Last week I took a quick trip to Washington D.C. to visit the National Geographic HQ and the United State's herbarium at the Smithsonian Institute.
While visiting National Geographic I was able to touch base with my program officer for my 2017 travel grant and discuss some of the results and challenges of my most recent collection trip. On top of that, I ate some surprisingly delicious cafeteria food, and visited the current exhibits at the National Geographic museum. Thanks Jill!
Having always heard about the Smithsonian Natural History museum, I couldn't miss the opportunity to visit, and to examine one of the largest collections of plant specimens in the United States. Not surprisingly, most of the Camelina specimens deposited here originate from the United States, where Camelina diversity is low. Nevertheless, the experience was worthwhile. As I am coming to find, the more Camelina specimens I examine, the more sense I can make of the evolution, domestication, and spreading of this fascinating crop.
My downtime was spent exploring the United States Botanical Garden. On a surprisingly small parcel of land adjacent to the U.S. Captiol building, this botanical garden sports a great variety of plants in many greenhouses. As with all (?) museums on the mall, the garden is free for all visitors and definitely worth passing through.
With Ivan Ivanovich driving, we departed Uman for his home in Kherson. Ivan, an expert of flora in the Kherson region and beyond, was an excellent guide and skilled driver for the occasionally treacherous roads of the region.
On the way to Kherson we stopped at a mine quarry turned recreational area, and after a quick dip in the water, we were back on the road and looking for more Camelina localities on the way to Kherson. Luckily, as we drove further south, Camelina became more and more common.
Three days were spent in the fields around the Kherson region (and surrounding oblasts). The first day we traveled to Odessa stopping at many dozens of localities on the way, and the second day we traveled east through the Kherson oblast all the way to Melitopol’ before turning around. Finally, on my last day of collecting, we traveled along a road following the eastern side of the Dniper river north east of Kherson.
Camelina was extremely common in these areas, in part due to the favorable dry and warm climate that most species of Camelina are adapted to. In fact, some areas were too dry and warm even for Camelina, for instance the Olesky Sands, a small desert in the Kherson oblast.
From Kherson, I traveled by bus back to Kiev to wrap up my work at the M.G. Kholodny institute of botany. I gave my farewells and thanked Dr. Sergei Mosyakin for all his excellent support and assistance with organizing field work for this project, and his ability to connect me with botanists and field experts throughout the country.
I arrived in Uman to work with some local collaborators and field experts in the region. During the extent of my time spent in Uman, I stayed at the hotel on the campus of the Sofiyivka Dendrological park. One can spend hours walking around the labyrinth of paths and trails and still not come close to seeing the whole park. Originally started over two hundred years ago in what was then Poland, the park has been constantly expanding. The many ponds, lakes, and streams provide for a tranquil atmosphere and beautiful scenes, as well as welcome sights for sore feet.
Three days of field collections took me all around the general vicinity of Uman, and fortunately Camelina was more commonly found than in the Western parts of Ukraine. Mostly we drove on very rural (and bumpy) roads in small loops covering ground in every direction around Uman.
Uman lies near the border of the "Forest Steppe" vegetation zone that covers most of central Ukraine, and is quite close to the dry steppe that occurs in the southern regions.
Using the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv as a base of operations, I have been conducting fieldwork in surrounding areas of the West with historical collections recorded for Camelina. My work has predominately focused on the Lviv oblast and the Rivne and Ternopil oblasts to the North and East of Lviv.
Luckily, we were able to recover wild Camelina from several localities, many of which were distant from agricultural fields allowing us to sample potential variation in deferentially adapted populations.
While in the field we decided to stop at the historical site of the Battle of Berestechko, a massive battle between Polish forces and Ukrainian Cossacks. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians died in these fields, and a monument, museum and church have been erected on the site.
Another stop was that of Kremenets Castle, a 13th century castle situated on a steep hill overlooking the city of Kremenets. These steep and dry slopes are ideal for Camelina, and it was no surprise to find Camelina in thick patches growing all around the perimeter walls of the castle.
Lviv is a city in Western Ukraine which prides itself on the maintenance of traditional architecture and cultures. Here there are buildings which look much more "European" than in other areas of Ukraine, and for good reason. Lviv was not too long ago a city in Poland, but became incorporated into Ukraine after one of many of the city's change-of-hands. As such, a visitor in Lviv may confuse the city for being in Poland, not Ukraine. The city boasts a vibrant tourism industry with a wealth restaurants to enjoy and sights to see.
