UH Hilo graduate student Jeffery Stallman records specimen information at Pohakuloa Training Area. Photo by Erin Datlof.

A graduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo is taking part in an ambitious worldwide project headed by the Smithsonian. The goal of the Global Genome Initiative is to collect at least one species from half of the genera (estimated 160,000–200,000) on Earth by 2020. In support of the expansive project, the Smithsonian has provided funding for UH Hilo graduate student Jeffery Stallman to take the lead on gathering tissue samples and analyzing the DNA from all native plants in the Aster (daisy) family found on Hawaiʻi Island.

“By analyzing the DNA sequences from these samples, and additional DNA sequences available from prior studies, Stallman is determining if the current best methods of identifying species based on DNA are effective in differentiating closely related Hawaiian plants, which can be critically important in identifying threatened or endangered species when key identifying features, such as flowers, are not present,” says Matthew Knope, assistant professor of biology at UH Hilo and one of Stallman’s advisors on the project.

Jeffery Stallman

The Knope Evolutionary Ecology Lab, housed in the Department of Biology at UH Hilo, is where the genetic research is being conducted. Jonathan Price, associate professor and chair of geography is collaborating and assisting with locating specimens in the field.

Stallman is a graduate student in UH Hilo’s Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program, where he studies fungal taxonomy and conservation genetics of Hawaiian plants. He is working on his master’s thesis on Hawaiian fungi with Don Hemmes, professor emeritus in biology and a renowned expert in mushrooms, and Mike Shintaku, a professor of plant pathology. He’s working with Knope and Price on native Hawaiian plant conservation genetics.

“We are looking forward to helping [the Smithsonian] towards their goal, while learning how to make quality museum vouchers of plant species, seeing a slice of Hawaiʻi’s unique flora, exploring the island, and hopefully answering some of our own conservation and evolutionary questions about Hawaiian plants along the way,” says Stallman in a blog post about the project.

Stallman will be presenting his preliminary results at a graduate symposium sponsored by the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program, April 5 and 6 at the UH Hilo Campus Center. He will be the first author on the resulting publication.

Collaborating agencies are the Hawaiʻi Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the National Park Service, the Natural Area Reserve System, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pōhakuloa Training Area Natural Resources Office, the Plant Extinction Prevention Program and the Smithsonian Institution Department of Botany.

For more about the genome project, visit UH Hilo Stories.

—By Susan Enright