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By Matt Hughes
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Professor Chris Martine's mentor and collaborator, David Symon, passed away in 2011, but that would not be the end of their work together. Martine, the David Burpee Chair in Plant Genetics and Research, has identified a new plant species. When he set out on the project, Martine had no idea he was completing work his mentor had begun nearly a decade earlier.
Martine first encountered Symon while studying for his Ph.D. in the early 2000s. Martine's graduate research focused on varieties of eggplants that grow wild in the Australian Outback, and Symon was Australia's foremost expert on those plants. They began a long-distance correspondence, with Martine sending Symon emails and Symon, then in his 80s, returning handwritten replies by mail. The two met in person in 2004, teaming up on a field expedition to search for new plant species in the Outback.
"David had discovered and named many of the species I was studying, so I was keen to learn whatever I could around the campfire each night," Martine said. "I was thrilled to be apprenticed to the master."
Martine discovered the new eggplant species during a second expedition to Australia in 2009. Botanist Ian Cowie of the Northern Territory Herbarium in Kakadu National Park showed him dried specimens of the plant, which Cowie suspected to be of an unknown variety. After returning to the U.S., Martine was able to confirm through DNA testing that the plants were a previously undiscovered species of eggplant, but he couldn't publish those findings yet. In order to identify a new species of flowering plant, a scientist must describe its entire structure, including flowers, and neither Martine nor Cowie had seen the plant in bloom.
Last May, Martine again returned to Australia with fellow Bucknell biology professor Beth Capaldi and student researcher Gemma Dugan '14 with two goals: to find the elusive eggplants in bloom and to study the interaction of similar plants with bees. Evans is an expert in bee behavior. || Read more about the expedition.
The researchers revisited a section of Litchfield National Park known as the Lost City, where Martine had spotted the species, without flowers, four years earlier. A wildfire had recently scorched the area, making it easier to pick out green sprouts amidst the gray and brown landscape. Combing through the brush, Martine spied a wild eggplant with budding flowers.
"If I was capable of doing backflips, I would have done them," Martine said. "The only issue was that this was supposed to be our last day in the field and not a single bud had opened. We extended our time in the bush and camped out for two more nights, riding out on the long dirt track to the Lost City each day hoping those buds had opened, but they never did."
As it turned out, they didn't need to. Upon returning to the Northern Territory Herbarium, Martine and his co-investigators discovered that other botanists had collected specimens with flowers on them. He could return to Bucknell to complete his identification of the new plant variety.
Before he left, Martine opened the herbarium's file to gather what information already existed about the plant. What he found there floored him. Accompanying the dried specimens was a page of notes in his mentor's hand, penned shortly after their 2004 expedition together.
"Recognizing that this was likely something novel, David commenced describing it as a new form," Martine said. "He likely stopped short of publishing the new species for the same reason I have until now: under the heading 'female flowers' he wrote, 'Not seen.'"
Martine published his findings in PhytoKeys, an online journal providing researchers a fast track for cataloguing new plants. He named the species Solanum cowiei to honor the botanist who first recognized it as something new, and credited Symon as a co-discoverer. Evans is listed as the paper's third author.
Martine said he is proud to follow in the ranks of his mentor, and the thousands who preceded him, in the age-old tradition of cataloguing the natural world.
"For a plant geek like me, this is like winning a conference championship," Martine said. "We biodiversity scientists have been at this for centuries, so it's awfully cool to feel like a part of the grand endeavor of describing life on Earth — and to know that there is still more to find."
This is the fifth time Martine has been involved in the identification of a new species — he has previously helped describe other eggplant relatives from Australia and Peru — and he anticipates publishing more soon. Martine's lab is currently working to identify another unknown variety of wild eggplant, and during the May expedition the researchers also found caterpillars eating their eggplants that may turn out to be a new species of moth.