Dr. Timothy Evans of the Hope College biology faculty has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Systematics Program to study the pineapple family in South America, a project that he hopes will ultimately help enhance understanding of how a variety of tropical species interrelate.
"As far as tropical diversity is concerned, this is a really critical group," Evans said. "Understanding the evolutionary history of this group will serve as a foundation for understanding a whole range of organisms."
The plants are found in the Atlantic Forest region of Brazil. Evans noted that many of the species are "tank- forming," shaped such that they become reservoirs for rainwater, creating a place in which a variety of species feed, breed and live.
The plants, in turn, rely on other plants. They are epiphytes, meaning that they grow on other plants, using them as an anchor, instead of sprouting from the ground.
The three-year, $140,000 award from the NSF is coupled to a second award to Dr. Gregory Brown at the University of Wyoming. Together, Evans and Brown and their research teams will be making the first attempt to trace genetic relationships between these members of the family, a process that will include DNA testing.
"What I'll be doing is looking at the DNA and looking for mutations in the DNA that will tell me about the family history of the plants," Evans said. Previous analysis, he said, has been based on systems of classification that, grounded in observation and consideration of plant behavior, could not help but be subjective and intuitively based. The new study will use modern methods to evaluate the previous, subjective classifications.
Students from Hope, the University of Wyoming, and Federal University, Rio de Janeiro, will be involved in all aspects of the work, including collecting plants in the field, studying the plants themselves and conducting the DNA analysis.
Evans has been a member of the Hope faculty since 1997. Brown was his advisor while Evans was a student at the University of Wyoming, where he completed his bachelor's and master's degrees. Evans holds his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.