Natural Resource/Wild Strawberries: How Do Hermaphroditic Plants Evolve Into Happy Couples?

Issue Date: 
August 22, 2007

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Above photos (1): Pitt sophomore Jing Liu and postdoctoral fellow Laurent Penet.  (2): Pitt junior Mimi Jenkins notes the growth of flowers and activity of pollinators in Tia-Lynn Ashman’s experimental strawberry garden.

One of the more intriguing mysteries of evolutionary biology centers on how plants that are initially hermaphroditic develop flowers with separate genders, an arguably less titillating condition known as dioecy.

Plant evolutionary ecologist Tia-Lynn Ashman, a professor in the Pitt School of Arts and Sciences’ biological sciences department, is seeking to unravel this mystery by studying the sexual evolution of wild strawberries. Her experiments at the University’s Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology (PLE) test and monitor various factors—from pollinators like birds and bees to soil nutrients—that might contribute to plants metamorphosing from self-service status to needing a better half.