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Keene State professor eager to explore plant’s mysteries

Union Leader Correspondent

June 18. 2013 6:21PM
Keene State College associate professor of biology Kristen Porter-Utley conducts field work in southern Mexico during her previous study of the systematics of passionflowers. (COURTESY)

KEENE — Working with collaborators in Brazil, Keene State College associate professor of biology Kristen Porter-Utley is searching for the answers to the evolutionary mysteries of an overlooked plant species.

In doing so, Porter-Utley said she is almost certainly going to discover previously unknown members of this plant family.

Over the summer and fall Porter-Utley plans to generate and use the molecule sequence data of 100 plants in the 551 species Ochnaceae plant family to produce a preliminary evolutionary tree for the large family of pantropical plants.

“In using sequencing data we are creating a family tree using these plants,” she said.

It’s a big plant family, but no one has ever studied it on a molecular level, she said.

A Keene State College Faculty Development Grant is funding the study.

The modest grant — just under $3,000 — doesn’t allow for Porter-Utley to travel to South America, so she is working closely with two partners in Brazil — Domingos Cardoso and Claudio Nicoletti de Fraga, who have been studying the Ochnaceae family in South America for many years. Her colleagues collect the plants in the field and send them to her where she is to conduct the sequencing at Keene State.

“They are pretty much spread throughout the world in the tropics,” she said, however, most of the plants are located in South America, in Brazil and Venezuela.

“Where did these plants originate and how did they spread and when did they spread into the different areas of the world?” are the questions Porter-Utley is working to answer. “What we are really interested in is how these plants throughout the world are related to each other.”

Because the plants are not economic generators, they have been largely overlooked by researchers. And though many in the 551 species family are likely endangered, only 27 are currently considered endangered, she said.

“I’m sure there are many, many others that are endangered,” but because they have never been studied they are not considered endangered, she said.

Many of the Ochnaceae species, like the forests they grow in around the world, are rare or threatened.

Deforestation and threatened pollinators are the likely reasons these plants are endangered, she said.

“None of the flowers (in this plant species) produce nectar. They are pretty much all dependent on pollen gathering,” she said. “So many of those pollinators are threatened and impact the plants.”

Observations from the field into what is actually pollinating these plants is a side benefit of the project, she said.

Porter-Utley most recently conducted a longterm study of passion flower plants that led to field work in southern Mexico.

“In every project that I’ve been involved with we’ve always discovered new species,” she said. “We’d be crazy if we didn’t find new species,” in this (Ochnaceae) plant family study.

In January, Porter-Utley plans to submit her data in an application for a National Science Foundation grant that could fund more extensive study in the field, perhaps in Madagascar or South America, she said.

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