Glencoe, IL, United States
Glencoe, IL, United States

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Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: RSCH EXPER FOR UNDERGRAD SITES | Award Amount: 330.22K | Year: 2015

This REU Site award to the Chicago Botanic Garden (Glencoe, IL) will support the training of 10 students over 10-week periods during the summers of 2015-2017. This REU Sites focus is on plant biology and conservation, spanning from genomic to ecosystem levels. Mentors are drawn from the Garden, Northwestern University, and partner institutions. Mentors diverse areas of expertise enable students to conduct research on a variety of topics, including evolution, pollination, conservation, genetics, invasive species, soil science, and restoration ecology. Students participate in professional-development activities; field trips; and weekly discussions addressing topics like ethics, graduate school, and scientific communication. The REU program is integrated into a near-peer training continuum: participants are paired with graduate student co-mentors and high school mentees. Target participants include students from groups underrepresented in the sciences, those who are the first in their family to attend college, non-traditional students, veterans, and students who lack extensive research opportunities at their home institutions. Students are recruited nationally and are selected based on their academic record, statement, letter of recommendation, potential to benefit from the experience, interviews with prospective mentors, and program goals.

It is anticipated that a total of 30 students, primarily from groups underrepresented in the sciences and schools with limited research opportunities, will be trained in the program. In addition, the Garden hosts affiliated interns who add to the diverse research community experienced by REU participants. Students will learn how research is conducted, and many will present the results of their work at scientific conferences. All participants will present their findings at a large, multiple-institution symposium.

A common web-based assessment tool used by all REU programs funded by the Division of Biological Infrastructure (Directorate for Biological Sciences) will be used to determine the effectiveness of the training program. Students are tracked to evaluate the effects of this research experience on their future academic and career paths. Information about the program is assessed through follow-up surveys, including use of an REU common assessment tool. More information is available by visiting or by contacting the PI (Dr. Jeremie Fant at or co-PI (Dr. Daniel Larkin at

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: Biodiversity: Discov &Analysis | Award Amount: 465.37K | Year: 2014

The Early Cretaceous of Mongolia is well known for its fossil dinosaurs and other vertebrates, but fossil plants from Mongolia are very poorly studied. This project will examine diverse assemblages of fossil plants from multiple Early Cretaceous age localities that are yielding new, abundant, and exceptionally well-preserved seed plant fossils. The goal of the research is to discover, characterize, document and understand the implications of these newly discovered fossil plants that date to a critical interval for changes in the flora of the Earth. The fossil material will be studied primarily using scanning electron microscopy and high-resolution X-ray microtomography. The excellent preservation provides a rare opportunity to reconstruct ?whole plants? from multiple co-occurring fossils of extinct Cretaceous species.

This study is important in several respects. The overarching objective for the study is to inform a deeper understanding of seed plant evolution. The research will add significantly to knowledge about extinct seed plants during the Early Cretaceous, an interval of major and rapid evolutionary and vegetational change. The project will strengthen international collaboration among US, Japanese and Mongolian scientists and students. Student involvement and communicating science to the public are institutional priorities and will be accomplished through on hands training for students, feature articles, website presentations, and exhibition outreach at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Field Museum.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: PHYLOGENETIC SYSTEMATICS | Award Amount: 20.11K | Year: 2015

Legumes are the third largest family of flowering plants. These economically and ecologically significant plants range in size from tiny desert herbs to giant rainforest trees. While recent research has elucidated relationships among the major lineages in the family, little is known about many of the nearly 20,000 species, especially the processes that generate this diversity. This study will use recently developed next generation DNA sequencing methods and statistical computer modeling to resolve the evolutionary relationships among a large and widespread group of tropical legumes and to infer what role, if any, adaptation to new environments has played in the diversification of these species. Given their wide distribution and ecological diversity, understanding the relationships among these species will provide a framework for future comparative studies and enhance our understanding of the overall evolution of the legume family. The project will also include a significant training component to expose undergraduates in STEM fields to the latest tools and analytic methods.

