PMB Fulbright Scholar Wins NSF Grant

May 09, 2011

By Karyn Houston

Ana Maria Almeida, a fourth year graduate student in Plant Biology and Fulbright Scholar from Brazil, has been awarded $15,000 to support her ongoing research on the floral developmental evolution of tropical ginger flowering plants.

The National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant will enable Almeida to continue her research at UC Berkeley under the direction of assistant professor Chelsea Specht, co-advised by professor Mike Freeling, both of the Department of Plant and Microbial. Specht is also curator of monocots at the University and Jepson Herbaria, part of the Berkeley Natural History Museums.

Almeida’s research investigates the genetics underlying floral development and evolution in the Zingiberales, or tropical ginger order. This order includes charismatic tropical plants like gingers, bananas, bird-of-paradise plants, and heliconias.

Almeida’s research combines bioinformatics with experimental research, utilizing the recently completed banana genome as well as an understanding of floral development in model plants, like Arabidopsis, to characterize the gene networks involved in the development and the evolution of the flower across the Zingiberales.

Her NSF-funded project is entitled "Evolution of floral morphology in Zingiberales: the role of positive selection on B class MADS-box genes." In particular, Almeida is interested in the mechanisms that promote the development of petaloid organs in the stamen whorl, and the resulting reduction in number of fertile, pollen-producing stamen.

Because the flower mediates plant-pollinator interaction, this research is important to understanding the specific genetic mechanisms by which plants can dramatically alter their floral form in order to achieve effective pollination. Ginger flowers produce less pollen than their banana relatives, but appear to utilize non-pollen producing stamen to attract specific pollinators who ensure efficient pollination, according to Almeida. Her research will shed light on the genetics that underlie evolution of floral form and efficiency of pollination.

Almeida was also recently awarded the Shirley and Alan Graham Graduate Student Research Grant for her research entitled “Addressing ancient rapid radiations through Zingiberales phylogeny: New ways of understanding old problems.” She also received a small grant from the Heliconia Society International to continue her research on stamen abortion during floral development in Zingiberales.