UofM Biology Professor Publishes Article on Sunflower Diversity in National Academy of Sciences Journal

June 18, 2019 - Dr. Jennifer Mandel, assistant professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Memphis, has authored an article published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America). “A fully resolved backbone phylogeny reveals numerous dispersals and explosive diversifications throughout the history of Asteraceae” is published in the June 17 issue.

 Sunflowers and their relatives make up one in every 10 flowering plant species. Some members of the sunflower family, like the Tennessee Coneflower, are endangered; some, like dandelions, are weeds; and others, like Echinacea, are used as medicinals. Many members of the family are economically important for agriculture, horticulture and industry, including artichoke, lettuce, Gerber daisies and chrysanthemums. Understanding the family tree of sunflowers will aid researchers in protecting rare species, combatting invasives and discovering the natural benefits these plants have to offer.

“The project started with a family tree of just 15 species and this paper includes genomic data from more than 250 samples,” said Mandel. “It’s been a monumental effort to first obtain the DNA from all these species and then to generate and analyze the data for evolutionary studies. I’m proud to have our work presented to the scientific community in PNAS and to have collaborated with an excellent team of five female scientists and a Nepali graduate student. We hope this study is the beginning of many collaborations and new research directions for the sunflower family.”

In the study, funded by the National Science Foundation, Mandel and her colleagues used genomic data to reconstruct the family tree of sunflowers. Their work showed the family first originated near the end of the Cretaceous period about 80 million years ago when dinosaurs still walked the Earth. However, not until the Earth began to cool and habitats changed dramatically about 40 million years ago did the family begin to increase to the more than 25,000 species found today.

This study was a collaboration among the University of Memphis, the Smithsonian Institute and Oklahoma State University. Co-authors included a research associate and graduate student in Mandel’s lab.

Read the full article here.