This study will combine phylogenomics, ecological niche modeling, and information from the fossil record to elucidate the relationships among the species of the tropical genera Cynometra and Maniltoa and will investigate the role niche conservatism plays in biogeography and speciation mechanisms. Next generation sequencing is revolutionizing the practice of systematics, biogeography, and evolutionary biology. While the technology has been applied to both very deep and very shallow evolutionary questions, its application to species level phylogenetics, particularly in plants, remains limited. However, it is at the species level that these new techniques hold the greatest promise to resolve previously intractable relationships. In addition, when combined with ecological niche modeling and geographic range data, the well resolved phylogenies these methods are capable of producing allow researchers to study speciation mechanisms and the role of niche conservatism in generating observed patterns of diversity. If, for example, allopatric sister species consistently segregate along environmental axes, then ecologically mediated selection may have a role in speciation, whereas if allopatric sister species are consistently identical or nearly identical in abiotic niche space, then ecological divergence is not a major factor driving speciation. To address this question, the researchers will: 1) conduct field work and visit herbaria in Brazil (the center of diversity for the genus) to better characterize diversity and distributions of Brazilian species; 2) reconstruct a well resolved species level phylogeny using data generated with targeted sequence capture techniques; and 3) characterize the abiotic niche of the constituent species using ecological niche modeling and distribution data. Analyses of these data will provide a much more precise understanding of evolutionary and biogeographic history of Cynometra and Maniltoa and the mechanisms driving these processes.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: POP & COMMUNITY ECOL PROG | Award Amount: 252.59K | Year: 2014

The ability of organisms to successfully reproduce in small, isolated populations is a key factor in the generation and maintenance of biological diversity. Reproductive failure due to isolation is a current prospect for many of the long-lived, perennial plants that make up most of the grasslands of the central U.S. because these grasslands now exist mainly as small remnants of a once great prairie. Previous research has suggested that three of the most important causes of reproductive failure in prairie plants are mismatches in the timing of flowering, limited ability to disperse pollen, and mechanisms of compatibility that restrict mating between closely related individuals. This project will be the first to test how all three of these factors operate together in a natural system. Researchers will measure timing and compatibility of plants of Echinacea angustifolia (coneflowers) in 27 populations in Minnesota over three years and merge these data with an 18-year, continuing study on the population growth of the species. The intended result is a unified understanding of how habitat fragmentation affects the reproductive potential of grassland plants.

The broader impacts of this project include conservation of biodiversity, student training, and new tools for the scientific community. Results will be communicated to land managers and the general public through the outreach programs and collaborations of the Chicago Botanical Garden. Baccalaureate and graduate students will learn new skills in population biology and computing. The project will publish its detailed spatial and temporal data sets of reproduction in Echinacea and develop freely available software to enable other researchers to manage, visualize, and analyze this information in Echinacea and other species.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Continuing grant | Program: | Phase: CROSS-EF ACTIVITIES | Award Amount: 1.55M | Year: 2014

Relationships among flowering plants and insects represent one of the great engines of terrestrial diversity. Plant scents are important drivers of these relationships (herbivory, plant defense, pollination), but remain poorly integrated into our understanding of floral evolution and pollination ecology. This study examines the role of floral scent in the diversification of the western North American evening primroses (Onagraceae) and their pollinators (hawkmoths, bees) and floral and seed predators (Mompha moths). Hypotheses that integrate across the genetic, phylogenetic, and functional dimensions of biodiversity are developed from the Geographic Mosaic Theory of Coevolution, which posits that variation in plant-animal interactions across the distribution of a species creates shifting evolutionary trajectories that drive local diversification. The research examines functional trait variation and selective forces in the field and experimental arrays, the genetic basis of the variation from the population to phylogenetic level using comparative genomics, and patterns of phylogenetic diversity in Onagraceae and Mompha. Mompha is a poorly understood genus that is the only known lepidopteran group to specialize on Onagraceae.

Few studies have tested the full spectrum of plant fitness outcomes when volatiles attract both mutualists and enemies, and no current studies have investigated scent-driven, geographic diversification in groups of interacting organisms. The hidden diversity of floral and seed predators and their potential as selective agents constitutes a considerable gap in pollinator-centric understanding of floral evolution. The integration of chemical ecology and comparative genomics provides a first attempt to explore the impact of past selective pressures on current patterns of diversity in non-model organisms. Additionally, the investigators will engage over 200 students (high school - graduate school, interns, and postdocs) in field work, experiments, and genomics/informatics activities. Private and public land owners and volunteers will participate in and/or be informed of conservation-focused components of this study.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: Systematics & Biodiversity Sci | Award Amount: 78.00K | Year: 2016

