BU researchers find new tomato

Matt Farrand/The Standard-Journal

Cheyenne Moore, a graduate student of biology, looked over a Dungowan bush tomato, which was recently discovered to be a species of its own through research led by a Bucknell University post-doctoral fellow.

LEWISBURG — Plant research contributed to by Bucknell University specialists recently discovered and named a type of tomato which was otherwise a mystery.

Chris Martine, a biology professor, and Angela McDonnell, a post-doctoral fellow, did their research into a new tomato (solanum plastisexum) over the course of several trips to the northern reaches of Australia. Its popular name is the Dungowan bush tomato.

Martine said the region is tropical, with conditions ranging from extremely wet during monsoon months followed by very dry conditions the rest of the year.

“A lot of our questions are related to how do plants live and adapt to those environments (and) how have they evolved to meet the challenges of those environments,” Martine said. “Some of that work leads us to exciting outcomes. We actually end up discovering and naming new species. This is one of the handful of new species we have been able to describe scientifically.”

McDonnell said Martine and colleagues found the plant in the field in 2016. They collected data but did not know it was a new species.

“Then in 2018 after we suspected that it was new based on some molecular data, we revisited it again and collected then more samples,” McDonnell said. “Ultimately (we) decided it was definitely new, based on its morphology, its appearance or how it looks, and some DNA evidence.”

McDonnell the goal of the project was to better understand biodiversity science.

The Dungowan bush tomato, which bears a basically inedible bitter fruit, was found exclusively along about 100 miles of a single road in the Northern Australia.

“Some of the flowers have both male and female parts,” McDonnell said. “The female parts on those flowers are able to produce fruit which produces viable seeds.”

Those seeds have now sprouted and grown in an indoor growing space at the top of the Robert J. Rooke Science Center. The room is kept at a temperature and humidity level akin to the monsoon tropics of Australia.

Unlike more predictable species of plants, its reproductive characteristics or sexual expression is fluid.

“(Solanum plastisexum) depending on when you collect it and where you find it, it seems to be doing something different almost every time,” Martine said. “It is not stable in the way that it expresses itself sexually. That’s kind of interesting, different than most of the species we study.”

PhytoKeys, a peer-reviewed journal of biodiversity research, published the finding in a paper by McDonnell, the lead researcher, Martine and Heather B. Wetreich, also of Bucknell. Jason T. Cantly of San Francisco State University and Peter Jobson of the Northern Territory Herbarium, Alice Springs (Australia) were also given writing and research credit.

Undergraduate researchers included Jon Hayes of Mifflinburg, Ariel Antoine of Bowie, Md. and Cheyenne Moore of Frenchville, Clearfield County, a masters student in biology. They take care of plants being studied and pursue their own projects.

Staff Writer Matt Farrand can be reached at 570-742-9671 and via email at matt@standard-journal.com.

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