Yes, says Sophie Newmarch, a PhD student at Massey University. Sophie won the Judges Award for her research presentation at the School of Fundamental Sciences Postgraduate Symposium. The award was sponsored by Lab Supply.
Sophie’s research looks at plant diversity – specifically how geological and climatic instability causes evolutionary changes in Libertia – an ornamental flowering plant native to New Zealand and commonly seen in our backyards.
“Due to climate change, plant diversity in a number of species is at the risk of disappearing in a few decades”, says Sophie. “Through my research I hope to understand the evolutionary patterns of Libertia and look at conservation methods to prevent any future loss of diversity.”
Tell us more about your research.
My research explores how two evolutionary drivers, whole genome duplication (WGD) and dispersal, influence plant diversity - something that is so important to our way of life yet is increasingly threatened. Whole genome duplication can lead to diversification in plants as it enables more innovation and faster adaption, particularly in times of stress (much like a double shot latte for us!). Indeed, evidence of WGD has been found across the globally dominant and highly diverse flowering plant group. The other driver, dispersal, is like travel for us, providing potentially life altering opportunities. Exposure to different environments can result in a plant diverging from its relatives back home, eventually becoming a different species and, consequently, increasing diversity.
To improve our understanding of how each driver impacts plant diversity, I am studying Libertia that appears to have been impacted by these drivers several times over. They have undergone several rounds of WGD, with some species now having 12 genome copies (pretty extreme even for flowering plants!). They are also found across the Southern Hemisphere, indicating a complex dispersal itinerary. Interestingly, NZ is home to eight of 13 species including all three that have 12 genome copies. Preliminary analyses also suggest that there have been at least two dispersal events amongst NZ and Australia. In other words, our native Libertia appear to have evolved the most rapidly due to both drivers.
To gauge the impact of each evolutionary driver on Libertia’s diversity, I am using genetic data to reconstruct their family tree and to estimate the timing of WGD and dispersal events. Effectively, I am trying to assess if more species arose following either of these events. One catch is that both evolutionary drivers are promoted by geological and climatic instability. Environmental instability stress plants out, promoting WGD or enabling dispersal or maybe both! So, diversity in Libertia could be a collaboration between WGD and dispersal.
After reconstructing the past, I also want to estimate what will happen in the future. By comparing present species distributions to those predicted by various climate change scenarios, I will examine whether dispersal and/or further WGD might be necessary for Libertia to survive. The catch here is that climate change is promoted by us, so are we going to be the next biggest driver of plant evolution? Or are we going to cause them to go extinct? If the latter, I am also analysing conservation methods to see if we can prevent loss of diversity in Libertia.
What does winning the Judges award mean to you?
Winning this award has been validating for me as a PhD student in terms of being able to communicate the purpose of my project to others and that my project is worthwhile and something to get excited about. I really enjoyed putting together my presentation, in collaboration with my awesome supervisors Associate Professor Jennifer Tate and Dr Richard Winkworth. The prize was a great bonus and will definitely help me go the extra mile in the field and in the lab.
How do you see your research creating impact in society and in the scientific world?
The importance biodiversity, and impacts of climate change on it, can really never be over-emphasised. Socially, I would like to convey how amazing and fragile plant diversity is. It has resulted from millions of years of innovation and is at the risk of disappearing in a few decades. I think my plant group, Libertia, is great for showing this as some species are used ornamentally. So, what people do will not just impact the native bush; it will also impact our back gardens and urban environments; the places we call home.
In terms of science, I am fortunate to be part of a global community studying plant diversity. The questions I am investigating, particularly regarding WGD, are challenging to answer, with methods currently being developed and improved. So, my project is one of many ‘guinea-pigs’ for seeing if we can extract the answers from certain types of datasets. Ultimately, I hope my research will contribute towards progress in this field.
I’ve recently converted my MSc degree to a PhD, which is very exciting for me. It works out that I am six months into a PhD so my confirmation exam is six months away. I am currently studying for this exam and reconstructing the family tree of Libertia. I have a few holes in terms of sampling that I am working towards patching up by engaging with colleagues in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Chile.
In the future, I will conduct more field work in New Zealand to collect samples from populations of Libertia peregrinans, which is endangered in the wild yet ironically very common in urban landscapes (you can buy them at hardware stores!). These samples will be for testing if urban plantings are enough to conserve a species (i.e. they hold enough genetic diversity) or if we have a monoculture situation.
The goal is to finish my PhD in by mid-2024. After this I would like to continue working in this field, preferably working on Southern Hemisphere flora as it’s really fascinating, and the people here are great!