Biologists aim to preserve history through plants


Marisa Szubryt, a senior from Mokeno studying plant biology, examines the flower of a plant known as Euthamia Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017, at her apartment in Carbondale. “Working with the data has been really interesting in a way that I hadn’t been exposed to before,” Szubryt said. “That’s all very exciting, being like, ‘Okay, so this thing groups with this other thing, and oh, they look similar because of this and that’s why.” (Cory Ray| @coryray_de)

By Cory Ray

For almost two years, senior Marisa Szubryt has been busy making a family tree.

But not her own family tree — she has been making one for different species of the same type of plant.

“We can see the actual consequences of speciation,” said Szubryt, an undergraduate research assistant from Mokena studying plant biology.


Szubryt and plant biology professor Kurt Neubig are working to outline the evolutionary history of a type of plant known as Euthamia.

“Our goals are to document biodiversity, because we’re losing biodiversity quickly,” Neubig said. “If we don’t document what exists in biodiversity, then we will never have known what had existed.”

Euthamia is a group of closely-related plant species, almost like cousins to an immediate family group that represents individual species.

The plant blooms yellow flowers related to sunflowers that can be found natively throughout most of North America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Szubryt said she questions the number of species of Euthamia, because past studies have relied on simply looking at the plants rather than studying their genetic makeup.

“Even if we don’t understand or see the differences,” Szubryt said, “the world around us often does, and it has meaningful ecological implications.”

Szubryt, Neubig and four other students create what are known as phylogenetic trees, maps akin to family trees that show how related species are.  


“It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle where there’s no picture,” Neubig said. “All the pieces fit together in a very similar way … People piece this jigsaw puzzle together differently.”

Szubryt said they have brought a couple of species “back from the dead” through the naming process. They’ve been able to delineate between species that were previously considered to be hybrids.

“[One name] was only ever mentioned in 1902,” Szubryt said. “It was almost immediately put as a synonym, but it comes out as distinct both genetically and when you look at it.”

She said she stumbled upon one species considered to be a hybrid while working over the summer in the Great Lakes, and she has since studied them on the genetic level and found the two are distinct.

“There is a lot of the world that we walk around every single day, and we just sort of take it for granted sometimes,” Szubryt said. “There is a lot more complexity, grandeur and beauty in seeing how complicated and sophisticated everything is.”

Neubig and his team have also identified a unique relationship between the plants and a species of fly that only lays eggs on these types of plants.

“That specificity is remarkable,” Neubig said.

When female flies lay eggs, they also deposit a fungus that newly-hatched larvae use as food, Neubig said. In the relationship, the fungus digests the plant without detrimentally hurting it.

Neubig said through also studying the fly species, they’re managed to identify a diversity that has never before been documented.

The research has taken Szubryt everywhere from Louisiana to Wisconsin to various sites in southern Illinois, she said.  

Szubryt said she will continue her work in Neubig’s lab following her graduation in December, at which time she will begin her master’s degree in plant biology.

“I like looking for little pieces,” she said. “I like to bring things together.”

Staff writer Cory Ray can be reached at or on Twitter @coryray_de.

To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.