Honors College Professor seeking students to help research genetics of ancient seeds

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Honors College Professor and Director of Engaged Learning Liz Brite is fascinated by agricultural innovation and cultural change in prehistory.  The archeologist has worked on research expeditions in many parts of the world—including Uzbekistan, India, Peru, California and the American Southwest—and is now preparing to head to the UK with undergraduate researchers.  Brite is looking for students to join her on a Spring Break project examining the genetics of ancient cotton seeds recovered from an archaeological dig in Uzbekistan in 2009. The seeds are approximately 1500 years old and could yield clues about the evolution of domesticated cotton.

Dr. Liz Brite, Honors College Professor and Director of Engaged Learning

“Cotton may seem an obscure thing to study, but it is a critical part of the global agricultural economy,” Brite said.  “For this reason, there is a lot of interest among scientists in understanding its evolutionary ecology and biology.”

Working with a team of scientists, Brite’s student partners will participate in archaeogenomic research on the seeds to try to learn more about them. Archaeogenomics is the application of genetic research to materials recovered from archaeological sites.  It is a technique that has allowed groundbreaking insights into the evolution of the human species, the most famous example being the study of Neanderthal DNA extracted from their bones.

“The cotton seeds we are studying were an exciting discovery because they appear to be the first evidence for cotton agriculture anywhere in the northern latitudes (outside the plant’s native habitat),” Brite explained. “Traditionally, archaeology couldn’t tell us much more than this, but with new approaches in genetics we may now be able to identify these seeds to the species level (a critical question that can tell us more about their origins) and learn more about how selection acted on them to change their biology.”

Students will research alongside faculty members from a variety of fields.  Their work with the seeds may include identifying their species, understanding how they are alike and different from modern cultivars, discerning how the features that allow them to adapt to cold environments are expressed in their genome, and/or gaining a better sense of how archaeological deterioration affects our ability to recover their DNA.

“This is an excellent opportunity for students to see truly interdisciplinary research at work,” Brite said.  “This project would be impossible for any of us as individual scientists to achieve. Archaeologists can uncover the seed remains but we cannot understand their biology; geneticists can understand their biology but cannot place the seeds’ historical significance; and biologists can reveal the plant’s evolutionary history but cannot relate it to the human past.”

In addition to offering a compelling look into archaeogenetics, Brite is hoping the research trip will help students with their scholarly project.

“It gets students in the lab, working with faculty, and working with each other to produce new knowledge,” she said.  “This is the goal of the Honor College’s scholarly project, and this opportunity is an initiative to help set students on a successful track to complete these projects, whether they ultimately focus on the archaeogenetics of cotton or something else.”

  • Students accepted into the project will be funded to conduct 1-2 weeks of research over Spring Break at a specialized genetics laboratory at the Univ. of Warwick, UK (travel expenses included).
  • Students must commit to attend 4 class sessions in February and to travel March 10-18, 2018.
  • Honors College students with interest and/or background in plant science, genetics, evolutionary biology, or archaeology/anthropology are especially encouraged to apply.  Priority will be given to those HC students who can articulate how the work might lead to their scholarly project. 

More information and an application form can be found HERE.