Plants of the Future: A Fordham Student’s Research in Evolutionary Biology

A project about evolution in plants is not what you would expect from a student soon applying to medical school, yet that is exactly what Fordham junior Alexander Oruci has undertaken. Oruci believes that ecological research is an important field of biology because plants are an integral part of the ecosystem and humans directly depend on them for food, nutrients, and clean air. Oruci’s first exposure to plant genetics research was during his senior year of high school, when he spent a year at a research program at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He was paired with a professor working with Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant with a short generation time, closely related to cabbage and mustard. In his work at Cold Spring Harbor, Oruci studied plant genomics and identified genes linked with enzyme production.

Upon coming to Fordham, Oruci knew he wanted to stay involved in plant research. During his freshman year, he attained a position in Dr. Steven Franks’ lab, which studies plant evolutionary ecology in Brassica rapa, which belongs to the same family as Arabidopsis. Through his work in Dr. Franks’ lab, Oruci came across a paper that mentioned Brassica plants with the ability to self, meaning self-fertilize. This piqued Oruci’s interest, and he decided to investigate further. He designed a small-scale experiment with Brassica seeds, in which he had three treatments: a control in which plants were manually cross-pollinated using a feather, a group in which every plant was enclosed in a small porous bag (which allowed light and gas through but not pollen), and a group in which every plant was enclosed in a small porous bag and each individual plant was directly pollinated by removing the anthers with tweezers and using it to pollinate all the flowers on the plant. Some of the bagged plants did produce seeds, showing evidence of selfing. Oruci then grew these seeds out to see if they were viable. He is now in the third round of the experiment and is growing out those plants’ seeds. He is using the same three treatments as in the original small-scale experiment, but his population size is much larger.

One of the main things Oruci is looking for during this round is the effect of inbreeding depression. In his words, “inbreeding depression typically results in decreased fertility and a loss in vigor, also known as size.” The self-fertilized plants in his experiment are much smaller than those pollinated with other plants. He is currently observing and recording germination dates, first flowering dates, plant heights, numbers of seed pods, and weights of seeds to trace the effects of inbreeding depression from generation to generation. His hypothesis is that after a couple generations, the selfed plants will overcome inbreeding depression and have more vigor.

Oruci’s findings have potential implications within the changing environment, since Brassica plants are closely related to many crop plants. Many crop plants are pollinated by bees, so in locations with dwindling bee populations, plants have lost their pollinators. If the plants have the ability to self-fertilize and overcome inbreeding depression, scientists could hypothetically grow out selfed crop plants for a few generations to yield seeds of plants that self-fertilize without the negative effects of inbreeding depression. Although plant populations will not have genetic variance and diversity without bees, Oruci’s research could help farmers develop ways to work around this issue.

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