A monthly look at the people behind plant science at the Missouri Botanical Garden
Dr. Christine Edwards
Stephen and Camilla Brauer Conservation Geneticist Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development
When Christy Edwards was about 8 years old, she would often accompany her mom, who was pursuing a master’s degree in landscape architecture, on field trips to different parks in Denver for her plant identification class. Edwards spent a lot of her childhood outdoors exploring nature, but she specifically remembers thinking those plant field trips were the coolest thing ever:
“I think that was the first time I really thought botany was cool.”
As an adult, Edwards now spends her days at the Missouri Botanical Garden studying plants and their genetic makeup and guiding students in research. When not in the lab, she’s often out on collecting trips to acquire plant specimens. She’s visited Madagascar, Ecuador and many places in the U.S. This summer she’ll travel to Florida to collect an endangered species of pawpaw and around Missouri and Kansas to collect Mead’s milkweed, a threatened prairie plant. The samples will be used to measure and protect the genetic diversity of the species.
Edwards came to the Garden four years ago when she was hired to start up the genetics lab – previously the Garden hadn’t done molecular work on site. “It was like they wrote the job description for me,” Edwards says, noting how the role combined her many interests.
Edwards’ love of plants began on those field trips in Denver, but it really solidified when she took a tropical ecology class while studying abroad in Costa Rica as an undergraduate student. The course focused on all kinds of tropical plant and animal life, but Edwards gravitated toward plants. “There are so many plants out there, especially in the tropics. I think it’s an amazing challenge to understand them, to know what they are and to document them.”
She then conducted an undergraduate research project at Rocky Mountain State Park where she identified all of the plants in vegetation plots and investigated the effects of invasive species on species diversity. In pursuing her PhD, she decided to study plant conservation genetics, which combined her interest in plant diversity and conservation.
Studying genetics can help scientists better understand a species and measure genetic diversity, which is essential for the survival and adaptability of a species. Scientists can also use the data to help endangered species by seeing how much genetic diversity a species has and then developing strategies to protect the species.
For her PhD, Edwards studied Conradina, a group of plants in the mint family that contains five endangered and threatened species, most of which are found in Florida. She studied the evolutionary history and genetic distinctiveness of the species, looked at levels of genetic diversity and devised strategies to protect it.
Edwards’ career then took her to Wyoming, where she used quantitative genetics to look at how plants respond to environmental stress like drought, and later to Mississippi, where she studied plant genetics through her work with the Army Corps of Engineers. At the Corps of Engineers, she also studied bats and Asian carp, developing new genetic tools to detect the presence of Asian Carp in water samples from the Great Lakes.
Since arriving at the Garden, she’s been able to combine all of those areas into the research she and her five graduate students conduct. One student is studying the quantitative genetics of drought response, while several others are working to understand the evolutionary history and genetic distinctiveness groups of plant species. Edwards is also overseeing several projects focusing on the conservation genetics of rare plants, and several involving DNA barcoding, or taking samples and trying to understand diversity of organisms contained in the sample and focusing on understanding aspects of the biology of endangered bat populations.
Edwards summarizes her job simply as “conserving endangered species, using whatever genetic tools are necessary.” She’s enjoyed several major achievements in her career, but perhaps the most exciting was rediscovering Dracaena umbraculifera, a species previously thought to be extinct.
Edwards was among a team of scientist who conducted DNA tests and found the plant, thought to be from Mauritius, was actually more closely related to Dracena reflexa from Madagascar. Scientists then found five wild populations on a field trip to Madagascar, changing its status to “critically endangered.”
“You don’t just rediscover an extinct species every day.”
-Dr. Christie Edwards
Edwards is also excited about new projects she’s working on, like examining the bigger picture of the conservation of genetic diversity and how it relates to international conservation policy. She’s hoping to get a group of experts together to create a “policy maker’s guide to the conservation of genetic diversity.” She’s also proud of work she’s been able to do in the lab, including new work looking into ways to conserve different types of biodiversity. The Garden’s on-site laboratory is crucial to this kind of work. “The ability to genotype individuals is an amazing tool to give you important information you can’t get any other way.”
The Garden’s other resources, like its expansive herbarium and vast array of on-hand experts, afford Edwards an ideal place to conduct her research, and she has the flexibility to study areas that interest her. “I kind of have the perfect job.”
Edwards also enjoys working with students because it allows her to expand her research and to help make sure the next generation continues the work. “The plant conservation picture for our planet is not getting any better and we need another generation of people to continue to work toward the goal of conserving biodiversity,” she explains.
She’s also works to share that message with the next generation closer to home. Like her mom before her, Edwards takes her two daughters—2-year-old Rosemary and 6-year-old Violet—to the Garden, Shaw Nature Reserve, and local parks whenever she can to teach them about plants. Violet hopes to be a scientist one day.
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