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Distributed September 17, 2004
Contact Wendy Lawton

Brown Ecologist Garners Major National Science Foundation Grant

Johanna Schmitt, professor of biology at Brown University, has won a $5-million National Science Foundation award for an international research project to understand how a common weed performs a complex task - turning cues of seasonal change into well-timed reproduction. Results may help predict how crops and wild plants will respond to ongoing climate change.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The National Science Foundation has awarded one of its premier biology grants to Brown University evolutionary ecologist Johanna Schmitt, who will head up a team of researchers examining how environmental cues in different climates affect genes in a single species – in this case, an annual weed in the mustard family.


Arabidopsis thaliana
A member of the mustard family, Arabidopsis makes an excellent subject for research. Its genome is mapped and understood, allowing researchers to see whether the genetic structure stores climate information that would help the plant thrive under varying conditions.

The European native, Arabidopsis thaliana, can be found from Finland to Spain. Because of its short life cycle, the annual plant has become a model organism, whose genome has been sequenced and studied extensively. Researchers will use genomic tools to study how this plant combines information from a variety of seasonal signals, such as day length and temperature, to flower during favorable conditions. They will also examine how genetic variation in response to these signals is shaped by natural selection in different climates.

Results will shed important light on a key question in biology – how organisms integrate diverse environmental signals at the molecular level to respond to changes in their surroundings. Put another way, how does natural genetic variation allow one species to thrive in so many places?

The five-year, $5-million grant is part of the NSF’s Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research (FIBR) program. These projects pull together scientists from different areas of biology as well as other fields to answer significant scientific questions.

Schmitt’s team will include experts in plant, molecular and evolutionary biology, as well as ecologists, geneticists and computer scientists from Brown, Kansas State University, North Carolina State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Germany.

“Scientists usually work in their separate worlds,” said Schmitt, the Stephen T. Olney Professor of Natural History and professor of biology in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “But with this project, we’ll be working together, giving everyone an opportunity to learn and stretch across disciplinary boundaries.”

In their broad-scale experiment, scientists will grow about 200 European “ecotypes” of Arabidopsis – for example, Swedish and Italian varieties – that flower at different times. They’ll also screen the plant’s genes to pinpoint which ones affect flowering responses to different environmental signals, and they will study natural variants of these genes that cause these reproductive differences. The team will then create new plant lines that differ only by a single gene, allowing them to understand the role each variation plays in reproduction.

Based on all this data, researchers will create computer models to predict when plants will flower and which will thrive in certain regions. Then, with the help of students sent for training in seven leading European Arabidopsis labs, all 200 weed varieties will be planted in six test sites – one in Finland, one in England and two each in Germany and Spain – to see which varieties live, which ones die and which ones produce the most seeds. Scientists will get to see if their predictions of successes and failures held up.

“It will be a Darwinian fitness test,” Schmitt said.

Because Arabidopsis is closely related to canola, cabbage and other edible crops, Schmitt said the findings should help improve food production. Schmitt said the research should also help scientists better understand how ongoing climate change will affect crops and wild plants and point out ways to conserve species.

The results may even shed light on how complex environmental cues affect animals, including humans, who share many of their genes with Arabidopsis.


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