Florida Museum of Natural History graduate student Nicholas “Nic” Miles recently received a $13,500 National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant to study carnivorous pitcher plants.

Nicholas Miles
Nicholas Miles, a graduate student at the Florida Museum, received a $13,500 NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant to study the evolution of pitcher plant leaves.

Florida Museum photo by Jeff Gage

Miles will study three pitcher plant families from Australia, Southeast Asia and the Americas to determine if leaves evolved from a flat to a tube-like structure the same way in all three.

“Pitchers are an amazing adaptation for plants, and their evolution is even more amazing because they evolved at three independent times during the history of plants,” said Miles, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in botany.

Miles will use virus-induced gene silencing, inserting a gene using a virus to suppress another gene, to develop his method. By inserting genes into the pitcher plant genome, he can stop the development of different plant structures. This will show what genes control different functions in the plant.

Miles is the first researcher to develop this technique in carnivorous plants, said Pamela Soltis, Florida Museum curator of molecular systematics and evolutionary genetics, and Miles’ adviser.

“Nic’s project is a really exciting synthesis of evolutionary biology, genetic development and plant form,” Soltis said. “His research should tell us whether or not there is more than one way to make a pitcher.”

His research may reveal ways to alter specific genes to perform different functions, such as producing medicinal chemicals. Some carnivorous plants develop chemicals used in cough suppressants, and pitcher plants could potentially be genetically altered to produce and secrete such chemicals inside their pitchers.

Pitcher plants thrive in sunny climates and nutrient-poor, waterlogged soil, including bogs found in northwest Florida. The plants attract and trap insects through bright colors, nectar secretion and waxy inner walls that prevent them from escaping. The plants release enzymes to digest their prey, which provide vital nutrients to the plants.

Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants provide partial support for projects to improve the quality of research in biological sciences.

Learn more about the Soltis Lab at the Florida Museum.

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