Plant curator Ya Yang with a microscope

Exploring Plants and Their Chemicals

Ya Yang embraces an interdisciplinary approach to research


Ya Yang, our curator of plants, is leading a $1.4 million collaborative project with Sam Brockington at Cambridge University, Hiroshi Maeda at University of Wisconsin, and Stephen Smith at University of Michigan. Support for Yang’s team here at the University is $480,000. We sat down to get some details on this exciting grant—learn more in this Q&A with Yang!

Can you explain your project at the most basic level?

We’re interested in looking into the variety of chemicals that plants make. The group of plants I study consists of 12,000 species including beets with red pigment, as well medicinal plants in various parts of the world known for traditional medicine use. We’ve known for a long time that this group of plants has amazing adaptations to deserts and mountaintops and they make a lot of chemicals that we use for medicines and pigments. Beet pigment is one of the most highly produced plant pigments. For example, it is commonly used in the food industry, including to color strawberry ice cream.

Other plants in this group produce high-value plant products. It’s funny—the other day I bought a bag of “super grains” including quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, which are all in this plant group. They really produce a high amount of essential amino acids and proteins. Lots of effort is going into trying to grow these super grains because of their nutritional value.

Generally, this family of plants is important for food industry and for traditional medicine. As evolutionary biologists, we like to see what kind of chemicals plants have and why they make these. We want to learn what the evolutionary forces are that drive these adaptations.

For this grant, we’re leveraging the natural history collection that we’ve accumulated over the last five years for another project—frozen tissues from botanical gardens and field collecting in Mexico and the southern United States. Our collaborator, chemist Hiroshi Maeda at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, will do chemical analyses and we’ll combine his data with gene expression data and whole genome sequences.

Beets and strawberry ice cream

Did you think strawberries made strawberry ice cream that delectable pink? Think again—the heavy lifter is another plant all together.


What are you most excited about in this research?

Two things. One is working with awesome people. Both Stephen Smith and Samuel Brockington have been my mentors and continuing to work with them—and also this new collaboration with Hiroshi Maeda—has been super productive and we’re seeing interesting chemicals popping out.

Two, as evolutionary biologists, it can be really hard to connect changes in gene sequences to the mechanisms of evolutionary change, but using this big data approach we’re starting to get into mechanisms in previously understudied plants that are actually super interesting and live in these extreme habitats. We’re exploring things that haven’t been explored before using novel interdisciplinary approaches.

What challenges have arisen or do you foresee in the project?

This is something really new, so some is predictable—we know we’re going to analyze samples we have and get something from the chemical analysis—but we don’t know exactly what we’re going to get. We’re exploring new territory: There will be things that are confusing or complicated, but it’s also really exciting.

What impact might this research have on the field?

The interdisciplinary approach of combining people in museums with a background in natural history and specimens with big data and biochemists is super challenging because these things haven’t come together in the past, and it will involve a lot of troubleshooting and new ways of thinking and new tools. Training students is a big part of it. Students with training in big data and biochemistry will have to come together and talk, and hopefully this process will spark some new ideas and collaboration.