11 June 2024 | Story Precious Shamase | Photo Supplied
Anna Fregien, Dr Nora Mitchell, Chase Fillion and Carolyn Hanson.
Anna Fregien, Dr Nora Mitchell, Chase Fillion and Carolyn Hanson from University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, taking location coordinates, leaf material and morphological measurements of Protea pityphilla.

Prof Sandy-Lynn Steenhuisen, a leading researcher in plant ecology at the University of the Free State (UFS) Qwaqwa Campus in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, Department of Plant Sciences, has been collaborating with Dr Nora Mitchel from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire on a fascinating project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This project delves into the intricate world of proteas, South Africa's iconic flowering plants. Prof Steenhuisen explains that the NSF grant, totaling nearly $295,000, supported Dr Mitchel's research on genetic relatedness of proteas as part of a larger collaboration investigating pollinator shifts in this plant group. As proteas are exclusive to Africa, Prof Steenhuisen received access to a sub-award of approximately R400,000 to facilitate fieldwork in South Africa.

Building the Protea Family Tree

Their research focuses on refining the phylogeny of the Protea genus, essentially constructing a detailed family tree. This involves collecting leaves and other morphological data from many of the estimated 85-114 protea species. DNA extracted from these leaves will be used to sequence parts of their genomes and build a comprehensive family tree, addressing existing gaps and unresolved nodes in the current phylogeny in published literature. The project involved Prof Steenhuisen joining Dr Mitchel and a group of undergraduate students from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire on collecting expeditions. These trips, conducted in collaboration with Cape Nature reserve managers and colleagues from Rhodes University and University of KwaZulu-Natal, provided valuable experience for the students while contributing crucial data to the project.

Beyond the Bird and the Flower

This research goes beyond simply studying the relationship between proteas and their pollinators (birds, insects and even mice!). The project delves deeper, exploring the fascinating interactions between plants, animals, microbes, and even the surrounding climate. This holistic approach aims to understand how these factors collectively influence each other and the health and future of our ecosystems. The larger project boasts a collaborative spirit, with researchers from University of Western Cape, Stellenbosch University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the university  of Cape Town, and the University of the Free State in South Africa joining forces with colleagues from American institutions (e.g. Cornell, Arizona). This combined expertise strengthens the research and underscores its significance.

Proteas: Keystone Species Under Threat

Proteas are considered keystone species, particularly in the Cape Floral Kingdom, where they dominate entire mountainsides. However, climate change and land degradation pose significant threats to these ecological engineers. This research aims to provide crucial knowledge for the conservation of proteas and their unique ecosystems.

An Ongoing Quest for Knowledge

This project is ongoing, with the team committed to unraveling the mysteries of proteas. By understanding these remarkable plants better, we can develop effective strategies for their protection and ensure their continued existence for generations to come. Prof Steenhuisen acknowledges the invaluable support provided by the UFS faculty in this project, with the purchase of exciting analytical equipment underway that will allow them to delve into evolutionary patterns of flower scents and nectar sugars. Their assistance in crafting this reflects the university's commitment to fostering collaboration and advancing scientific research.

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