Professor Stephen Smith has been awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation of $590,000.

According to Smith’s project summary, biologists have long known that traits and gene sequences evolve at different rates in different lineages of organisms, but it has been difficult to understand the causes for these shifts in evolutionary rate.

For example, the Caryophyllales contain approximately six percent of all flowering plant species and exhibit extreme life history diversity, including tropical trees, temperate herbs, long-lived succulent cacti, and a diverse array of carnivorous plants. The rate of DNA sequence evolution among these lineages differs greatly. This project will leverage recent advances in genome sequencing technologies and computational methods to evaluate the extent to which changes in life history and ecophysiology in plants are correlated with changes in the evolutionary rate over the entire genome. In collaboration with researchers worldwide, key traits will be characterized and over 10,000 genes will be sequenced for 300 representative species of Caryophyllales. Analyses of evolutionary rate shifts in both traits and the genome will be used to assess how life history and ecophysiology have influenced genomic evolution, and vice versa.

This project provides the first rigorous assessment of the relationship between shifts in ecology and life history and genome-wide changes in evolutionary rate. It will yield unprecedented insight into the evolution of several genetic pathways of fundamental importance in flowering and crop plants, including those associated with flower development, photosynthesis, and pigmentation. Furthermore, this research will include the development of new and refined bioinformatic tools of broad use to biologists.

The project will support the mentorship and training of a postdoctoral researcher, graduate students, and numerous undergraduates on all aspects of the project, and will fund professional development workshops for high school teachers and plant biologists.