Dr. Mishler teaching in the field
Dr. Mishler focuses on empirical studies of bryophytes, and theoretical research in systematics and evolutionary biology.
Recent theoretical studies emphasize an examination of what the data matrix in phylogenetics represents, including analyzing concepts of the OTU and of characters and character-states. This extends his long standing interest in species concepts.
Another recent area of study critically examines the current idea of "DNA barcoding" (that proposes to use a short sequence from a standard gene to characterize a species). Dr. Mishler argues that this approach is misguided and offers "integrative taxonomy" as an alternative, which takes into account all evidence to name new species and to identify them.
When not theorizing, Dr. Mishler can be found in the lab or in the field researching the reproductive biology, ecology, and biosystematics of the diverse moss genus Syntrichia (Tortula). Of particular recent interest is Syntrichia caninervis, a moss found in the Mojave Desert of California, which exhibits extreme desiccation tolerance, very low frequency of sexual reproduction, and a skewed sex ratio (females are 20 times more common than males).
In Arizona with a patch of Syntrichia (lower right)
Dr. Mishler is also taking part in the collaborative program called Assembling the Tree of Life sponsored by the National Science Foundation. His portion of the effort, dubbed the Green Tree of Life, aims to resolve the primary pattern of evolutionary diversification among green plants and establish a model that can be applied to other groups of organisms with deep evolutionary histories.
He is also one of the lead investigators in the Moss Genome Project which publicly unveiled in April the complete genome sequence of the moss Physcomitrella.
Dr. Mishler: Q&A
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
As an undergrad at Cal Poly, Pomona in the mid-70's, not particularly sure what I wanted to do with my life, I took classes in ecology that opened my eyes to the environmental issues of the day and all the potential effects humans can have. I decided I wanted to be a scientist to help understand the natural world, and its vulnerabilities, better.
I wanted to work on chaparral ecology, the vegetation I grew up in, but when I went to ask a Cal Poly professor about the idea, he said "everyone studies the flowering plants in chaparral, but no one has studied the mosses -- why don't you look at them?" I did, found them fascinating, and 30 years later still haven't gotten enough of them!
What led you to the questions you are now investigating in your research?
I was drawn to systematics (i.e., understanding evolutionary relationships and reflecting them in classifications) soon afterwards -- it was clear to me then as now that we need to know what we have, in order to conserve it.
I started out working on the phylogeny of my mosses, but was drawn progressively into broader and broader relationship questions such that I ended up working on the whole green plants, a huge branch of the tree of life that includes a half-million species ranging from unicellular green algae to mosses, ferns, redwoods, sunflowers, and orchids. This can happen to you in research if you don't watch out...
How does your research affect your classroom and/or lab?
I do my best to translate the excitement of tackling the big questions and the small in biology, in the realization that these seemingly different scales are intimately connected. I also try to inject a heavy dose of theory, concepts, and method in addition to the empirical findings, as I am convinced that the most important thing a student can learn is the process of science, rather than a series of facts.
What do you enjoy most about your research?
When I can get outdoors, travel to interesting places around the world, and study plants in their environment. Going back inside to the computer and lab is great too, for awhile!
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May / June 2007