Professor Christopher Dick was awarded a $265,000 five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. His research on plant evolutionary genetics in the Amazon rain forest is part of what will be the most integrative examination of Amazonian biodiversity and its history to date.

Dick will lead the plant evolutionary genetics component in collaboration with Dr. Scott Mori, a systematist with the New York Botanical Garden. Mori is a world-wide expert on the tropical Brazil nut tree family Lecythidaceae. Lecythidaceae is one of the most ecologically dominant tree families in mature growth Amazon rain forests.

“We will be using next generation sequencing approaches to reconstruct phylogenetic and demographic history of the Amazonian lineages in order to test hypotheses relating to historical landscape and climate changes,” said Dick. “The project also aims to catalog all of the herbarium and zoological collections available from the Amazon Basin, including collections in the U-M Herbarium and Museum of Zoology.”

Dick's student, Na Wei, a graduate student research assistant on the grant this semester,  is working on the development of genomic markers.

The project is part of the Dimensions of Biodiversity program and funded jointly by NASA and NSF for $2 million to the US researchers, while funding agencies from Sao Paulo are providing another $2 million to support the Brazilian collaborators. The Dick lab will be hosting students from Brazil for this project.

Amazonia is Earth's most iconic center of biological diversity and endemism and is, arguably, the most important terrestrial ecosystem due to its contributions to global systems ecology, according to the project leader, Joel Cracraft of the American Museum of Natural History. “Amazonia includes a vast landscape of mostly lowland rainforest found in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela. It harbors the world's highest species diversity, the largest fresh-water ecosystem in the world, and contributes substantially to shaping the Earth's atmospheric gasses and oceans and consequently its climate. Despite this global importance, we still have an incomplete understanding of how this biodiversity-rich biome developed over time. And knowing that history is crucially important for understanding how the short and long-term effects of biodiversity loss and climate change will impact the region, and the globe, in the future. This project therefore seeks to answer an overarching question in biodiversity science: How was the modern Amazonian biota and its environment assembled across space and time? 

“The research is designed to understand the evolutionary and environmental-ecological history of Amazonia over the past 10 million years through a comparative approach that integrates across the disciplines of systematic biology, population biology, ecosystem structure and function, geology, Earth systems modeling and remote sensing, and paleoenvironmental history. The project involves researchers from seven research institutions in the United States, one in Canada, two in Great Britain, six institutions and universities in Brazil, and two in Argentina.

The team will build the largest database for Amazonian plants and vertebrates, will assemble genetic data in order to reconstruct the temporal development of Amazonian species diversity, employ geological field methods to develop a more detailed understanding of the history and change in the Amazon's major river systems and what that means for terrestrial ecosystems, and then integrate these findings with climate and atmospheric modeling in order to describe how Amazonia's ecosystems have affected global systems over time. The approaches taken during this project will establish a methodological template for analyzing information about the history of biotic and environmental change across large, ecologically complex landscapes in general. 

The project creates a large framework for formal and informal education including the training of students, development of a major museum exhibit on Amazonia, workshops for K-12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers, publications in professional educational journals, and a web portal, The Evolutionary Encyclopedia of Amazonian Biodiversity, that will make all results available to the public, as well as serve as an informational platform about Amazonian biodiversity and its global importance.


Large legume tree, Dinizia excelsa, in a remnant of forest left in the pasture, near Manaus, Brazil, Amazon basin. Credit: Christopher Dick.

Forester who helped navigate the rainforest near Manaus, Brazil in the Amazon basin. Credit: Christopher Dick.