Introduction to my study organism: Ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora)
My main focus of study is the plant Monotropa uniflora, also known as Indian pipe or Ghost plant. This plant is leafless and lacks chlorophyll. It obtains its nutrients by parasitizing fungi underground. It is often mistaken for a mushroom due to its white, ghostly appearance. They are actually members of the blueberry family, Ericaceae.
Many parasitic plants are root or stem parasites, meaning they steal nutrients from photosynthetic plants by directly attaching to the roots or stems of those plants. Indian pipes attach to fungi that are associated with the roots of a photosynthetic plant. This means they are ultimately stealing sugars from the photosynthetic plant by means of a mycorrhizal fungi. This is known as mycoheterotrophy.
What are mycorrhizal fungi? For the most part these fungi live underground as hyphae (think plant roots but more wispy) and they attach to the roots of plants helping the plant uptake nutrients that would be inaccessible to the plant. Fungi are able to break down certain compounds more efficiently than plants. They also help with water uptake. In exchange, the fungi receive sugars produced by the plant through photosynthesis. There is still a lot we don’t understand about mycorrhizal fungi, but they are essential for the survival of many plants. Around 80-90% of plant species are believed to form mycorrhizal associations and this mutualism is hypothesized to have help facilitate the movement of plants from water to land during the Devonian period ~400 Mya.
I am studying species delimitation in this group, more specifically I am investigating a species that was proposed in 1927; Monotropa brittonii. Also known as the southern Indian pipe, M. brittonii was thought to occur mainly in Florida and to be larger, more scented, and colored differently than the widespread Monotropa uniflora. It has sincelargely been treated as a synonym as the reported variation in M. brittonii was thought to be normal variation within the species M. uniflora. Simply put, the scientists working on this group did not think that M. brittonii was different enough from M. uniflora to merit status as a species. I am investigating this with the help of modern DNA sequencing technology. Are there unique features to these Florida populations that were previously unknown? That’s what I plan to find out.
More pictures of Monotropa uniflora