Unleashing the Power of Genetics: Selecting the Best Seeds for Restoring the Shortgrass Prairie

Featured Scientist: Yanni Chen (she/her),PhD candidate, Texas Tech University Department of Biological Science

Yanni Chen presenting a poster of her macroevolutionary research on smoke-induced seed germination trait at the conference of Evolution 2022.
Yanni Chen presented a poster at the Evolution 2022 conference.

Hometown: Liuzhou, Guangxi, China

My Research: My PhD research focuses on using phylogenetic methods to understand evolution. I also research ways to apply these methods.

Research Goals: I want to better understand how plant traits help them adapt to changing environments.

Career Goals: I would like to start my own research program at a university. I would like to research the relationship between evolution and ecology in plants.

Hobbies: Swimming and hiking

Favorite Thing About Science: I enjoy the excitement and feeling of accomplishment that comes from working on scientific problems.

Scientist Upbringing: I didn’t have a very settled career goal until recent years. Most of the time, I just followed my curiosity and tried to explore more with excitement. After working in industry and academia, I discovered that I like the continuous challenges of working as a scientist. 

My Team: As a PhD candidate, I worked with other researchers. I work with ecologists and systematic biologists to do my research.

Field of Study: Evolutionary Ecology

What is Evolutionary Ecology? Evolutionary ecology is a branch of biology. People in this field look at how different organisms have evolved over time in response to the environment. In essence, evolutionary ecology helps us understand how living things have evolved and continue to evolve in response to the world around them.

A picture of an open field with different types of grasses.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Including Phylogenetic Conservatism of shortgrass prairie restoration species does not improve species germinability prediction”

A QR code that links to the original publication.
QR code to the original publication.

Citation: Chen, Y., Schwilk, D. W., Cox, R. D., & Johnson, M. G. (2022). Including Phylogenetic Conservatism of Shortgrass Prairie Restoration Species Does Not Improve Species Germinability Prediction. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 10, 983192.

Article written by Kehinde Akinsuroju, (she/her), (BS in Biology, 2023), Mohammad AlSheikh (BS in Biology, 2023), Cassandra Camacho (she/her), (BS in General Studies 2023), Makayla Miksch (she/her), (BS in Biology, 2024) Savannah Zen (she/her), (BS in Biology, 2023). Student authors were enrolled in Topics in Biology: Bringing Science to the Community through Service-Learning at Texas Tech University during the spring 2023 semester. 

Research At A Glance: Shortgrass prairies are grassland ecosystems that can be found in central North America. They contain grasses that grow in warm places with very little rain or snow. Many shortgrass prairies have been destroyed or damaged because of human activities. These activities can include agriculture, the expansion of urban areas, and oil and gas production. To restore these ecosystems, researchers need to find strong seeds that are more likely develop successfully. The goal of this study was to see if the evolutionary relationship between plants could be used to predict which plant species would be most likely grow well in a shortgrass prairie. To address this question, the authors need to know more about the plant. First, they needed to know which plants had which traits. Next, they needed to know if they could predict these traits using the evolutionary relationship between plants. Finally, they needed to know if they could predict germination using the evolutionary relationship between plants. Germination is the process where a seed opens and starts to grow into a full plant.

To answer these questions, the authors collected seeds from 30 plant species often used in shortgrass prairie restoration. They measured the mass,  height, and surface area of each seed. The authors then collected genetic information about the plants. They used this information to create a phylogenetic tree. A phylogenetic tree is a visual representation of the evolutionary relationships between different species. In this case, it showed therelationshipsbetween plants. The authors used statistical tools to figure out if the evolutionary relationship between plants was related to seed traits and seed germination.The authors found that the evolutionary relationship between plants could be used to predict seed mass and seed height. However, it could not be used to predict germination. More research will be needed to find the best plants for shortgrass prairie restoration.

Highlights: In this study, the authors wanted to know if the evolutionary relationships between plants could help predict which plants would grow best in shortgrass prairies. To choose the best plants for restoration, scientists need to know which ones will grow well. An important part of the research was making the phylogenetic tree. To do this, the authors gathered genetic information for each species using GenBank. GenBank is a publicly accessible database of genetic information.The authors used the information to figure out which plants were most closely related.They found three groups of closely-related plants: Asteraceae, Monocot, and other Dicot (Figure 1).

