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Evolution and Diversity

Head of Group: Dr Samuel Brockington

Positions for PhD students and postdoctoral research associates are available in the Brockington Lab.  Please email for further details and expressions of interest.

Plants are an exceptionally diverse and successful group of organisms comprising over 400,000 species. Over the past 470 million years they have colonized almost every conceivable environment from harsh deserts to arctic tundra, and have profoundly altered the earth's atmosphere, climate, and geochemistry. We focus on fundamental questions surrounding the origin, evolution and diversification of the plant kingdom.

Our research is both comparative and integrative, combining systematics, morphology, development, molecular genetics, and physiology. The major theme that unites these different approaches is phylogeny, which we use to reconstruct the evolutionary history of organismal and gene diversity to provide a comparative framework for our work.

Major areas of interest currently include the phylogenetic relationships within flowering plants especially the order Caryophyllales, evolutionary biosynthesis of metabolic pathways focussing on betalain biosynthesis in Caryophyllales, the evolution and conservation of Tulips, and the evolution of fog-harvesting geophytes in Namaqualand.


Current Research

1. Caryophyalles Systematics and Evolution

Angiosperms or flowering plants are the most diverse and dominant of the land plant lineages comprising some 350,000 species, including all major crop plants. Supervised by Douglas and Pamela Soltis I aquired an interest in the broader brush strokes of angiosperm  systematics. I did my PhD on the Evolution and Development of Petals in Aizoaceae (Caryophylalles) and participated in several international collaborations to reconstruct the angiosperm phylogeny, such as the  Angiosperm Tree of Life Project. My involvement has focussed in particular on the the Caryophyllales. Currently  I am currently collaborating with Michael Moore and Stephen Smith to apply transcriptomic approaches to understand phylogeny, molecular rate and trait evolution within Caryophyllales.  The Caryophyllales is a general source of inspiration for my research into trait evolution including the evolution of betalain biosynthesis discussed below. 

  • Brockington SF, Rudall PJ, Frohlich MW, Oppenheimer DO, Soltis PS, Soltis DE (2011)  “Living Stones” reveal alternative petal identity programs within the core eudicots  (featured article) The Plant Journal 69: 193–203 
  • Brockington SF, Alexandre R§, Ramdial J§, Moore M, Crawley S, Dhingra A, Hilu K, Soltis P, Soltis DE (2009) Phylogeny of the Caryophyllales sensu lato: Revisiting hypotheses on pollination biology and perianth differentiation in the core Caryophyllales. International Journal of Plant Science 170 (5): 627–643 
  • Yang Y, Moore MJ, Brockington SF,  Soltis DE, Wong GKS, Carpenter EJ, Zhang Y, Chen L, Yan Z, Xie Y, Sage RF, Covshoff S, Hibberd JM, Nelson MN, Smith SA (2015) Dissecting molecular evolution in the highly diverse plant clade Caryophyllales using transcriptome sequencing. Molecular Biology and Evolution Volume 32 (8): 2001–2014 [pdf]

 2. Betalains and Tyrosine Metabolism in Caryophyllales

A major focus of the lab is understanding the evolutionary biosynthesis of the unique betalain pigments in Caryophyllales. All land plants are coloured with flavonoids such as anthocyanins. Caryophyllales are the exception as many lineages have lost anthocyanin pigmentation, which has been replaced by tyrosine-derived betalain pigments. We have developed tools to detect specialized metabolic gene radiations, described the role of gene duplication and neofunctionalization in the evolution of the betalain pathway, identified a betalain-related gene cluster, and supported the characterisation of novel genes in betalain biosynthesis. We recently identified the convergent evolution of betalain biosynthesis  and have genetically manipulated primary metabolism to engineer an 8-fold increase in betalain production in heterologous host systems.

  • Timoneda A, Sheehan S, Feng T, Lopez-Nieves, Maeda HA, Brockington SF (2018) Redirecting Primary Metabolism to Boost Production of Tyrosine-derived Specialised Metabolites in planta. Scientific Reports 8 (1) 
  • Brockington SF*, Yang Y*, Gandia-Herrero F, Covshoff S, Sage RF, Hibberd JM, Wong GKS, Moore MJ  Smith SA (2015) Lineage-specific gene radiations underly the evolution of novel betalain pigmentation in Caryophyllales. New Phytologist 207(4): 1170-1180  
  • Brockington SF, Walker RH, Glover BJ, Soltis PS, Soltis DE (2011) Complex Evolution of Pigmentation in the Caryophyllales. New Phytologist 190: 854–864
  • Lopez-Nieves, S, Yang Y, Timoneda A, Wang M, Feng T, Smith SA, Brockington SF, Maeda, H. (2017) Relaxation of Tyrosine Pathway Regulation Underlies the Evolution of Betalain Pigmentation in Caryophyllales. New Phytologist 217: 896-908 
  • Timoneda  A , Feng T , Sheehan H , Walker‐Hale N, Pucker B , Lopez‐Nieves S , Guo R, Brockington SF (2019) The evolution of betalain biosynthesis in Caryophyllales. New Phytologist 224: 71-85 

 3. Ex-situ and In-situ Plant Conservation

As the Curator of a major ex-situ living collection of plants at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden,  I have inevitably become interested in the field of plant conservation, and the integration of ex-situ collections and in-situ conservation through science-informed best practice. Our primary contribution here has been an analysis of the  world-wide ex-situ collection of plants held in the global botanic garden network, examining the potential of living collections for plant conservation. We have also examined the  relative contribution and significance of global and sub-global datasets of plant threat assesments. As the National Collection Holders for Tulips in the UK, w are currently involved in understanding the evolution of tulips and their conservation in Cantral Asia, in collaboration with Flora and Fauna International, and collaborators in Kyrgyzstan, funded by the Darwin Initiative.

  • Mounce R, Smith P, Brockington SF (2017) Ex-situ Conservation of Plant Diversity in the World’s Botanic Gardens Nature Plants, 3 (10) 795 
  • Mounce R, Rivers M, Sharrock, S, Smith P, Brockington SF (2018) Comparing And Contrasting Evidence-Based Threat Assessments Of Plant Species At The Global And Sub-Global Level. Biodiversity and Conservation 27 (4) 
  • Brockington SF, Glover BJ (2017) Botanic Gardens and Solutions to Global Challenges in “Plant Conservation Science and Practice: The Role of Botanic Gardens”. pp 166-191 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

 4. Fog-harvesting plants of Namaqualand

I love doing field work in South Africa and have a growing interest in the remarkable geophytes of South Africa, especially in the Northern and Western Capes. We are currently studying the phenomenon of fog-harvesting plants, which have been suggested to harvest non-precpitating moisture from the air. Our focal groups are Gethyllis and Eriospermum which have both been suggested to be fog harvesting. We are reconstructing the phylogenetic history of Eriospermum in order to understand the evolution of their remarkable leaf structures, and conducting physiology experiments to explore to what extent they harvest moisture from the air. 

The Department has carried out a comprehensive COVID-19 risk assessment process and has opened to allow research work to take place. To ensure the safety of our staff, a range of measures to reduce building occupancy and allow strict social distancing have been introduced, including increased cleaning and hygiene regimes. We are currently not accepting visitors so please continue to contact us by email until further notice.