Four O’Clock in the Moore Lab
As I stepped on to the airplane, I could tell it was full to the brim with botanists. Some subtle signs gave it away: sun-weathered skin and an abundance of Hawaiian shirts (for some reason botanists love Hawaiian shirts). But mostly, I could tell because almost every passenger was stowing a long cylindrical poster tube in the overhead compartment. Like me, they were headed to Botany, a yearly conference for plant scientists and enthusiasts from around the world.
I’ve spent the past two summers working with Professor Mike Moore in a plant science lab on campus. I first heard about his work while I was taking Biology 200, the ecosystems and ecology course that convinced me I wanted to be a biology major. He came into the class one day and explained that he was looking for summer research students. His work focuses on understanding the diversity of the world’s plants. Among other things, he goes out into the field and helps discover new species. I thought that sounded incredibly interesting, so I sent him an email and set up a time to meet.
My meeting with him ended up lasting well over an hour as he told me about his research, travels, and a mineral called gypsum. That summer I started working in his lab. It was then that he introduced me to Nyctaginaceae, a family of flowering plants that, over the past two years, I have completely fallen in love with. More commonly known as the Four O’Clock family, Nyctaginaceae has a center of diversity in the arid regions of North America but has spread all over the world. One unique thing about these little flowers is that they are remarkably good at growing on gypsum, a soil that most plants can’t tolerate because of the high levels of calcium and sulfur. My job the past two years has been to help us better understand these plants and how they’ve adapted to gypsum.
The process starts with hundreds and hundreds of carefully labeled manila envelopes each filled with dried plant leaves. From there, I grind, mix, and freeze until I’m left with a little, clear pellet of DNA. Next, I perform a PCR, a process by which I take a little bit of the entire plant genome and end up with a lot of a very specific section of the genome. Then, I send the DNA off to be sequenced. I still think it’s remarkable that it's possible to take a leaf that I held in my hand, and get to a point where I can know the exact genetic sequence that lies deep in the nucleus of the plant cells.
I knew that by spending time in the lab, I would learn a lot about how to carry out science, but I didn’t expect to make such close friends. My fellow lab mates and I came from all over the country, we had all different levels of lab experience, and were all different ages, but we were united by our enthusiasm for plants. Thus “team gypsum” was born. We created a Spotify playlist to play in the lab as we worked, which now has over sixty hours of music on it, and at 4:00 in the afternoon every day we had a Disney song singalong hour to carry us through the end of the workday. We became known throughout the Science Center for Disney hour. Forest Rose, the biology department manager, would often stop by the lab for a few minutes to sing along.
The days passed quickly and I spent the entirety of my first summer extracting DNA from hundreds of Four O’Clocks. Looking at the DNA allowed us to pinpoint the ways in which the sequences have changed and remained the same over evolutionary time. We used these similarities and differences to build a branching “plant family tree” showing the relationships between different species. This type of diagram is called a phylogeny. When my phylogeny of Nyctaginaceae was done, it showed the relationships between nearly two hundred species, hinted that several undescribed species might exist, and showed that Four O’Clocks have specialized to grow on only gypsum many more times than previously thought.
Finally, after well over a year, I had some exciting results, and Professor Moore thought I was ready to show them to the world, which is how, this past July, I boarded an airplane and headed to Arizona for Botany 2019.
When I arrived in Arizona the sun was setting a deep red, and the air was stagnant and hot. Looking out over saguaro cacti as tall as trees made Arizona feel more like a movie set than an actual place. As I rode to the hotel, a thunderstorm appeared in the distance and silent lightning danced between clouds. Falling asleep that night, it all felt too alien to be real.
Over the next five days, I attended more workshops and talks than I can count. I learned about prehistoric fossilized moss, colonial medicinal plants, a possible new system of photosynthesis, programs engaging high school students in botanical research, desert adaptation, sexual selection, pollination strategies, specimen digitization, the importance of genome duplication, and so much more. I met scientists who were eager to tell me about their work and other students who were just as curious, overwhelmed, and excited as I was. For the first time, I felt like I could truly see myself becoming a botanist. I could imagine myself at this same conference in twenty-five years with sun-weathered skin and a Hawaiian shirt.
Then it was time for me to present my poster. Before the session, my lab mates and I each practiced explaining our phylogenies and answering questions. It was great to know that, no matter what happened, I had friends nearby. A moment later, the poster session had started and actual real-life scientists were coming up and asking me about my poster. I was answering questions, exchanging email addresses, and getting suggestions for future directions. One of the scientists who had helped to collect the plant specimens I sequenced came up to my poster and we got to talk about how much we both love Four O’Clocks. I left feeling like my project was no longer an isolated blip in the scientific universe but connected to all the botanical research that has come before it and all the botanical research that will come in the future.
I woke early the next morning to try and beat the Arizona heat and head out for a hike. I saw wild pigs, and trees with green bark, and all sorts of plants with spikes, and then, nestled in the red rocks, I saw a little purple flower. I recognized it because I had shown it to people on my poster the night before. Allionia incarnata, a real-life Four O’Clock. This was the first time I had ever seen one in nature. I knelt down and felt its leaves, soft and alive and growing. Then, after a minute, I smiled to myself and continued on.