Students assigned to my lab will perform genetic analyses of plants to determine their evolutionary relationships. We will extract DNA, amplify genes of interest, and analyze genetic data to learn how DNA can help us determine the evolutionary relatedness of different species of plants.

Professor Witherup writes:

My research addresses questions about the evolutionary history of plants. To answer such questions, I and my research students analyze plant DNA. Molecular systematics is the use of DNA (and other molecules) to reconstruct phylogenies (our best guesses of evolutionary history). We have used molecular systematics to study the evolutionary relationships among different species of plants in the order Cucurbitales  (cucumbers, squashes, begonias, and a few other smaller plant families). We are also using DNA at the level of populations to study small-scale evolution within a species. Population genetics is the use of genetic information to characterize the variation that exists in populations.  

The questions that most intrigue me are evolutionary ones. For example, how did Hillebrandia (a begonia) come to exist in Hawaii and nowhere else? How did bacterial symbioses in plant roots evolve? How do plants and their parasites co-evolve? 

I have been working collaboratively with scientists at Cornell College and the Smithsonian to understand if "rainforest cucumbers" (genus Gurania of the Cucurbitaceae family--the squash and pumpkin family) have coevolved with their insect parasites, fruit flies that belong to the genus Blepharonuera (Diptera). More recently, my students and I have begun to look at the question of how species evolve on islands. We are characterizing the genetic variation in the inkberry (Scaevola plumieri) in Puerto Rico using microsatellites as a way to understand how this native species might be impacted by a closely related invasive species (Scaevola taccada).