NSF grant news!

It’s official: we have our first NSF funding in the Sessa lab! Emily submitted a proposal back in March with Stuart McDaniel, Christine Davis, and Pavlo Antonenko at UF, and three other co-PIs (Matt von Konrat and Eve Gaus at the Field Museum and Hong Cui at the University of Arizona), and today it has officially been posted on NSF’s awards site as a funded project, DEB #1541506.


For the first ~300 million years of plant life on land, Earth’s flora consisted entirely of flagellate plants, which today include approximately 30,000 species of bryophytes, lycophytes, ferns, and gymnosperms. Numerous major innovations, including stomata, vascular tissue, roots and leaves, woody stems, and seeds, evolved first in flagellate plant ancestors. The flagellate plants not only provide a window to the early evolution of these critical features, but are represented today by vibrant and diverse lineages that contribute substantially to global ecology, particularly via contributions to global carbon and nitrogen cycles and offering critical habitats for biodiversity. This research project will analyze molecular genetic variation among the 18,000 available flagellate plant species in order to create a species-level phylogeny (evolutionary tree of species relationships) for the entire group. Phylogenetic trees generated will be linked to fossil data, a comprehensive dataset of plant traits, and available data on species occurrence on the planet. The results of this project will inform investigations into the origins of features characteristic of flowering plants and provide a platform for student training and outreach.

This project will improve our understanding of the history and relationships of the flagellate plants by using new sequencing technologies to examine 500 nuclear loci and to produce a species-level phylogeny for these taxa that is linked to and integrated with an immense and varied amount of data on fossils, phenomic characters, and geospatial distributions. Phenotypic datasets will utilize a natural language processing tool which will be enhanced and tested to handle large datasets and the geospatial data will allow exploration of world-wide patterns of diversity and endemism. All data will be fully integrated into ongoing projects such as Open Tree of Life and Next Generation Phenomics. Education experts will develop an online educational tool for training the next generation of biodiversity scientists by providing an accessible framework for using the project data in university classrooms while promoting evidence-based teaching practices. A MicroPlants citizen science project will promote scientific literacy and plant awareness in the general public, through museums and schools.