UH Hilo graduate student doing genome research for worldwide Smithsonian project

The Smithsonian’s Global Genome Initiative has provided funding for UH Hilo graduate student Jeffery Stallman to gather tissue samples and analyze DNA from all native plants in the Compositae (daisy family) found on Hawaiʻi Island.

By Susan Enright.

Jeffery Stallman stands in rough terrain of lava and brush recording information in a notebook, mountain in background.
UH Hilo graduate student Jeffery Stallman records specimen information at Pohakuloa Training Area. Photo by Erin Datlof, click to enlarge.
Jeffery Stallman looks up at the camera as he squats down to plant a seedling. The seedling is marked with a flagged stake.
Jeffery Stallman

A graduate student at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo is taking part in an ambitious worldwide project headed by the Smithsonian. The goal of the Global Genome Initiative is to collect at least one species from half of the genera (estimated 160,000 -200,000) on Earth by 2020. In support of the expansive project, the Smithsonian has provided funding for UH Hilo graduate student Jeffery Stallman to take the lead on gathering tissue samples and analyzing the DNA from all native plants in the Compositae (daisy) family found on Hawaiʻi Island.

“By analyzing the DNA sequences from these samples, and additional DNA sequences available from prior studies, Jeff is determining if the current best methods of identifying species based on DNA are effective in differentiating closely related Hawaiian plants, which can be critically important in identifying threatened or endangered species when key identifying features, such as flowers, are not present,” says Matthew Knope, assistant professor of biology at UH Hilo and one of Stallman’s advisors on the project.

The Knope Evolutionary Ecology Lab, housed in the Department of Biology at UH Hilo, is where the genetic research is being conducted. Jonathan Price, associate professor and chair of geography is collaborating and assisting with locating specimens in the field.

Stallman is a graduate student in UH Hilo’s Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program, where he studies fungal taxonomy and conservation genetics of Hawaiian plants. He is working on his master’s thesis on Hawaiian fungi with Don Hemmes, professor emeritus in biology and a renowned expert in mushrooms, and Mike Shintaku, a professor of plant pathology at the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management. Stallman is working with Knope and Price on native Hawaiian plant conservation genetics.

Vicki Funk, senior research botanist and curator at the Smithsonian and research associate at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauaʻi, is also working on the genome project. Collaborating agencies are the Hawaiʻi Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the National Park Service, the Natural Area Reserve System, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Pohakuloa Training Area Natural Resources Office, the Plant Extinction Prevention Program, and the Smithsonian Institution Department of Botany.

The genome project

Three students working on specimens in the field. They have notebooks and clip boards.
(Left to right) Graduate student Jeffrey Stallman shows undergraduate students Kalena Spinola and Grace Tredinnick how to prepare samples to press as museum vouchers. Photo by M. Knope, click to enlarge.

“We are looking forward to helping [the Smithsonian] towards their goal, while learning how to make quality museum vouchers of plant species, seeing a slice of Hawaiʻi’s unique flora, exploring the island, and hopefully answering some of our own conservation and evolutionary questions about Hawaiian plants along the way,” says Stallman in a blog post about the project.

We are collecting members of the Compositae (daisy family or Asteraceae) on Hawaiʻi Island. The Compositae are the world’s second largest family of flowering plants—and Hawaiʻi’s—represented in Hawaiʻi by 91 native species. The Compositae contain some of Hawaiʻi’s most well-known plants, the Silverswords and Bidens, which are famous examples of adaptive radiation (the rapid diversification of species in a single lineage to fill many ecological roles). Species grow in a wide variety of habitats from sea level to the tops of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, exhibit unique growth forms, and range from highly abundant to critically endangered with less than 100 individual plants left in the world.

When the research team started collecting for the Global Genome Initiative, they knew there would be challenges. For example, they assumed one of those challenges would be locating rare species, but it turns out that collecting in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park presented the opposite situation: an abundance of species that needed parsing.

In their collection from the national park, they now have three members of the genus Dubautia, a member of the adaptive radiation commonly referred to as the Silversword Alliance. A single ancestor from California arriving in the islands approximately 5.2 million years ago radiated to 32 species in the three endemic genera Argyroxiphium, Dubautia, and Wilkesia.

In dry areas of the park, the team collected both Dubautia scabra (subspecies scabra) and Dubautia ciliolata (subspecies ciliolata), discovering similarities between the two but stark differences with other species growing up to seven meters tall in forested environments on well developed soil.

The collection and study of these plants has also moved into the classroom, where Knope has integrated participation in the research into his Advanced Tropical Island Ecology and Evolution Lab (BIOL 481L).

“It’s one thing to read about evolution in a textbook, it’s another to see its outcomes firsthand in a couple afternoons,” says Stallman in his blog post. “Students in the Advanced Tropical Island Ecology and Evolution Lab are getting that opportunity by exploring the Compositae on Hawaiʻi Island.”

The team is collecting more specimens highlighting the diversity of Dubautia, and back at the lab are exploring the differences between species and subspecies within this genus, the larger Silversword Alliance, and Hawaiian Compositae in general.

As tissue collections are sent to the Smithsonian, and genetic information received back, Stallman and others working on the project can compare how DNA barcodes that are routinely used to discriminate species outside Hawaiʻi work on Hawaiian species.

Stallman will be presenting his preliminary results at a graduate symposium sponsored by the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program, April 5 and 6 at the UH Hilo Campus Center. He will be the first author on the resulting publication.

Feb. 26, 2018: This post was edited to consistently use the name Compositae as the family of plants under study. While both Aster and Asteraceae are officially recognized and valid names for this family of plants, consistency of a single reference is helpful for the reader.

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo..

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