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Environmental studies student awarded for research on re-domestication of native crop

Daniel Kington | Jun 13, 2018

Daniel Williams presents his research at the 2018 joint conference of the Society for Economic Botany and the Society of Ethnobiology.Daniel Williams, a second-year candidate in the Master of Science in Environmental Studies program at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, recently received the Julia F. Morton Award at this year’s joint conference of the Society for Economic Botany and the Society of Ethnobiology, held in Madison, WI from June 3-7. The award recognizes the best poster presented by a student or early career professional at the conference. 

“Winning the best poster award didn't cross my mind,” Williams said. “I’m incredibly honored.”

The Society of Ethnobiology is dedicated to the exploration of past and present relationships between humans and plants, animals and the environment across different global cultures, while the Society for Economic Botany focuses on the study of plants that are used or could potentially be used by humans for specific functions. The 2018 joint conference of the two organizations, titled “Food Security, Sovereignty and Traditional Knowledge,” featured oral presentations, breakout sessions, active/applied demonstrations and cultural field trips.

Williams’s presentation focused on the re-domestication of Chenopodium berlandieri, also known as lamb’s quarters and goosefoot. Lamb’s quarters was cultivated by Native American populations in the Ohio River Basin and in other parts of North America for its greens, which are similar to spinach and rich in minerals, and its seeds, which are similar to quinoa and provide a balanced source of protein and carbohydrates. However, upon European contact, the lamb’s quarters ceased to be cultivated and all domesticated varieties were lost.

“Today, instead of growing a native crop in Appalachian and Midwestern farms, Americans are paying high prices to import quinoa from farms that are destroying fragile ecosystems in South America,” Williams said. “However, recent research is bringing us closer to bringing back domesticated lamb's quarters, our native quinoa.”

Williams’s own research, titled "The role of polymorphism in Chenopodium domestication," seeks to better understand how human behaviors, such as seed saving and spring planting, changed lamb’s quarters over many generations. For example, Williams analyzed the way in which the thickness of a plant’s seed coatings effect the seed’s chance of survival in the wild and found that seeds with thinner coatings were more likely to sprout on warm winter days and then die off before spring. However, when intentionally planted under optimal conditions, plants that produce more thinly coated seeds might have more offspring, each of which might produce more seeds.

“Over generations a simple advantage like this might be the first step toward making a wild plant into a domesticated crop,” Williams said.

Williams enjoyed the opportunity to present his research to others in his field at this month’s conference.

“The poster presentation was the best possible kind of whirlwind,” Williams said. “It seemed like every time I gave my presentation, it turned into a conversation. Most of the other scientists in the room knew the species I study and its significance as prehistoric crop, so we were able to cut past the big picture and dive into detail. I therefore had the opportunity to ask several scientists about findings that confused me, directions for future work and methods to improve my data.”

Especially in light of having received an award at the conference, Williams plans to continue advancing his research.

“I think working hard, conducting good research and helping people is the best way to honor the spirt of the award and thank the people who gave it to me,” Williams said. “Currently I'm following the suggestion of a colleague who was also at the conference: ‘Now get it published so I can cite it.’”