Unlocking the mysteries of plant evolution

Published: January 26th, 2011

Category: Spotlights

Pamela Soltis

Pamela Soltis

Distinguished Professor and Curator of Molecular Systematics and Evolutionary Genetics
Florida Museum of Natural History

Pam Soltis grew up knowing she wanted to be a scientist.

At first, she considered being a geologist and had a rock collection and geology set she kept in the basement. But when she was introduced to genetics in a high school biology class, she fell in love with it. By the time she hit graduate school, Soltis decided to focus her curiosity on evolutionary genetics in plants.

“I became really interested in the characteristics of plants,” Soltis said. “Plants are incredibly diverse and are immensely important to us as humans, so I want to know how all this diversity arose.”

Soltis moved to Gainesville 10 years ago with her husband and colleague, Doug Soltis, a distinguished professor in UF’s biology department. They first worked together in 1984 and are considered among the world’s top plant geneticists, receiving grants totaling more than $20 million over the years. Their current research focuses on mapping the genome of one of the oldest flowering plants on earth, Amborella.

“We hope to set the stage for comparisons that will help researchers discover how other plant species diverged over time,” she said. “We also are working with biologists from other fields to create one big tree of life.”

The research will lead to a better understanding of the genome sequence of other flowering plants and agricultural crops such as corn, citrus, rice and potatoes.

An Iowa native, Soltis earned her doctorate from the University of Kansas and taught at Washington State University. She and Doug also spent a year researching plant evolution at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a scientific institution with the world’s largest collection of living plants.

She said new discoveries pique her interest, and there is always something new to learn.

“I love the discovery aspect of this type of science and planning how to tackle a project,” Soltis said. “And then actually seeing the results is really cool.”

Soltis infuses her love of discovery into her teaching as well, and views it as an opportunity to interest students in the relatively unknown field of plant genetics and evolution.

“We show our undergraduates these amazing slides of things they never knew existed, and it opens a new world of information to them,” she said. “They end up becoming really interested.”

Soltis hopes her research will help establish guidelines and reference points for scientists to use in future studies.

“There are so many things that can be learned from plants and hopefully our findings will enhance agriculture and forestry by offering a better understanding of how flowering plants evolve,” she said.

Writer credit: Logan Gerber, Florida Museum of Natural History
Photo credit: Kristen Bartlett Grace, Florida Museum of Natural History

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