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MU doctoral student's love for wild onions garners accolades, attention

Tuesday, October 7, 2008 | 7:13 p.m. CDT; updated 10:33 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Erica Wheeler, a biological sciences doctoral student stands in the herbarium at University of Missouri's Museum Support Center. The herbarium contains preserved samples of the wild onions that Wheeler is working to classify through DNA analysis.

COLUMBIA — When it comes to wild onions, Erica Wheeler has a penchant for adventure.  

Since 2007, the MU biological sciences doctoral student has spent $3,000 to $4,000 of her own money traveling the nation and searching for wild onions.   

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Her mission: to create a family tree of North America’s 87 members of the wild onion family based on DNA comparison. 

“Field work is really what I love.” Wheeler said. “If I can’t do that, science just isn’t worth it for me.” 

In July, Wheeler received an $1,800 fellowship grant from the American Philosophical Society’s Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research. She has also received a total of $2,550 from three other foundations to help pay for her costs and research.  

According to Linda Musumeci, research administrator for the society, only 8 to 10 percent of applicants are accepted, and Wheeler’s proposal was “highly regarded.” 

“I was really honored,” Wheeler said.   

Even more impressive, Musumeci noted, was the comment made by one of the two reviewers of Wheeler’s grant proposal: She has a possibility of becoming the U.S. or world authority on onions. 

After earning a master’s degree in biology from British Columbia’s University of Victoria in 2006, Wheeler came to MU to earn her doctorate in biological sciences.   

She was fresh off working with the rare slim-leaf onion of Vancouver Island and had “caught the bug.” 

“I knew I wanted to do this project before I got here, “ Wheeler said.  

The Museum Support Center on Rocky Quarry Road contains the herbarium where Wheeler keeps her pressed specimens along with the 200,000 other plant specimens held in the center’s rows of metal cabinets. When she’s not in the field, lab or greenhouse, Wheeler can be found working at the center. 

“It’s a big library of pressed or dried species,” said Baadi Tadych, curatorial assistant for the herbarium. “Some are even turn of the century.”  

As Wheeler flipped through pressed specimens, she commented on the most familiar of Missouri’s 10 species of wild onion, a species that is commonly known as a wild-leek or ramp. 

Technically a native species of Missouri, the wild-leek is related to a broad, flat leafed family of wild onions in Central Asia, Wheeler said.   

Familiar culinary plants like leeks, chives, and garlic belonging to the onion family typically are not native to North America. These species were usually domesticated in, and are endemic to, Europe or Asia, Wheeler said.  

The pressed and dried specimens are called voucher specimens and are preserved in a manner that allows for their DNA to be obtainable years later. Voucher specimens provide the species, details on the species’ location and a bloom date for anyone who wishes to continue research or verify previous findings, Wheeler said.     

In 2007, Wheeler used this information to locate species on her trips to California and Oregon. She also encountered the limits of the occasionally ambiguous information, often having to search for the wild onions well into the evening, after a long hike into the wilderness. 

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” Wheeler said. “Where it was collected in 1975 could now be a Wal-Mart.” 

Her work in 2008 focused on species in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Washington. For 2009, she has plans to focus her work in Texas, Mexico, Georgia and Alabama. 

The majority of Wheeler’s time has been spent in California and the Northwest due to the high diversification of species.  

Of the 87 species native to North America, 50 are located in the western states. The high level of species diversity in this region may be the result of the very diverse climatic conditions and soil types, Wheeler said. 

“You can find on one hillside a certain type of species and a little down the hill the soil may change and there may be a different species,” Wheeler said. 

Her future research will focus on why ‘sister species’, two most genetically similar species, sometimes have very different geographic range sizes. These studies will provide not only a better understanding of the factors influencing diversification, but why some species are rare and at risk of extinction. 

“I would call myself an evolutionary biologist;” Wheeler said. “I’m interested in how biological diversity forms in nature.” 

People are impressed with Wheeler and her current research. But, according to Wheeler, the real work lies in the future. Once the tree is complete she can study the interactions of species and their environment in the context of their genetic heritage. 

As Musumeci glanced over Wheeler’s grant proposal one more time, she said it was clear Wheeler’s work had impressed the society. 

“This one is very clear in its objectives and significance,” Musumeci said.  


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