Scientists seek an answer to an existential question for an East Texas hibiscus

Apr 23, 2013

Since 1997, a shrubby perennial found only in East Texas has been on a waiting list to be officially declared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A ruling on the fate of the Neches River rose-mallow is expected by 2016 under a settlement agreement between the feds and a conservation group. If the plant is listed as threatened, it will become eligible for government-funded restoration. But the future of the white-petaled, ruby-throated hibiscus may hinge on its past: The jury is still out on whether the showy plant is actually its very own species.

Researchers at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, have set out to determine once and for all whether the Neches River rose-mallow, officially known as Hibiscus dasycalyx, is a unique species or a hybrid of the species Hibiscus laevis or Hibiscus moscheutos.

Laura Baker, a biotechnology graduate student, has been isolating genetic markers for each species, and she will present her most recent findings on the matter on Tuesday, April 23, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which is being held in conjunction with the 2013 conference.

"Preliminary studies from our lab suggest that the H. dasycalyx indeed is its own species due to the fact that analyses cluster the H. dasycalyx with other H. dasycalyx among different populations, regardless of the geographic location," Baker says.

This means that the H. dasycalyx has a unique from that of H. laevis or H. moscheutos, making it a separate species, Baker says. If H. dasycalyx were a hybrid between the two, the DNA profile would be some combination of the two species.

Baker continued: "We have found only a few hybrids that share genetic markers with H. laevis, along with many markers unique to H. dasycalyx. These findings are important because, when this study is finalized, we will be able to restore the H. dasycalyx to its native habitat and have hundreds of that can be used to monitor the H. dasycalyx gene flow for generations to come, ensuring its survival."

The Neches River rose-mallow, believed to have been first identified in 1958, is found in only a few counties in East Texas, usually near standing water. It coexists with H. laevis, also known as the halberdleaf rose-mallow, and H. moscheutos, also known as the wolly rose-mallow.

Populations of the Neches River rose-mallow have decreased substantially over the years – and in fact have disappeared entirely from sites where they were documented in decades past. "At present, it's found at two conservation sites and at only a few remaining natural sites," says Beatrice Clack, the associate professor overseeing the research project.

A number of factors are at play in the rose-mallow's decline, including the use of herbicides and the grazing of livestock. The U.S. has proposed designating about 188 acres in East Texas as critical habitat for the plant.

Clack's team is using polymerase chain reaction technology to make copies of specific nucleic acid sequences from the three plants. Once the DNA is amplified, the team can assess whether the sequences in the plants' genomes are shared or unique. "The more similar the two hybrid plants are to each other, they will have more shared polymorphs," Clack explains. "The greater the number of unique polymorphs, as between H. laevis and H. moscheutos, the more likely a plant is a distinct ."

Explore further: 'Tiger heavyweight' Nepal hosts anti-poaching summit

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Fish to be rescued from Texas river amid drought

Sep 16, 2011

(AP) -- Wildlife biologists on Friday will evacuate two species of minnows from the shrinking waters of a West Texas river in the first of what could be several rescue operations involving fish affected by the state's worst ...

Unique frog helps amphibian conservation efforts

Mar 07, 2011

A tropical frog – the only one of its kind in the world – is providing conservationists with exclusive insights into the genetic make-up of its closest endangered relatives.

Recommended for you

'Tiger heavyweight' Nepal hosts anti-poaching summit

11 hours ago

Nepal's success in turning tiger-fearing villagers into their protectors has seen none of the endangered cats killed for almost three years, offering key lessons for an anti-poaching summit opening in Kathmandu ...

GMO mosquito plan sparks outcry in Florida

Jan 31, 2015

A British company's plan to unleash hordes of genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida to reduce the threat of dengue fever and other diseases has sparked an outcry from fearful residents.

Population genomics unveil seahorse domain

Jan 30, 2015

In a finding vital to effective species management, a team including City College of New York biologists has determined that the lined seahorse (Hippocampus erectus) is more a permanent resident of the we ...

Researchers develop new potato cultivar

Jan 30, 2015

Dakota Ruby is the name of a new potato cultivar developed by the NDSU potato breeding project and released by the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station. Dakota Ruby has bright red skin, stores well and is intended ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.