Dr. McKain and collaborators awarded $3.8M from NSF to study plant invasion genomics

Invasive species threaten biodiversity, impact crops, restructure ecosystems, promote disease, and damage infrastructure, costing the US $120 billion annually. Despite these impacts, understanding of how and why introduced species become invasive is shockingly incomplete. This knowledge gap reflects a lack of information about the early stages of invasions and the role of evolution in promoting invasiveness. The recent revolution in genome sequencing and computing technology promises to narrow this gap. By comparing genome sequences of historic herbarium specimens spanning the duration of an invasion, researchers are able to step back in time and examine the patterns and processes that promote invasion from initial introduction to present day. The Consortium for Plant INvasion Genomics (CPING) will harness the Big Data generated by this genomic revolution for the study of invasive species and train a generation of scientists in new genomic methods. Through collaborative projects focused on five invasive species of national concern, CPING initially housed at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, South Dakota State University, the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, West Virginia University, and Wichita State University will expand to unite scientists and students at more than 60 institutions in 18 EPSCoR states to better understand how plants become invasive and provide insights into the management and prevention of invasive species. CPING incorporates a training program in new genomic methods designed for all levels of academia (undergraduate students to faculty) comprising 5-day genomics bootcamps that will train 36 scientists from regional and local colleges and universities. All participants will contribute to projects on the five CPING focal species and conduct individual research projects in their own labs, providing hands-on research opportunities for 39 undergraduate students. By combining expertise and resources from scientists across many EPSCoR jurisdictions, CPING will facilitate highly collaborative investigation of plant invasions, provide training in key genomic techniques, enable EPSCoR researchers to better compete for funding, and foster genomics and bioinformatics STEM education.

Dr. McKain’s lab will focus on Johnsongrass, Sorghum halepense. Named for an Alabama land owner, this pest is one of the world’s most noxious weeds being found on all continents and major islands except for Antarctica.  The McKain lab will use genomics to understand how being polyploid (having more than two copies of its genome) has impacted the invasive capacity of the species since its introduction into the United States. This work will contribute to the overall goal of the project to understand the genomic factors of invasiveness over the course of an invasion.