Amherst Biology Professors Jill Miller and Rachel Levin Awarded Five-Year, $400K NSF Grant

June 3, 2009

AMHERST, Mass. – Amherst College’s Jill S. Miller, assistant professor of biology, and Rachel A. Levin, visiting assistant professor of biology, have together received a five-year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The award will support the pair’s continuing research on phylogenetic molecular systematics and the ecology and evolution of reproductive systems in angiosperms, or flowering plants.

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Rachel Levin and Jill Miller

Miller and Levin will use the grant to subsidize a project of theirs involving Lycium, a flowering plant that is a close relative of the tomato, eggplant and pepper. Miller explained that she and Levin—along with their student research assistants—will develop new genetic markers, enabling them to investigate the evolutionary relationships among the different species and populations of Lycium.

“Flowering plants have an astounding diversity of reproductive strategies and, as such, represent excellent systems in which to study reproductive biology,” she said. “In particular, the group we study has species/populations with separate male and female plants, as well as species/populations that are hermaphroditic. Because of this, we are well positioned to understand the evolutionary forces leading to the development of particular sexual strategies.”

According to Miller, the various species of Lycium have evolved many complex ways of reproducing, and further examination of the plants could shed light on how their reproductive strategies have evolved over time. The research will also provide a better understanding of how flowering plants hybridize to create new species and how species of plants have come to be distributed geographically, she said.

“What’s great is that this new funding will help us to sustain international collaborations, in areas such as South Africa and Argentina, that we developed as part of previous NSF grants,” Levin continued. “These collaborations have been instrumental to our understanding of worldwide relationships among species of Lycium, and we look forward to continuing these relationships, as well as developing new ones in other parts of the world.”

While the NSF grant will, first and foremost, allow Miller and Levin to broaden their already extensive studies of Lycium, it will also enable the pair to introduce greater numbers of Amherst undergraduates to their scientific research and take the students to locations around the world to collect plant materials, as well as to professional meetings to present their findings. The funding—which covers travel to field sites in the Channel Islands of California, the Baja peninsula of Mexico, the Canary Islands and the Galapagos—builds on previous NSF awards Miller and Levin have received that have resulted in trips with their students to the southwestern United States, South Africa, Namibia and China. “Amherst College students have contributed considerably to this work to date,” Miller said. “A paper co-authored by honors student Jessica Blanton ’06E was recently published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, and additional articles with Andrew Whelan ’08 (Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution) and Ambika Kamath ’11 (Systematic Botany) are due out later this year.” Research funded by the grant, she added, will also contribute to curricular development and to a summer program at Amherst that offers training in molecular biology, systematics and genomics for local high school science teachers.

Miller received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Colorado College and earned a master’s degree and doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona. Levin, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Carleton College, also received her master’s and doctorate degrees in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona. The pair joined the Amherst community in 2003.

Their project is titled “Fine scale phylogenetic relationships in Lycieae (Solanaceae): A multilocus approach for understanding biogeography, polyploidy, and reproductive evolution.” Read more at www.nsf.gov.

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