The unknown plant project
Laboratory Experience in Plant Biology
Biology 234
Fall 2002

The unknown plant project:

Throughout the course of this semester, you will be carrying out an ongoing (and primarily independent) project on the description and classification of an unknown plant. Each of you will be given a packet of "unknown" seeds. Imagine that you have discovered what you believe is a new plant species. Your assignment is to study your newly discovered plant from every possible perspective and place it into the existing classification scheme. Your characterization of the plant should be as comprehensive as possible — take into consideration your plant’s development, morphology, anatomy, physiology, reproduction, genetics, etc.


The goal of this project is greater than the description and classification of an unknown plant.  This project has been designed to increase your expertise in plant biology, to improve your observational and experimental skills, to refine your communication skills, and to continue your development as a scientist.  The quantity and quality of your work are both important considerations.  The degree to which you demonstrate your progress as a scientist and as an expert on the unknown plant will help determine the grade you earn for this project.

Reading assignment:

Mauseth, Chapter 18 - see especially figures 18.15 and 18.16

N. Ozhatay and E. Akalin (2000), A new species of Ferulago W. Koch (Umbelliferae) from north-west Turkey. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 133:535—542. (EJC)

C. S. Tawan (1999). A new species of Gonystylus (Thymelaeaceae) from Sarawak, Borneo. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society (1999), 130: 65—68. (EJC)

How to proceed:
You should plant a few of your seeds in a few pots ­ consider what (micro)environment(s) you might want to grow your seeds in!  You may also want to save some of your seeds for future use, as you cannot get any more seeds (consider them irreplaceable).  Along these same lines, you will need to take care of these plants ­ providing them with water, soil, light, etc. on an ongoing basis.  Your first plants should give you some idea of how rapidly they grow and develop.  If your plant is a rapid grower, then you might get through an entire life cycle with the plants.  If not, then your efforts will have to focus more intensively on the early stages of its development.  It is your responsibility to decide what to examine and how to examine it, what the results mean, and when your inquiry is complete.

Mid-way through the semester we will carry out a lab project on molecular phylogeny, in which each of you will extract DNA from your unknown plants and obtain some DNA sequence information to help in the classification of your plants.

Although you will be individually and independently carrying out your investigations and presenting your findings, you are encouraged to talk with each other on a regular and frequent basis about your approaches and findings.  Science is often carried out on a collaborative basis.

So what did you discover?

The talk: Your oral report should be no more than 10 minutes, and should include visual aids for the benefit of your audience.  It is more challenging to give a short presentation than a long presentation.  You should think carefully about what you will present and how you can best use the time allotted: What are the main points that you want to make? What are the key pieces of evidence necessary for your conclusions? What visual aids will be "worth a thousand words" to your audience?  Be sure to rehearse your talk (content AND presentation style are both important!). And remember - YOU are the expert on your unknown plant!
Web sites with helpful hints about giving oral presentations:

The paper: Your written report should be in a well-organized free-form style (rather than in the style of a traditional scientific research paper), including a description of your unknown plant as it would appear in the first publication of a new species (see figure 18.15 and assigned journal articles for examples). Your report should include diagrams, drawings, figures, tables, graphs, a type specimen, and whatever other useful evidence you have gathered.  Be certain to explain your rationale for your conclusions based on your results.  This project will require some library research, so be certain to use proper citations for this material (see the Biology department style sheet). Your report must be no more than 10 pages of text (12 point font, 1.5 - 2 line spacing, 1 inch margins). References and figures will not be counted within the page limit. Remember to proofread your paper before submitting it. I will not grade papers that require substantial proofreading. No extensions will be granted, and a penalty of 10 points per day will apply to late papers.

Due dates: The communication part of the project is due Thursday, December 5 and consists of written and oral components described above.

Web resources:

from the 

 A Short Botanical Glossary compiled by Jim Croft   Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research

CHAPTER 25. PLANT IDENTIFICATION from the University of North Carolina

Plant Identification Guide with basic leaf forms, leaf shapes, and types of leaf margins from A Living Laboratory: Volcanoes, part of the 

The Families of Flowering Plants Character List by L. Watson and M. J. Dallwitz

TaxKey, Key to Families of Flowering Plants from 

World Wide Flowering Plant Family Identification from Prof. Ray Phillips at 

Thonner's analytical key to the families of flowering plants

from Jane M. Bowles at 

Vascular Plant Family Access Page from Gerald Carr at 

University of Wisconsin - Madison Plant Systematics Collection includes plant images representing over 250 families and 1000 genera of vascular plants



Chromas  is a Windows application which displays and prints chromatogram files from ABI automated DNA sequencers.
You will need to download this application in order to edit your sequence files.

  will allow you to compare your sequences with sequences in all available sequence databases
   BLAST is short for  Basic Local Alignment Search Tool

Get started by using this BLAST TUTORIAL

  is the National Center for Biotechnology Information

will allow you to find related species for which sequence data is available.
It also includes a list of Taxonomy Resources.