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Smithsonian Botanical Symposium
The 2021 Smithsonian Botanical Symposium: Day 1
Plant Symbiosis: The Good, the Bad, and the Complicated

The Department of Botany and the United States Botanic Garden will hold the 2021 Smithsonian Botanical Symposium, “Plant symbiosis: the good, the bad, and the complicated,” virtually, on May 13th and 14th.

Plants, like all organisms, exist in collaboration and competition with other life forms. As primary producers, plants form the basis of most food webs. In many cases, they also depend on insects, vertebrate animals, bacteria, and/or fungi to survive and reproduce. Sometimes, these interactions are especially close and long lasting and such symbioses are among the most fascinating relationships in the natural world. The 18th Smithsonian Botanical Symposium will explore current research in the diversity of plant symbioses, examining the relationships plants have with insects, fungi, bacteria, and even other plants. Each day’s session will culminate with a virtual panel Q&A session. Speakers will include botanists, ecologists, microbiologists, and geneticists, whose research unravels the complicated relationships that plants have with their collaborators and competitors in the natural world.

Schedule for Thursday, May 13, 2021 (Eastern Time)
1:00 pm - Welcome
1:10 pm - Presentation of the José Cuatrecasas Medal
1:20 pm - Naomi Pierce, "Context dependent evolution of the African ant acacia, Vachellia drepanolobium, and its multitude of symbionts"
1:40 pm - Jay Bolin, "Hydnora from fungus to foul flower: the natural history of the strangest plants in the world"
2:00 pm - Posy Busby, "Assembly and function of the leaf microbiome"
2:20 pm - Panel Discussion

May 13, 2021 01:00 PM in Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Smithsonian Botanical Symposium
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Naomi Pierce (Harvard University)
Context dependent evolution of the African ant acacia, Vachellia drepanolobium, and its multitude of symbionts
The Whistling Thorn Acacia, Vachellia drepanolobium, is a dominant tree on black cotton soils of East African savannas. In exchange for protection against enemies, these ant acacias secrete food rewards from extra-floral nectaries and provide housing in the form of swollen stipular thorns for at least four different species of ant inhabitants. Ant acacias are finely adapted to read the signals of their ant partners, and experiments show they can respond selectively to volatile compounds from different ant species. In addition, abiotic factors such as the stoichiometry of soil nutrients can exert profound effects on these associations. Along with the ants, the trees host a cornucopia of myrmecophiles and microbes, each of which contributes to shape the context-dependent evolution of this complex symbiosis. Fungi in particular may interact symbiotically with host trees to enhance growth, and ants likely play an underappreciated role in vectoring fungi and bacteria between trees.
Jay Bolin (Catawba College)
Hydnora from fungus to foul flower: the natural history of the strangest plants in the world
The parasitic genus Hydnora undoubtedly include the strangest plants in the world. Ranging from the Cape of Good Hope to the Horn of Africa and across the Red Sea to the Arabian Desert, the parasitic plant genus Hydnora has astounded and amazed naturalists that are fortunate enough to observe it. However, few encounter this bizarre and furtive plant parasite, because it spends most of its life underground stealing water and nutrients from the roots of host plants. When Hydnora emerges from the soil, the grotesquely beautiful flowers defy expectation by looking and smelling of rotting meat, indicators of an incredible pollination story. Bolin, an authority on this twisted branch of life, will describe the history, ecology, and evolution of this wonderful group of botanical oddities, recounting explorations and new species discoveries from the restricted diamond fields of Namibia to the margins of the Rub’ al Kali desert in the Sultanate of Oman.
Posy Busby (Oregon State University)
Assembly and function of the leaf microbiome
Non-pathogenic microfungi live in and on the leaves of all land plants. Individual fungi within these cryptic communities can alter plant disease severity by antagonizing or facilitating pathogens, or by modulating plant defense. Yet how the leaf mycobiome as a whole alters the landscape of plant disease is poorly understood. In this talk, Busby will describe her work in Populus trichocarpa, the black cottonwood of the Pacific Northwest USA, which seeks to elucidate leaf mycobiome assembly processes and the consequences of the leaf mycobiome for plant disease.