This award supports a workshop in China to develop collaborations in the field of systematics and biodiversity research between US and Chinese scientists. Discovering and documenting the wealth of Earths biodiversity and determining how these millions of life forms are interrelated are labor intensive activities. International research is a nearly universal aspect of modern systematics, and building effective and productive collaborations is essential. This research requires scientists to cross national boundaries to study plants, animals, fungi, and microbial species in their native habitats. No single country has all the expertise, resources, or human capacity to accomplish this essential research on their own. The United States and China are home to many researchers who are active in systematics, paleontology, biodiversity discovery and related fields, but collaborations are relatively few. It is with these thoughts in mind that this workshop has been organized to discuss the need for greater collaboration between US and Chinese systematists, and mechanisms that will facilitate the development of new collaborative relationships. The focus of the workshop is systematics, broadly defined to include the study of the diversity and evolutionary history of life, including both living and fossil taxa.

The workshop will be three days in length and will include 30 participants and potential collaborators from the US and a similar number of participants from China. Participant selection is based on criteria seeking to: maximize taxonomic diversity representation among the species being studied; find equal representation among scientists working on biodiversity inventory, taxonomy, and phylogeny; provide broad representation of museums, botanic gardens, universities, colleges, and other institutions. Workshop management will be handled by six co-organizers (three in the US and three in China) and a steering committee of three additional participants. After the workshops are concluded the organizers and steering committee will prepare a comprehensive report for public distribution. This workshop will benefit the discipline more broadly by improving scientists abilities to share resources and address a diverse range of questions that depend upon solid understanding of biodiversity and systematic relationships. Enhancement of international collaboration will also benefit individuals directly through enhanced career development.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: LONG-TERM RSCH IN ENVIR BIO | Award Amount: 250.00K | Year: 2016

This project will continue a long-term study of natural selection in the purple coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia. At the beginning of the 1800s, prairie covered a great swath of North America. Since then, about 99% of the tallgrass prairie has been destroyed. The small, isolated patches of prairie that remain harbor great biodiversity, yet rates of local plant extinctions are alarmingly high in remnant prairies. This project will advance scientific understanding of why some populations go extinct and others persist. Threats to prairie populations include fire suppression, declines of pollinators, inbreeding, loss of genetic diversity, and a reduced capacity to evolve by natural selection. This project builds on a long-term investigation of these ecological and genetic processes and feedbacks between them affecting a model prairie plant species. The purple coneflower typifies prairie plants in its long lifespan, often decades, and in other attributes. This study is the first of its kind to illustrate a populations capacity to adapt. In addition to advancing scientific knowledge and disseminating information to scientists and land stewards, this project will provide research experience and training to diverse participants at a level appropriate for their interests and career stage: high school, college, and graduate students, teachers, and citizen scientists in Minnesota and at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The project uses formal quantitative genetic approaches and common garden experimental designs to quantify additive genetic variance for fitness, population differentiation, and inbreeding depression. Researchers will estimate the amount of genetic variation in Darwinian fitness of individuals planted in 2003, many of which flowered for the first time in 2015 using aster statistical models to analyze fitness data. Other experiments will estimate the reduction in mean fitness due to mating between siblings. Together with demographic censuses of remnant populations, started in 1996, these studies will yield comprehensive assessments of population growth rates and the potential for evolutionary rescue. A key strength of the research is that experiments are conducted in a realistic habitat, including interactions of the coneflower with its pollinators and herbivores. The core datasets comprise continuous individual fitness records, including annual survival and reproduction of over 17,000 plants in ten experiments and in 27 natural prairie remnants in Minnesota. These datasets, which will extend up to 30 years by the end of the project, offer a rare window into the interplay of evolutionary and ecological processes of a long-lived species.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: PHYLOGENETIC SYSTEMATICS | Award Amount: 300.18K | Year: 2014

The goal of this project is to identify the sources of novel diatom traits, which have contributed to their extraordinary metabolic and species-level diversity. Some traits are encoded by genes acquired from distantly related bacteria, an entirely different kingdom in the tree of life. Other genes appear to have been generated by processes acting within diatom genomes. This project will generate genome-scale data for 250 phylogenetically disparate diatom species. These data will be used to: (1) infer evolutionary relationships, (2) identify the sources - whether intrinsic or extrinsic - of new genes, and (3) correlate the pattern and timing of gene acquisitions with the origins of novel traits.

