Honours student receives grant for plant systematics

Honours student Charles Foster has been awarded the 2012 Hansjorg Eichler Research Grant from the Australasian Systematic Botany Society. “Being selected to receive the grant has been a great confidence booster,” said Charles. “It has felt like the first steps away from being an undergraduate student to being a part of the broader scientific community.”

Charles’s research investigates the systematic relationships and biogeography of a genus of Australian plants called Logania. Systematic biologists organise species into taxa, families and genera, based on their similarities and differences. “My work will show if the current classification of the genus represents a natural group, or whether a taxonomic revision is necessary,” said Charles.

In the past systematics mostly focused on morphology, for example ‘do these plants all have pointy leaves?’ Now, however, similarities and differences can be investigated at the gene level. “In my Honours project I will obtain nucleotide sequences for gene regions of interest, as well as measure morphological characteristics, and perform phylogenetic analyses to test the relationships of Logania.” The Hansjorg Eichler Research Grant will enable Charles to broaden the scope of his current research. “I will be able to focus on more taxa and sequence more gene regions.”

In systematics, the relationships between species are studied to understand the adaptations which have evolved in response to differing environments. So, in his study, Charles will also examine how the current distribution of Logania has been shaped by changes in Australia’s climate over millions of years. “Ultimately, this will provide a greater understanding of how habitat changes may have selected for certain morphological traits within Logania, for example reduced leaves in more arid environments.”

Charles is being supervised in his honours project by Associate Professors Simon Ho (MEEP), Murray Henwood (DEERG) and Barry Conn (National Herbarium of NSW, Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney).