VCU assistant professor of biology Andrew Eckert is a plant evolutionary biologist with a lifelong passion for tree biology and genetics. “I’ve always been fascinated by trees,” Andrew tells us, “so when you go outside and look around, most of the plants you see are trees – and trying to understand their biology, their genetics, where they came from – sort of just naturally flows from trees being the dominant plant form on the landscape for me.”
Andrew grew up in Napa, California and attended Humboldt State University where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and minors in Biometry, Botany and Geography. After graduating with a Ph.D. in 2006 from the Department of Biology at the University of Washington and publishing numerous, heavily-cited scholarly papers, Andrew was hired by VCU in August 2011 as a plant evolutionary biologist and associate professor. He is currently tasked with researching the broad area of plant evolutionary biology which, in Andrew’s case, is how trees adapt to their environments.
Most of his current research comes from funds provided by VCU, but he also receives funding from awards he has won as well as a Postdoctoral award (providing work for a graduate student) from the National Science Foundation. That project focuses on setting the genetic basis of fire adaptations for southeastern pines, or the adaptation of “traits that allow trees to withstand fire or to reproduce quickly after fire moves through a forest.”
Andrew also received a grant from the New Phytologist Trust, which publishes the journal New Phytologist. The New Phytologist covers all aspects of plant science, with topics ranging from intracellular processes through to global environmental change. In addition, a travel award from the Department of Biology allowed Andrew to attend a plant and animal genome conference held in January in San Diego, which led to more research in the genetic data of plants, animals and even bacteria.
A large part of what he does is to employ a statistical method to detect whether a gene may be experiencing selection upon it due to natural selection. He describes the way he does this as “a simple correlation analysis.” Andrew takes observations of DNA molecules – trees, in this case – and measures that data against their appearance, like how fast they grow, or their resistances to certain disease. “For instance, when a tree has this kind of gene, then it would have this level of resistance to a disease, and that’s the sort of thing that you can do fairly easily that are kind of intuitive.”
Andrew recently attended a forestry conference on tree biotechnology in Asheville, North Carolina. The conference is held in a different part of the world each year. Asheville was chosen for the wildlife pine breeding programs and forestry in the Southeast U.S.
“It’s a conference that covers everything,” Andrew said, “from breeding trees for industrial uses to cultivation genetics, and studying trees in their natural populations.”
The future of his research will involve new factors brought in by climate change. “How can we best utilize natural genetic variation to understand how trees will deal with climate change?”
Written by James Galloway