Evolution and speciation in carnivorous pitcher plants, and plant-based technological applications

Project title

Evolution and speciation in carnivorous pitcher plants, and plant-based technological applications

About the research project

Carnivorous plants have evolved multiple times in the plant kingdom in nutrient-stressed environments. Pitcher plants are a striking example of convergent evolution in which unrelated lineages have evolved remarkably similar traps independently. Our research explores diversification in Nepenthes pitcher plants that appears to be linked to novel strategies for obtaining nutrients from specific sources - insects, leaf litter and mammalian faeces, for example. Together with scientists in the Department of Plant Sciences, we are exploring new tools for examining the enzyme activity profiles among species to explore potential physiological divergence linked to these patterns of nutrient acquisition.

Furthermore our observations of insects sliding off slippery surfaces into the pitchers suggests that they are driven into the trap in a way that is more tightly controlled than considered previously. The ‘pitfall’ trapping mechanism is enhanced by water-infused grooves on the slippery peristome surface, which drive prey into the trap in a way that avoids arbitrary slippage. Working with mathematicians and engineers, we have identified a potential mechanism for transporting and sorting droplets, controlled by ‘energy railings’, inspired by the plant. Such mechanisms could be applied to technologies such as rainwater harvesting and anti-fogging coatings, as well as to rapidly expanding new technologies such as Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) and digital microfluidic devices.

We are currently building an extensive collection of Nepenthes  pitcher plants to support this research.

Project team

Dr Chris Thorogood (Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum, University of Oxford)

Professor Simon Hiscock (Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum, University of Oxford)

Professor Renier van der Hoorn (Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford)

Dr Finn Box (Department of Physics, University of Manchester)

Dr Jian Hui Guan (Department of Engineering, University of Manchester)

Outputs

Thorogood CJ, Bauer U, Hiscock SJ (2017) Convergent and divergent evolution in carnivorous pitcher plant traps. New Phytologist. DOI: 10.1111/nph.14879.

Box F, Thorogood CJ, Guan JH (2019) Guided droplet transport on synthetic slippery surfaces inspired by a pitcher plant. Royal Society Interface. DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2019.0323.

Links to further information

Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum research projects

New Phytologist blog

Royal Society blog