The National Science Foundation has awarded Assistant Professor of Biology Shannon Straub a grant to study the evolution of milkweed plants in North America and to develop new workflows for collecting and analyzing genome-scale data to understand the evolutionary history of the species.
As Straub explains, “milkweed species diversified over a short evolutionary time span” and, as a result, “reconstructing their evolutionary relationships is exceedingly difficult and requires examination of a large amount of data on genetic variation and powerful computational techniques.”
Over the next three years, the grant — totaling $339,095 — will fund Straub’s research, in collaboration with Oklahoma State University Associate Professor Mark Fishbein, and support six Hobart and William Smith Colleges students in the HWS Summer Undergraduate Research Program, during which they will develop skills in fieldwork, next-generation DNA sequencing, genomics, and bioinformatics.
The research conducted using the grant resources will contribute to the development of new methods for more accurately determining evolutionary relationships when many species have been formed in rapid succession.
Milkweeds, common and ecologically important perennial plants of North American grassland and forest ecosystems, are the only host plants of the monarch butterfly, a species of significant conservation concern.
Ultimately, the results of the research will have implications for better understanding the coevolution between milkweeds and monarch butterflies and the evolution of plant defense. Straub’s investigations will also provide a robust evolutionary context for understanding the results of other scientific studies using milkweeds as study organisms, including research on plant reproduction and genome evolution.
As part of the project, HWS students will also undertake outreach work in local schools involving milkweeds and monarchs.
Straub, who joined faculty in 2014, earned her B.A. from the University of Colorado and Ph.D. from Cornell University. She has recently published research in American Journal of Botany, Applications in Plant Sciences, BMC Genomics, and Genome Biology and Evolution, among others.