Undergraduate Research Investigates Hybridization Among Native Carnivorous Plants

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Students examine pitcher plants.
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Pitcher plants, nature’s most unassuming carnivore, are of a special interest to UNC Asheville senior Leila Beikmohamadi.  As a part of her undergraduate research, Beikmohamadi spent her summer investigating the hybridization of these fascinating plants.

Pitcher plants are large, tube-like plants that feature deadly solution of amino acids, peptides, phosphates, at the bottom of their prey-trapping cavity, which the plant uses to digest small insects and organisms. Beikmohamadi’s research focused mainly on the North Carolina native purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea var. montana) and the endangered mountain sweet pitcher plant (S. jonesii).

Even though the two plants have entirely different ways of maintaining nutrients, Beikmohamadi said, they’re able to hybridize despite their differences. She explained, “it was really interesting that even though those two species have completely different ways to get nutrients from trapped prey in different ways they still produce viable offspring/hybrids. I remember being really interested in how these hybrids compare to the parent species and if there is a consequence to hybridization between these two plants.”

Beikmohamadi took her interest to Associate Professor of Biology Rebecca Hale, who advised her to take a closer look at the micro-communities within each plant.

“Since micro-communities had never been investigated in Dr. Hale’s overarching study, I decided to combine this with my interest in hybridization,” Beikmohamadi said. “My project focused on the consequences of hybridization by specifically looking at difference in micro-communities and then later on comparing that to differences in macro-communities.”

A number of students have been involved in Hale’s study over the years, which is a collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including Steve Jaslow ’15, who was the co-author on a research poster that Beikmohamadi will present this year at the Animal Behavior Society Conference in Toronto. Elise Powell ’16, Miranda Satterfield ’16 and Lila Uzell ’17, also did extensive research for this project—Powell was even awarded the 2017 Bernhardt-Perry Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research in Biology for her work.

Beikmohamadi, whose own research builds upon the findings of the students who came before her, said she was amazed by “how incredible and complex pitcher plants and plants in general can be. I think that it is truly amazing that these pitcher plants are able to come up with their own system of obtaining nutrients by utilizing symbiont communities that live within the plants.”

From her research, Beikmohamadi was also able to closely observe how hybrids function as a direct intermediate between their two parent species.

“This experience will have a very beneficial experience on my career,” she said. “Before I started this research, I hadn't really thought about doing research professionally. However, this experience has helped me realize that the research environment is somewhere where I thrive and want to be.

 “UNC Asheville has assisted me greatly in my research, mainly through providing me a summer grant for my research last summer,” Beikmohamadi said. “This research grant allowed me to stay over summer and get to experience a lot of field work. This work gave me experience collecting samples in the field and allowed me to start working on the project over the summer. It also helped develop my understanding how research is done and the process of coming up with a hypothesis and testing it through a project. I'm honestly very grateful for going to UNC Asheville because I feel like I would have never gotten this thorough research experience if I did not go here.”