The California Academy of Sciences Appoints New Botany Chair
SAN FRANCISCO (March 5, 2014) – The California Academy of Sciences is pleased to announce the appointment of Dylan Burge, Ph.D. as Assistant Curator and the new Howell Chair of Western North American Botany.
A Northern California native who had filled his own greenhouse with several thousand plants by the time he graduated from high school, Burge completed his undergraduate degree in Evolution and Ecology at University of California, Davis. He then received his Ph.D. in plant genetics from Duke University and conducted postdoctoral work in both Australia and British Columbia. Most recently, he was the Rose Postdoctoral Fellow in the Botany Department at the Academy, where he studied the evolution of western plant species as well as the ways that California’s diverse soil types influence the distribution of plants across the state.
Among his varied research projects, Burge is currently studying the evolution of an unusual plant trait: heavy metal hyperaccumulation.
"It's almost hard to imagine, but some plants that grow on metal-rich soils are able to "mine" these metals from the ground,” says Burge. “They end up storing metal, such as nickel, in their tissues, up to 4% of the plant mass.”
Burge is working to identify the genes responsible for this unique “mining” ability and to reveal how the trait evolved. His research has potential applications for both heavy metal mining and toxic waste cleanup—once the plants have accumulated metal from the soil, the metals can be cleanly extracted from the plants.
As the Academy’s Howell Chair of Western North American Botany, Burge will bring a global perspective to his research studying native California plants.
“Despite more than 150 years of botanical documentation in western North America, vast areas remain unexplored in terms of botany,” says Burge. “More than 80% of the land area of California, for example, is unknown from a botanical perspective.”
“California is a biodiversity hotspot–there are a tremendous number of plant and animal species here that live nowhere else in the world,” says Terry Gosliner, Senior Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the California Academy of Sciences. “Dylan is an ideal person to pursue this important work to better understand the native species in our own backyard.”
Burge recognizes that when it comes to the plants of western North America, there is more undocumented flora than he could ever hope to record on his own. He is now developing a program he refers to as “Citizen Floristics,” which will enlist the help of anyone interested in native plants.
“I hope to use citizen scientists to help meet the need,” says Burge. “There are a huge number of amateur botanists and collectors in the western United States who could be tapped to improve our documentation.”
According to Burge, such knowledge will improve our understanding of how native plants evolved across the landscape. And this will enable us to understand how they are likely to respond to future climate change.
Burge is not new to the Academy family. After visiting since the age of three, he began his career in science during the Academy’s Summer Systematics Institute (SSI), a paid research internship for college students that pairs each participant with an Academy scientist as a mentor. Burge’s mentor, Academy entomologist Brian Fisher, was so impressed by his mentee that he invited the budding scientist to spend six months in Madagascar working on the Academy’s insect inventory project—an experience that solidified Burge’s desire to pursue his Ph.D.
“Dylan has a sharp intellect and is exploring interesting questions about evolution with a lot of breadth and depth,” says Gosliner, who led the international search for the new Howell Chair position. “He focuses on model organisms to ask bigger questions that fit squarely in the Academy’s mission: How did life get here, and how can we keep it around?”
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