This study would result in the training of a post-doctoral researcher, undergraduates and graduate students. With an estimated 200,000 species, diatoms are one of the most diverse groups of marine and freshwater phytoplankton. These microscopic plants play a major role in the global cycling of carbon and oxygen, producing the oxygen for one of every five human breaths. They manufacture the fatty acids that make their way up the food chain, eventually into fish, which humans harvest for fish oils. Diatoms possess a broad range of novel traits that, together, have facilitated their rise to prominence in the worlds oceans. Ultimately, this project will reveal how nature has assembled the mosaic genomes of one of the worlds most diverse and ecologically important lineages.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: MAJOR RESEARCH INSTRUMENTATION | Award Amount: 101.05K | Year: 2016

An award is made to the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) to acquire a ploidy analyzer that will be utilized for conservation and horticultural research; for practical plant conservation activities; and for secondary, post-secondary, and graduate education and other collaborative projects. Variations in ploidy (the number of sets of chromosomes in a cell) play an important role in both plant and fungal evolution and diversity. Differences in plant ploidy also have significant practical applications, from the selection of appropriate plants for restoration projects to its impact on breeding and selection of agronomic and horticultural crops. The traditional method of analyzing ploidy via chromosome fixation, staining, and microscopic analysis is time consuming, inexact, and impractical for analyzing a large volume of samples. The ploidy analyzer will allow the rapid, inexpensive, and high-sample volume processing of plant and fungal DNA ploidy and nuclear genome size. This will broadly enhance CBG?s conservation and horticulture research, education programs, permanent plant collections activities, and other collaborations. CBG staff will disseminate their research results to professional, scientific, and public audiences through scientific and popular publications, presentations, on-site interpretation and displays, and through CBG?s website. The public will also benefit from enhanced restoration practices for natural areas, from improved ornamental plants for garden use, and from opportunities to serve as students, volunteers, and outside partners on the projects made possible by the ploidy analyzer.

Chicago Botanic Garden conservation studies encompass the biology of small, fragmented populations; the genetics of both rare and invasive plant species, as well as fungal populations; plant and fungal responses to climate change and to ecosystem management; and spatial and temporal patterns of molecular genetic diversity in populations. The ploidy analyzer will make possible such studies as delineation of seed transfer zones for restoration studies of species with varied ploidy levels, and assessing seed longevity in storage of species with varied ploidy, as the larger cell sizes of higher ploidy seed can impact the longevity of frozen seed. The ploidy analyzer will also impact CBG?s horticultural programs, such as affording the breeding program the ability to match the ploidy of the parents used in crosses, assess the ploidy of plants treated to increase their ploidy, and aid in developing sterile triploid forms of landscape plants to avoid potential invasions. The ploidy analyzer will also be made available to regional conservation researchers and restoration practitioners as well as to commercial and independent plant breeders that do not access to this equipment.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: POP & COMMUNITY ECOL PROG | Award Amount: 326.24K | Year: 2014

A team of scientists from the Chicago Botanic Garden, The Morton Arboretum, and partner institutions will conduct research at the intersection of evolutionary biology and ecological restoration -- the repair of damaged and degraded habitats. Their research investigates the practical implications of a fundamental finding of evolutionary biology: plant species that are less closely related to each other tend to be more distinct in their traits and in the ecological roles they perform. This is important, as groups of plants that encompass greater trait diversity better support key goals of conservation and land management, such as carbon storage and support of wildlife. This project will test whether selecting an unusually diverse (evolutionarily unrelated) set of plant species to use in prairie restoration is a good rule-of-thumb for achieving better outcomes in restoration of degraded ecosystems. In addition, the project will contribute to scientific engagement of high school and college students and the training of early career scientists. Outreach to the public will be performed through the lead institutions? broad networks of members and visitors.

A key challenge for restoration science is to guide the development of diverse, resilient systems that provide the full suite of services associated with natural communities. Incorporating phylogenetic diversity into restoration is an underexplored, potentially powerful tool to help meet this challenge. This project will address questions important to both basic and applied ecology through observational and experimental approaches that test the influence of phylogenetic diversity on restoration outcomes in prairie ecosystems. Decision analysis will be used to determine how restoration managers can incorporate phylogenetic considerations into multi-objective restoration efforts. Results will be translated into practical tools for restoration, including web-based tools for guiding species-selection decisions.

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