Phylogenetic tree of species and their corresponding seed traits values distribution along the tree. They are in three groups: Asteraceae, Monocot, and other Dicot.
Figure 1. The evolutionary relationships between the 45 shortgrass prairie species tested. 

Once it was made, the authors could use the phylogenetic tree to see if the evolutionary relationship between the plants was related to seed traits and germination. To do this, the authors used a statistical test called the Pearson correlation coefficient analysis. The Pearson correlation coefficient analysis can be used to see if two variables are related to each other. In this case, it was used to see if closely-related plants had similar mass, height, and surface area. The same test was used to see if closely-related plants were equally likely to germinate. The authors found that the evolutionary relationship between plants could only be used to predict seed height and mass. The plants in each group had a range of different heights and masses (Figure 2-3). Even though the authors were not able to find any relationship to germination, they still learned a lot about common plants in short grass prairies.

Box plot comparing the height of each tree group, being monocot, other dicot, and asteraceae. The plot consists of a box with a line in the middle, dots above the box, and a line below the box. The dots and line above and below the box represent outliers. The average height of the trees is asteracae, 1.18 mm, monocot, 1.03mm, and other dicot, 1.19mm.
Figure 2. A box plot comparing the heights of the plants in each group. The y-axis shows the height of the plants in centimeters. The x-axis shows each group of plants identified in the phylogenetic tree.
Box plot comparing the mass of each tree group, being monocot, other dicot, and asteraceae. The plot consists of a box with a line in the middle, dots above the box, and a line below the box. The dots and line above and below the box represent outliers. The average mass of the trees is Asteracae, 3.93, Monocot, 2.64, and other dicot 3.23.
Figure 3. A boxplot comparing the mass of the plants in each group. The y-axis shows the mass of the plants in grams. The x-axis shows each group of plants identified in the phylogenetic tree.

What My Science Looks Like: Another important part of this research was germinating plants and measuring seed traits. The authors did germination trials in the lab for 35 species of plants (Figure 4). For each germination trial, 50 seeds of each species were grown in disposable petri dishes. The petri dishes were then placed into chambers that controlled the temperature and humidity that the seed was exposed to. Most of the seeds took about ten days to germinate. The authors recorded the percentage of seeds that germinated for each species.

This image shows the beginning of the germination process that allowed researchers to evaluate which seeds took the longest to finish germination. The process of seed germination included: using triple replicated germination trials.
Figure 4. The beginning of the germination process that took place within the lab.

The authors also had to complete several steps to measure seed traits. The authors measured the traits of 1,000 seeds for each species (Figure 5). However, sometimes the authors had a hard time getting all the seeds that they needed. When that happened, they would measure the traits of 300 seeds, rather than 1,000. The mass for each seed was gathered by weighing each individual seed on a digital scale. After weighing the seed, the authors took a picture of each seed under a microscope. They then used a software program to calculate the surface area and height of the seed.

This image shows the different types of seeds that were examined through during this experiment. After the seeds finished the germination process, the height and weight were able to be analyzed and later compared to distinguish the evolutionary relationship.
Figure 5. The seeds collected to measure the seed mass, height, and surface area.

The Big Picture: Shortgrass prairies are important areas filled with many plant and animal species. Sadly, human activities like farming and building have hurt these places. To help fix them, we need to choose the right plants that will grow well and help the prairie recover. The authors of this study wanted to see if knowing how plants are related to each other could help us pick the best ones for fixing shortgrass prairies. Unfortunately, the authors found that this information didn’t really help with picking the right plants. However, this research is still important because it teaches us more about restoring prairies. Knowing which plants will do well helps us use our resources better and make sure that these natural areas have a better chance of getting better. The study also helps us learn more about how plants are related, which can help us take care of other natural areas like forests and wetlands in the future. The information from this study can be used by scientists to choose the right seeds for future projects and help shortgrass prairies grow back strong and healthy.

Decoding the Language:

Asteraceae: Asteraceae is a family of plants that includes flowers like daisies, sunflowers, and asters.

Dicot: A dicot is a type of flowering plant that has a seed with two leaves when it starts to grow.

GenBank: Genbank is a public database that has a lot of information about DNA and genetic material.

