Biology Professor's Research Gains National Attention

The research of an Eastern Kentucky University biology professor into the evolutionary history of all green plants is earning considerable national attention.

An article by Dr. Brad Ruhfel, assistant professor in EKU’s Department of Biological Sciences, was recently featured as an Editor’s Pick in BMC Biology, a prestigious peer-reviewed journal that also commissioned a commentary article by three Harvard scientists on Ruhfel’s work. Ruhfel’s article, which has been accessed more than 3,200 times, also gained a “Highly Accessed” tag at BMC Evolutionary Biology. Lastly, the BMC blog, Biome, published a question-and-answer piece with Ruhfel.

Ruhfel said his article, entitled “From algae to angiosperms – inferring the phylogeny of green plants (Viridiplantae) from 360 plastid genomes,” provides “a window into how flowering plants have evolved from their algae-like ancestors. This work is only possible due to recent developments in DNA sequencing that allow you to gather and analyze unprecedented amounts of data.”

In a preface to the interview, Biome noted that green plants comprise approximately 500,000 species and are at least 750 million old. Green plants exhibit an astounding diversity of life forms, ranging from single-celled algae to the giant sequoia trees of California.

“Understanding the phylogenetic relationships within this clade has proven to be a significant challenge, one compounded by the extinction of several major lineages,” the preface continued. “In an attempt to resolve some of the major questions in the field, researchers have looked to nuclear, mitochondrial and plastid DNA. In recent years, next-generation sequencing has rapidly increased the number of complete plastid genomes. With this wealth of data now available, (Ruhfel and colleagues) sought to deduce a comprehensive green plant phylogeny based on the plastid genome and to explore some of the major relationships across this clade.”

In their commentary, the Harvard scientists said Ruhfel’s work “represents the most comprehensive effort to clarify the phylogeny of green plants using sequences from the plastid genome. This study highlights the strengths and limitations of plastome data for resolving the green plant phylogeny, and points toward an exciting future for plant phylogenetics, during which the vast and largely untapped territory of nuclear genomes will be explored.”

A member of EKU’s biology faculty since 2012, Ruhfel said: “One of my favorite ideas is that science is a permanent revolution. We will likely never know the real truth in its entirety, but we must keep striving to find it so as to better understand our world. As we gain a better understanding of the molecular evolution of plant genomes, there may be some real surprises around the corner. We have made great progress in determining the evolutionary history of green plants, but there is still much to do.”

Ruhfel’s article in BMC Evolutionary Biology can be viewed at www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2148/14/23. The commentary article by the three Harvard scientists can be seen at www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7007/12/11. The Biome Q-and-A can be accessed at www.biomedcentral.com/biome/brad-ruhfel-on-piecing-together-green-plant-phylogeny-with-plastid-genomes.

Ruhfel, who teaches general botany and plant systematics courses and is curator of the EKU Herbarium, earned his baccalaureate degree from Eastern Michigan University, his master’s degree from the University of Michigan and his doctoral degree from Harvard.

Published on March 19, 2014