Laboratory of Plant Systematics
Welcome to the Laboratory of Plant Systematics (K.U.Leuven). Since 2008 our lab is home to two research groups that use complementary strategies to document and understand the biodiversity of plants. One group focuses on “Biodiversity, Evolution and Biogeography of Angiosperms” (Erik Smets), while the other investigates the “Molecular Evolution of Plant Development” (Koen Geuten).
Biodiversity, Evolution and Biogeography of angiosperms
Our lab was started up in the early 90’s. The mission of the laboratory is to document the biodiversity of flowering plants. Maybe, the word systematics sounds somewhat outdated to you. You might think that all species on Earth are already described or that systematic research is synonymous to studies in loneliness in a stuffy office packed with herbarium sheets. This is strongly denied by our research. The interaction between descriptive-morphological and experimental molecular research ensures refreshing and fascinating outcomes. Moreover, Systematics, as the science that documents the biodiversity, will help formulating the right answers to the biodiversity crisis.
The common statements that systematics is the science of the ‘never-ending synthesis’ and that it represents the ‘basic science of biology’ are still true. Systematics merits the title ‘basic science’ all too well. It is no one except the systematist who discovers plants and animals in the wild, collects them, makes the first scientific descriptions, and names them. How would it be possible to communicate in all other sciences involved with living organisms and in our society in general without these names? At the moment, an estimated 1,5 million species have been described; an unknown amount (estimates vary between 4-70 million!) still awaits their first description! Besides, systematists are always prepared to collect new information about the organisms they have named and to integrate these data in growing databases to better understand the evolution of all life and to unravel the mystery of the relationships between living organisms.
Molecular Evolution of Plant development
Our group aims to understand the molecular genetic basis of plant biodiversity. We try to elucidate which differences at the molecular level can explain the diversity of flowering and flowers. Pursuing answers to our questions demands integrating information from both the evolutionary and molecular sciences: we borrow methods from genetics and molecular biology on the one hand and phylogenetics and morphological and anatomical characterization of plants on the other. So we split our time between the greenhouse, the lab bench and the stereo microscope. One of our main research goals is to develop methods in non-model species to enable us to investigate the molecular origin of features that characterize a group of related plants. We believe this will help us to understand which mechanisms plants have used in evolution to re-invent their form and how they keep up with changes in the environment. In addition we study general developmental processes for which we use transformable systems such as tobacco and tomato: this often has relevance to agriculture.