Genetic: Genetic refers to the traits and characteristics that get passed down from one generation to the next in living things.

Germination: Germination is the process by which a seed starts to grow into a plant. Plants will use the energy stored in their seeds to grow until they have leaves. After that, the plant can use the leaves to create new energy.

Evolutionary: Evolutionary refers to the gradual process of change and development over time.

Monocot: A monocot is a type of flowering plant that has a grass-like appearance and only one leaf when it starts to grow from a seed.

Pearson correlation coefficient analysis: A Pearson correlation coefficient analysis is a type of statistical test that looks at the relationship between two variables. If two variables are positively related, then they both increase together. If they are negatively related, then then both decrease together.

PhD candidate: A PhD candidate is is a graduate student who is pursuing a PhD. A student reaches candidacy when they pass their qualifying exams, about 2 or 3 years into their graduate programs. Qualifying exams usually consist of a lengthy oral and written exam.

Phylogenetic tree: A phylogenetic tree is a diagram that shows how different species of living things are related to each other over time.

Systematic biologists: Systematic biologists study how living things are named and classified. People in this field will measure different traits to see how they change over time and if different living things have similar traits.

Variable: A variable is a number used in mathematics. In this study, seed height, mass, surface area, and germination were all variables under study.

Learn More:

A link to the Genbank database, which provides access to the most up-to-date and comprehensive DNA sequence information. 

A YouTube video produced by One Minute Economics describing the Pearson Correlation. 

A YouTube video that shows an overview of the germination process and how it works.

Synopsis edited by Rosario Marroquín-Flores, PhD 2022, Texas Tech University

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Meet the Authors

Kehinde Akinsuroju is a current Senior at Texas Tech University majoring in Biology with a minor in chemistry. She is from a military background, she joined the army in 2017, she’s been on multiple deployments. Kehinde spent most of her life in Sachse, Texas, she grew up around so many wonderful people, she experienced different culture. Kehinde finished her first bachelors in 2022. Kehinde has gone on many humanitarian missions, she’s currently finishing her services with the United States Army. After her graduation in May, she will be finishing her master’s degree, then proceeding to dental school. She aspires to become a Dental Anesthesiologist in the long run.

Mohammad Alsheikh is a Senior at Texas Tech University majoring in Biology with a minor in chemistry graduating in August of 2023. He is a first-generation immigrant of Lebanese descent and on the pre-med track. Mohammad has been involved in several activities throughout his undergraduate career, such as bench research, volunteering, and several student organizations on campus. Some of his hobbies include reading, playing chess, and staying active through sports like martial arts and cycling. After graduating, he plans on attending medical school to pursue his aspirations of being a surgeon.

Cassandra Camacho is a senior at Texas Tech University majoring in General Studies with a concentration in Biology, Chemistry, and Health Professions. Cassandra will be graduating in the spring of May 2023. She is a first-generation college student and plans to further her education by applying to optometry school. Cassandra likes to volunteer for various causes but has a big heart in helping animals. She loves to watch sports and attend games for fun. When not doing school related things or work, you can find her hanging out with her friends, at the gym, or walking/playing with her dog.

Makayla Miksch is a current Junior at Texas Tech University majoring in Biology with a minor in Chemistry. She is a first-generation college student and on the pre-dental track with hopes of becoming a dentist in the future. She is involved in many different organizations around campus such as: Texas Tech Pre-dental Society, College of Arts and Sciences Ambassadors, Peer Mentor for First Generation students, a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, and a Learning Assistant for Biology 2. Makayla grew up in Thrall, TX which is a small town outside of Austin TX. After graduation in May 2024, she plans on attending dental school to become a general dentist.

Savannah Zen is a current Senior at Texas Tech University majoring in Biology with a minor in Health Professions. She is a transfer student from Lubbock Christian University on the pre-medical track with hopes of becoming an Emergency Medicine physician. Savannah has been involved in various groups throughout her college carrier, including: LCU’s Cheer team, she was a tutor for various classes, social clubs and organizations at LCU, and while at Texas Tech University she has been involved in a research lab under Dr. Robert Bradley and American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA). Savannah grew up in Lubbock, TX, a small college town where Texas Tech University is located. After graduation in December 2023, she plans on applying and attending medical school to become a medical doctor.

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