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The Shell Center for Sustainability's mission is to foster an interdisciplinary program of research, outreach, and education to address actions that can be taken to ensure the sustainable development of communities' living standards, interpreted broadly, to encompass all factors affecting the overall quality of life.


Understanding What Makes Organisms Prone to Extinction


Lesley Campbell, Ph.D., Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Rice University
Kenneth Whitney, Ph.D., Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Rice University
Caroline Masiello, Ph.D., Earth Science, Rice University

 Lesley Campbell 
Dr. Lesley Campbell
 Ken Whitney 
Dr. Ken Whitney
 Carrie Masiello
 Dr. Carrie Masiello
Project Background

As global climate change transforms environments it has become increasingly important to understand what properties make some organisms more prone to extinction than others. Populations with more genetic diversity are able to adapt to change more rapidly than those with less genetic diversity. Species that cannot adapt to new environments will either move to new locations or become extinct. For agricultural populations, low genetic diversity limits their breeding potential and makes them more susceptible to pests and disease, reducing their usefulness as a human food source. For wild organisms, low genetic diversity increases requirements for protection via conservation programs, making the programs more expensive and extensive endeavors. Of all traits, mating systems are most influential in structuring genetic diversity within and among populations, transmitting diversity across generations, and determining rates of loss of diversity. Plants tend to have very flexible mating systems, more so than animals, and therefore are an excellent model system in which to explore the plastic response of mating systems to environmental variation. Plants may mate with themselves (self-pollination) leading to relatively low heterozygosity and allelic diversity, or mate with other genotypes (outcross-pollination) producing relatively high heterozygosity and allelic diversity.  By experimentally altering soil moisture and ambient temperature, we will measure the change in mating systems of two well-studied, model plants, Phlox drummondii (a plant that avoids self-fertilization) and P. cuspidata (a plant that self-fertilizes easily) to a range of experimentally manipulated environments expected by well-accepted climate change models.  We will use simply inherited genetic markers to assess levels of genetic diversity and mating patterns. We hope to produce a predictive model to explore the relative importance of nutrient availability, altered floral morphology, and pollinator behavior to understand the proximate causes of altered mating systems and the potential ways conservation managers could increase genetic diversity within plant populations.

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