Above, the Dominican Church in Lviv is just one of many magnificent churches in Lviv. The Dominican Church was originally constructed as a Roman Catholic church, and thus has a completely different style than Eastern Orthodox churches common throughout Ukraine.
The Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet is the center piece of "Freedom Avenue", a lively walking street in the heart of Lviv. This building was constructed on top of the Poltva River which became enclosed underground, running directly under the theater. A common myth still circulates that the architect committed suicide after learning that the building was slowly sinking into the river below. You may still walk underneath the theater and see the now small stream running.
I started off my field work with three straight, and very long, days in the field. My goal was to collect as many wild Camelina populations as I could from as many distinct localities. My collaborators helped me to look over historical Camelina collection sites and we went back to many of these sites to see if Camelina could still be found.
Unfortunately, after checking countless dozens of sites and seemingly-promising habitats, we only managed to find Camelina growing at a single location. We had scoured abandoned fields, ruderal areas, and the margins of crop fields, all with very little success.
I started off my work in Ukraine by looking through all of the Camelina specimens in the herbarium of the M.G. Kholony Institute for Botany. I was surpirsed to find very rare and old collections, the most interesting was without a doubt that of Ivan Schmalhausen, a Ukrainian born scientist who, among other endeavors, used Camelina as an evolutionary model system. As such, it was quite the honor to see his own collections of Camelina and other related species in Brassicaceae. Even better, the herbarium had several specimens from Nikolai Zinger, another early evolutionary biologist in the USSR using Camelina as a model system. Read more about these two soviet biologists in a previous post here.
Next I visited the MM Hryshko National Botanical Garden in Kiev, where many thousands of lines of various food and ornamental crops are maintained and improved in breeding programs. Among these are several lines of Camelina! I had arrived just a little too late to see the Camelina growing, but the remains of harvested plants weren't difficult to find.
Here they experiment with different winter and spring varieties of Camelina and perform hybridization and growth experiments.
I'm now in Ukraine as part of the National Geographic Young Explorers grant supporting my work on Camelina. I'm still settling in - and recovering from my jet lag, but I've had a chance to see some of the city and meet my collaborator and organizer, Sergei Mosyakin. I feel like I've already learned so much about this beautiful country and its rich history; it's hard to believe I've only just begun this journey.
The reconstruction of Ukraine's 11th century Golden Gates.
Inside the National Museum of Natural Sciences of Ukraine, I found this great exhibit of the work of Nikolai Vavilov, my hero. His work took him all over the world to collect and preserve wild progenitors of many of the world's crop plants. Despite meeting a tragic and early death, his work was impressive and his drive to understand plant diversity and improve crop production is truly inspirational.
The National Museum of the History of Ukraine. This large four-story museum extensively chronicles events and civilizations in the present day region of Ukraine, and boasts many interesting artifacts. My favorite exhibit was the history of currency in Ukraine, which sported ample examples of currencies used in the region throughout its history.
In the coming days I will meet with local scientists and botanists in Kiev, while also organizing several small field collection trips that I will embark on in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!
I'm thrilled to announce that I'm the recipient of the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant! I have proposed a field collection trip for wild Camelina species in Ukraine. My goal is to discover wild populations of Camelina that may be predecessors to the domesticated Camelina sativa oilseed/biofuel crop. These predecessors may hold the key to understanding the evolution of this emerging aviation biofuel, but also give insight into the broader context in which plants evolve and become domesticated. I will be leaving soon for Kiev, Ukraine - be sure to follow my travel blog on my site to keep up with the adventure.
Variegation in plants is a phenomena in which leaf tissue partly or nearly entirely lacks green pigmentation. Variegation can occur in different colors and shades, mostly whitish or yellowish, and often lends ornamental value to the plants in which it occurs. As such, many common houseplants are variegated. Because variegation affects the pigmentation of leaves, and localization of chloroplasts (which provide plants all of their energy), it reduces the fitness of plants in the wild. While chance mutations do arise in wild plants leading to variegation, these traits are rapidly lost in wild populations.
A few weeks ago I was working with some Camelina at the Danforth Center on a project using the Bellweather Phenotyper, and amongst the over 1,000 plants growing in the phenotyping growth house, we noticed one that looked visibly sickly from a distance. As the plants were cycled through the phenotyper, and the sickly individual got closer, I realized it was actually just variegated! It's the first variegated Camelina plant I've ever seen, and it looks awesome.
There are many known mutations that can cause variegation in the close relative and model system, Arabidposis thaliana, so I won't speculate what could be the cause, and it's yet to be seen if this is a heritable trait.