Florida Museum of Natural History
Assembling the Tree of Life: Orchidaceae Orchid Tree:
    a phylogeny of epiphytes (mostly) on the tree of life
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Project Summary

Intellectual merit: With 800 genera and 25,000 species, Orchidaceae are perhaps the largest and most diverse family of plants, representing a major branch on the tree of life (> one-third of the monocots), with more species than vertebrates (excluding bony fishes). Since the time of Darwin, orchids have been the subject of many evolutionary and ecological studies because of their diversity of form, extreme epiphytism, intimate relationships with mycorrhizal fungi, and elaborate pollination strategies. They represent a premier system in which to study such phenomena. However, most comparative studies to date have been hampered by the lack of a densely-sampled, rigorous phylogenetic framework. The Orchid Tree of Life project will provide this resource and further stimulate ecological/evolutionary studies of plants that are, in Darwin's words, the "most singular and most modified in the vegetable kingdom." This project will reconstruct the phylogenetic relationships of approximately 2,000 orchid species, representing 100% sampling at the subfamilial, tribal, and subtribal levels, with 77% coverage at the genus level. No field collecting will be required since an enormous collection of vouchered orchid DNA has already been amassed by the PIs and their international collaborators. The project is a multidisciplinary collaboration among five PIs in the US and 18 collaborators worldwide, as well as a bioinformatics specialist, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and undergraduates. For each species, morphological characters will be coded and DNA sequence data will be collected from eight loci/regions: psaB, rbcL, matK, rpoC1, and atpB (plastid); ITS and 26S (nuclear); and nad1b-c intron (mitochondrial). New software for use in exploring alignments for large datasets in a cluster architecture will be developed and made available broadly. Strong emphasis is placed on communication of the results to the scientific and general public. One post-doc will be devoted to K-12 and public outreach. Communication of results at orchid shows and through major botanical gardens will allow us to reach the widest possible audience. A multimedia website will be constructed to present data as they are analyzed and serve as a repository for sequences, cladograms, hyperbolic trees, descriptions, keys, voucher information, and images of each orchid sampled. Workshops will be organized to coincide with the 19th World Orchid Conference in Miami in 2008 so that professional and amateur orchidologists can learn about the ongoing project. Finally, a formal symposium is planned for the fifth year of the Orchid Tree project to present all of its results and to bring together our international collaborators. A final conference Proceedings will allow these specialists to author or co-author chapters and to integrate their own work into the broader framework of the Orchid Tree.

Broader impacts: No other group of plants so captures the interest of botanists, horticulturists, and the public as orchids. The orchid breeding and cultivation industry is now estimated to be worth more than $9 billion annually worldwide. Orchids are an ideal group of charismatic organisms with which to foster interest and understanding in conservation, systematics, phylogenetics, and biodiversity. We will capitalize on this opportunity by providing outreach at many levels, including public museums, universities, local orchid societies, and most broadly through web-based tools. The project will provide for training of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, and will foster collaboration between scientists (including both biologists and computer scientists) and museum outreach specialists. It includes an active plan to recruit graduate students from underrepresented minority institutions. It will increase collaboration among the network of orchid systematists worldwide that have been assembled, and provide opportunities for additional individuals to participate in this work. In particular, collaboration with Costa Rican, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, and Brazilian scientists will enhance the network of partnerships which have been developed with other investigators. Women graduate students from Indonesia, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador and male students from Mexico and Costa Rica will broaden the representation of scientists from Asia and Central and South America and bring gender, ethnic and geographical diversity to this collaborative project. The novel approach to exploring the implications of DNA alignments for large data sets will be made available broadly as a software product. The Orchid Tree of Life will stimulate public, scientific, horticultural, and conservation interest in this group that contains 10% of all flowering plants.


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Page last updated: 1 May 2013