The holoparasitic plant clade Rafflesiaceae possesses the world's largest flowers, which are up to 1 meter in diameter. Evolutionary investigations have indicated that this enigmatic group is derived from within the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae (Malpighiales), which produce minute flowers. To add to their mystery, some of the Rafflesiaceae genome has been acquired from their obligate grapevine hosts by host-to-parasite gene transfer. The aims of this project are to i) elucidate the evolution of floral morphology and development in Rafflesiaceae using traditional and cutting edge imaging technologies combined with comparative functional genomic data; ii) implement conservation genetic techniques to assess genetic diversity in this host-parasite symbiosis; and iii) establish the importance of horizontal gene transfer in Rafflesiaceae using next generation sequencing (NGS) technologies.
The intellectual merits of this project include: i) develop new methods to assess morphological synapomorphies and homologies in difficult groups via the use of approaches that integrate phylogeny, comparative developmental morphology, and functional genomics; ii) set new priorities for developing proper conservation management strategies of species that exhibit highly specialized symbioses; and iii) establish a paradigm for conducting phylogenomic studies that will allow us to assess both the magnitude of gene transfer and the functions of transferred loci. A major outreach component of this grant will be to partner with Cambridge Public Schools to integrate phylogenetic thinking into their life sciences curriculum.