and early evolution of a group of plants such as the angiosperms. Although much paleontology work has been done in Mongolia searching for dinosaurs, very little paleobotanical field work and research has been undertaken there.

Evolutionary Relationships and Diversity in the Legume Family


The legume family, which includes important crop plants (e.g., beans, peas, and soybeans) and many other economically important species, is the third largest plant family, with approximately 730 genera and 19,400 species found in all parts of the world. In addition to being a source for economically important plants, the family is also important because legumes dominate many tropical ecosystems. An international team of botanists is working to develop a better understanding of the diversity and evolutionary relationships in this important family.

Biodiversity of Symbiotic and Lignin-Degrading Fungi in Seasonal Dry Tropical Forests

Seasonally dry tropical forests (SDTF) account for nearly half of the world’ s tropical and subtropical forests but remain one of the most endangered habitats. High rates of forest clearing for pasture, frequent fires, and pressure from population growth have all contributed to severe fragmentation and degradation of SDTF. Most conservation efforts to date have been directed toward specific plant taxa or areas that contain high levels of plant endemism.

Biodiversity, Biogeography, and Conservation of Cantharellacae

chanterelle mushroom

Cantharellacae includes choice edible fungi such as chanterelles and trumpet fungi. They also are important beneficial symbionts of forest trees. Many species in the group are listed as threatened and endangered in countries that list fungi. Activities in 2014 focused on completing work on documenting the diversity of the group in the Chicago region. DNA analyses confirmed the occurrence of an undescribed species in the yellow chanterelle group.

Biodiversity, Biogeography, and Conservation of Laccaria

Laccaria has been used as a model group to study fungi that form ectomycorrhizas (beneficial symbionts of forest trees). Activities in 2014 saw the completion of a multi-year project that combined information from long-term fieldwork with DNA analyses to document the group's diversity, evolutionary relationships, and biogeographic patterns. This resulted in the most comprehensive study of any genus of ectomycorrhizal fungi. A final draft of the first in a series of manuscripts resulting from this work was completed.

Understanding the Population Biology of Mushrooms and Related Fungi


A lack of information on the population biology of fungi has greatly hindered efforts to understand their biology and to include them in conservation discussions and action plans. Studies have been severely limited by difficulties in obtaining genetic markers to differentiate among individuals and populations needed to examine issues such as fragmentation, the effect of pollution, and potential over-harvesting for food.

Early Land Plant Origin and Diversification

Approximately 470 million years ago, the first plants to inhabit land arose from green algae. Subsequently, these plants diversified to form the foundation of all terrestrial ecosystems. As part of a collaboration with the 1KP project (a multidisciplinary consortium of plant biologists and bioinformaticians led by researchers at the University of Alberta and Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen, Hong Kong), we developed methods to process large amounts of DNA sequence data to better understand the origin and evolution of early land plants.