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Student Sets Out on Expedition to Collect Wild Onions

Erica Wheeler

When Captain Meriwether Lewis found various kinds of wild onion on his historic northwestern passage to the Pacific Ocean, the only tools he had to document them were his journal and his plant press. Now, more than two hundred years later, Erica Wheeler, a graduate student at the University of Missouri (MU), is setting out on her own expedition with more advanced tools to collect, document, and explore the diversity of North American wild onions (Allium).

Wheeler, a member of MU's Interdisciplinary Plant Group and a native of Victoria, British Columbia, received a Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research fellowship grant to collect specimens of wild onion across the United States, including Missouri, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, California, Utah, Idaho, and Washington. She will extract and sequence DNA from the collected specimens to build an evolutionary tree of wild onions. When completed, this tree will allow scientists to ask fundamental questions about the evolutionary relationships among different species of wild onion in North America.

The phylogenetic tree will also shed light on the distribution and emergence of rare species of wild onion, which are of particular interest to Wheeler. Many rare species of wild onion are found in California, which, along with Oregon, is the geographic center of wild onion diversity in North America. Among those species in California considered rare, threatened, or endangered are Munz's onion (Allium munzii) in Riverside county, Hickman's onion (A. hickmanii) in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, and Yosemite onion (A. yosemitense) in the central Sierra Nevada mountains. Rare species of onion have also been documented in Washington, Idaho, Utah, Georgia, and Alabama.

Eighty-seven species of wild onion are native to North America. They range from as far north as the 52nd parallel, south into Mexico and from the east to the west coasts. This continent-wide distribution, according to Wheeler, makes wild onions particularly ideal for investigating environmental factors that promote diversification in plants and give rise to rarity. In addition to these wild species, the genus Allium also includes familiar culinary plants, such as onion, leeks, garlic, scallions, and chives.

Founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, the American Philosophical Society is the oldest learned society in the United States devoted to the advancement of scientific and scholarly inquiry. The purpose of the Lewis and Clark Fund is to encourage exploratory field studies for the collection of specimens and data and to provide the imaginative stimulus that accompanies direct observation.

Wheeler, who is doing her research under the supervision of Professor J. Chris Pires in the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center, has also received financial support for her research from the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, the Native Plant Society of Oregon, and the Native Plant Society of Washington.

Read more about Erica's work: "MU doctoral student's love for wild onions garners accolades, attention," Columbia Missourian, October 7, 2008.