Washington State Magazine

Spring 2004


Spring 2004

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In This Issue...

Features

Mount St. Helens: The perfect laboratory :: It is impossible to accept the immensity of Mount St. Helens and the effect of its catastrophic 1980 eruption unless you are able to stand beneath the enormous crater on the pumice plain and listen to John Bishop talk about lupines.

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Gallery: Mount St. Helens :: Photographs of John Bishop's research and the volcano. By Robert Hubner}

Lonely, Beautiful, and Threatened—Willapa Bay :: Willapa Bay is the largest estuary between San Francisco and Puget Sound. It boasts one of the least-spoiled environments and the healthiest salmon runs south of Canada. It produces one in every four oysters farmed in the United States and is a favorite stop for tens of thousands of migratory birds. And it's in trouble.

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Gallery: Willapa Bay :: Photographs by Bill Wagner}

Extreme Diversity—in Soap Lake :: Soap Lake is surrounded by dark shores, sheer rock walls, a primeval landscape. Its waters have long been thought by some to cure certain maladies. It is also home to strange, hardy organisms that live nowhere else.

Keith Lincoln, Barn Builder :: Over 25 years at Washington State University, alumni director Keith Lincoln built many things, including friendships and a place where alums can go to sit in the shade.

Panoramas

Departments

:: SEASONS/SPORTS: Golfer Kim Welch

:: SEASONS/SPORTS: Basketball's Marcus Moore

Tracking

Cover: Ecologist John Bishop has followed the reestablishment of life on Mount St. Helens's pumice plain. Read the story here. Photograph by Robert Hubner.

Panoramas
Loren Rieseberg ('87 PhD Botany), MacArthur Foundation Fellow.

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Loren Rieseberg ('87 PhD Botany), MacArthur Foundation Fellow. Chris Meyer, IU Home Pages

On the origin of species—again

by | © Washington State University

Everyone calls them genius awards, except the foundation that gives them. When describing recipients of its annual $500,000 grants, the MacArthur Foundation avoids "genius"-rather, says the Foundation, MacArthur Fellows are people who transcend boundaries, take risks, and synthesize disparate ideas and approaches. That's a dead-on definition of Loren Rieseberg ('87 Ph.D. Botany), an evolutionary biologist at Indiana University Bloomington who received a MacArthur Fellowship in October 2003.

When Rieseberg arrived at Washington State University in 1984 to pursue his doctorate, he was a model student, energetic and eager, recalls his advisor and former WSU professor, Douglas Soltis, now at University of Florida. Soltis handed him Verne Grant's 1981 classic, Plant Speciation, and told him to find a doctoral project.

"I discovered then that I wanted to spend my life studying the origin and evolution of plant species," Rieseberg says.

Despite Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, exactly how new species originate has remained unclear for nearly 150 years. Rieseberg decided to take a new look at the old question by focusing on hybrids-the crossing of two species. It was a controversial choice.

Gardeners and farmers favor hybrids-hardy flowers and sturdy crops that resist disease. But natural hybrids are often sterile, unfit, and unable to reproduce. From the biological perspective, then, hybrids were largely considered an evolutionary dead-end.

That didn't stop Rieseberg. Using high-tech tools of genetic analysis-quite new in the 1980s when he started his work-Rieseberg has studied hybridization in sunflowers, making a string of discoveries that have revolutionized scientists' understanding of how evolution works. In a landmark 1996 study, he recreated the birth of a new species by crossing sunflowers in the lab, proving that hybridization is, in fact, an important tool of evolution.

What's more, he came up with the same sunflower species three different times, demonstrating that evolution, commonly thought to be random, can be repeatable. More recently, he's shown that hybridization is a major force in sunflowers' adaptation as well.

Rieseberg is a hybrid himself: a native of British Columbia who lives in the Midwest, a former Seventh-Day Adventist turned evolutionist, a scientist who sculpts, a soft-spoken wannabe schoolteacher whose MacArthur has garnered international attention, including an invitation to lecture on evolution for the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates.

Bringing the unexpected together is Rieseberg's genius. Jeffrey Palmer, distinguished professor of biology at IU, calls Rieseberg's ability to integrate distinct experimental approaches "unsurpassed." His creative blending has led to "very convincing and elegant" confirmation of hybridization as an evolutionary process, says Edward Schilling, head of the botany department at University of Tennessee and Rieseberg's master's advisor. Eva Sanders Allen, a doctoral graduate from Rieseberg's lab who continues to work with him at IU, says she's called him genius many times: "He remembers everything, grasps everything, sees where the holes are, and knows what new technologies can make possible."

And old technologies, too. Rieseberg has a tradition of "stoning" his graduating doctoral students- giving them a gift of a sculpture made from Indiana limestone. A few years ago, he couldn't find a sculpture he liked for a student who was leaving in just two days, so he decided to make one. He carved it with a screwdriver.

Since then, his creations have gotten more elaborate. Rieseberg wants to sculpt a near life-size buffalo for his front yard. The buffalo has become a sort of totem for him-he considers the animal a "primary dispersal agent" for the sunflower species so important to his work.

Categories: Biological sciences | Tags: Evolution, Flowers

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