The Green Plant Phylogeny Research Coordination Group

With grateful acknowledgment of funding provided by:
DOE/NSF/USDA Panel on Collaborative Research in Plant Biology
The Origins and Phylogeny of Green Plants: A Research Coordination Group USDA grant 94-37105-0713, University of Tulsa, 1994-99 (a continuation grant, total funding $285,459)
Mark A. Buchheim, PI; Brent D. Mishler, co-PI; Russell L. Chapman, co-PI

The green plants provide food, shelter, and medicines and represent one of evolution's great success stories. Their morphological and chemical diversity, and ecological dominance, are paramount among life's lineages. An improved understanding of their phylogeny will not only allow the intellectual satisfaction of discovering the "roots" of this major component of the world's biotic diversity, but will have important practical benefits as well. A well-supported and detailed phylogenetic framework is critical to the solution of major open questions such as the evolutionary origin of multicellularity, diversification of life-history strategies, the conquest of land, the nature of the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny, and modes of evolution at the molecular level. Addressing a phylogenetic study of this enormous scale has also necessitated improvements in data handling and analysis that have broad applicability to phylogenetic studies of other organisms.

Considerable preliminary data were available, and we were clearly poised back in 1994 for rapid progress in this area due to recent technological, theoretical, and computational improvements. However, several obstacles remained. No mechanism existed for attacking this major effort in a cooperative, coordinated manner. Certain groups were over-studied, other groups nearly unknown. Data sets derived from different molecules and different morphological character systems rarely included the same basic taxa, thus they couldn't be compared. Current analytical software, and the concepts behind it, needed improvements to handle analyses of this size and complexity, as did data storage and retrieval software. Standards for maintaining and adding to phylogenetic data bases, both morphological and molecular, needed to be discussed and then implemented.

The Green Plant Phylogeny Research Coordination Group (GPPRCG) was formed in 1994 in order to remedy these shortcomings by facilitating or initiating interactions between distinct research groups that have independent foci yet entail some aspect of green plant phylogeny or systematics. Over the period from 1994 to 1999, the community of researchers in this area was brought together, and a high level of communication and coordination achieved.

The first meetings needed to cover important, broad questions regarding taxon sampling and data sampling. The primary themes of the first two meetings were "where are we now?" and "what else needs to be done?" The purpose of the two meetings was two-fold. First, the group needed to establish a list of priorities for taxon sampling. Deliberations on questions of taxon sampling were divided into discussion sub-groups by taxonomic expertise. Second, the research coordination group had to identify types of characters, both morphological and molecular, that should or need to be sampled for each taxon. As with the question of taxon sampling, discussions of character sampling were broken down by expertise when appropriate (e.g., gross morphology vs. ultrastructure or chloroplast vs. nuclear genes). guide for future data gathering. These decisions were publicized on the web site as a guide for future data gathering, in a new kind of matrix called a Data Availability Matrix (DAM).

Later meetings covered two distinct topics, one theoretical and one empirical, i.e., methods for analysis of large, heterogeneous data sets, and phylogenetic analysis within the major clades of green plants. The general goal common to all meetings of the group has been to coordinate research across the community by providing standardized taxon and character information on our web site, and developing new means of extracting phylogenetic information from these data.

Final meetings and workshops held in the last year of the grant enabled groups of researchers to get together and plan their specific collaborative analyses. These were in most cases accompanied by series of talks for the public and preliminary presentations of research in preparation for the Botanical Congress. These included meetings of the green algal, fern, liverwort, moss, and seed plant subgroups. The data and other information shared at these workshops greatly increased the coordination and impact of the final presentations at the Congress.

The results of the GPPRCG were presented at a series of eight interlocking symposia at the XVI International Botanical Congress held in St. Louis, Missouri, 1-7 August, 1999. All the data sets and findings of these symposia will be reflected on the GPPRCG web site, several series of papers in specialized professional journals, a review paper commissioned by Science, as well as in a planned book on the Phylogeny of Green Plants. This book will have two sections, one giving the details of competing phylogenetic hypotheses and the other discussing biological and evolutionary subjects in light of the phylogeny.

Return to the Main Page