Jeffery Morawetz, The Fletcher Jones Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, was recently awarded the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration grant $20,000 for fieldwork.
Morawetz will make two, month-long trips to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s southern Katanga Province to collect the rare and unusual Orobanchaceae species that occur there. Chris Randle of Sam Houston State University, Morawetz’s main research collaborator, will accompany the RSABG post-doc on one of the trips. They will head into the field October and November 2012 and April 2013.
Some species of Orobanchaceae have significant economic and ecological significance as heavy metal accumulators, which may be useful for phytoremediation in areas polluted by heavy metal mining. Phytoremediation refers to the treatment of environmental problems through the use of plants that mitigate the environmental problem without the need to excavate the contaminant material and dispose of it elsewhere.
Given so little is known about the species of Orobanchaceae in Katanga, the goals of Morawetz’s project are to better resolve evolutionary relationships of the Congolese species, determine conservation status and document host plants for all species collected and determine if adaptation to metallic soils has increased the evolution of these plants given these species occur over a small geographic range.
There are 11 genera and ca. 70 species that he is targeting. Katanga is mineral rich, and the Katangan Copperbelt hosts a diverse but poorly known flora of heavy metal-tolerant plants—specifically they have tolerance for copper and cobalt.
Habitats are threatened due to regional mining interests and agricultural expansion. Parasites that are not known to attack crops may do so as agricultural development expands into the native range of the parasite.
In assessing the risk of host-switching of these parasites onto crop plants, it will be important to understand the relationships between known crop parasites and potential ones. Orobanchaceae contains four genera considered to be noxious agricultural weeds. Parasitic weeds to agriculture cause yield losses worth several billions of dollars annually, especially in developing countries.
Morawetz will be based out of the University of Lubumbashi, which is the home institution of his Congolese collaborator Edouard Ilunga.