Questions in systematics

Ross Koning koning at ECSUC.CTSTATEU.EDU
Thu Feb 27 01:12:28 EST 1997

At 3:38 PM -0000 2/26/97, Lenore Durkee wrote:

>so they sent a message to the list, but directed to the plant systematists,
>asking their opinion on what they regarded as the most significant,
>interesting, and important problems in plant systematics today.

>I am asking the same question of the plant education discussion
>group. I will forward your responses to the class. (I was hoping that some
>of the ideas could serve as a basis for future class discussions). Thank
>you for your help.--Lenore Durkee


I am a plant physiologist, so taxonomy isn't too central
to my excitement as a botanist.  For me, teaching taxonomy
and making it interesting is certainly a challenge.  I have
been reading about cladistics lately, and some of the insights
gained through that toward phylogeny and biogeography have
become more interesting to me.

I put a request into this net list some time ago requesting
ideas for an exciting lab exercise in cladistics.  I got no
response either.  I would say that your experience and mine
might lead someone to think that systematics was pretty dead
or, worse, boring.  I think the truth is not that at all, but
instead that people are busy.

If you get a copy of "Hawaiian Biogeography: evolution on a hot
spot archipelago" edited by W. L. Wagner and V. A. Funk in 1995
and published by the Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC,
you will find a nice introduction to cladistics in chapter 3.  The
other chapters are pretty deep-reading for people outside of
cladistics, but if you go over Chapter 3 several times, you are
better prepared to understand the rest.  I think this book clearly
shows the power of cladistic analysis in understanding the path
of evolution and biogeography.

I'm in the "thinking" phase of developing a lab exercise in
cladistics.  I am thinking that I can do it using a collection
of staples, nails, screws, bolts, paper clips, wire etc.  Each
group would, after learning the basics of cladistic analysis,
use their collection of hardware to construct a phylogeny.  The
goal would be to develop a proposed evolution pathway.  If I can
get a site-license for MacClade, I will have them put the hardware
characteristics into the program and work toward the most
parsimonious tree.  At this early stage, I have nothing on paper,
but that is how I am planning to approach it.  I'd rather use
live plants, of course, but getting collections of related plants
all to the same developmental stage for students to analyze is a
formidable barrier for classroom instruction.

I think most systematists have multiple one level
they usually have a "special" group of plants that they really
love to study (I use love intentionally here) minutely.  Most of
my systematics friends spend most of their time "revising" the
taxonomy of that group to arrive at the most logical phylogeny
for that group...say Apiaceae.  Then, systematists usually have
another interest at a larger level...understanding the evolution
of divisions (phyla) or subdivisions...or maybe the "roots" of the
kingdom itself.  These higher-order interests usually are more
secondary but nevertheless intense.

As a biologist, one of the interesting questions is to understand
the whole pathway to evolution of eukaryotes from prokaryotes.
There is much work to be done here!  The evolution and detailed
mechanism of mitosis are likewise an area of needed research.  How
the genome is regulated over time and how that mechanism evolved
is yet another VERY interesting area that could be approached by
systematics.  Almost all of this work has to be done dealing with
the systematics of "kingdom" Protista (Protoctista).  As I see it,
that kingdom contains the "roots" for Plantae, Animalia, and Fungi.
It also has the results of early evolution of eukaryotism.  That
kingdom is transitional and pivotal to our understanding of these
early events.  Yet it seems clearly that this kingdom is a "mess"
of stuff that needs more organization.  If "duty calls" to
systematists, to me this is where it is.

Maybe after posting this physiologist's perspective on systematics,
someone will be motivated to flame me with a REAL systematist's
perspective.  Don't worry, I'll duck!


Ross Koning                 | koning at
Biology Department          |
Eastern CT State University | phone: 860-465-5327
Willimantic, CT 06226 USA   | fax: 860-465-4479

More information about the Plant-ed mailing list