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Brandon Corder
Graduate Student
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Department of Botany

Posted 8-24-22

Twitter: @BrandonDCorder
Instagram: @brandoncorder

Brandon Corder

I'm interested in mycoheterotrophs, plants that turn the tables by parasitizing fungi. Orchids are one of the best represented groups of mycoheterotrophs, as all orchids utilize fungal Carbon to some extent, either as full mycoheterotrophs that sequester all of their Carbon from fungi and lack chlorophyll, as partial mycoheterotrophs that both parasitize fungi and do photosynthesis for themselves, or as initial mycoheterotrophs that parasitize fungi only at early development. My research takes this broad concept and investigates it from three different but complementary perspectives. The first involves understanding the molecular evolution of mycoheterotrophy within a lineage, in this case the orchid subfamily Vanilloideae, with multiple evolutions of full mycoheterotrophy. Here, I investigate patterns of gene loss within the chloroplast genome in a comparative framework to look for patterns in plants that lose the ability to photosynthesize and ask why some lineages are so prone to evolving full mycoheterotrophy.

The second and third perspectives I take focus on partial mycoheterotrophs, those interesting green plants that are secretly parasitizing fungi. Here, I am interested both in the ways that partial mycoheterotrophs can modulate their reliance of parasitism vs. photosynthesis under different environmental conditions and how their host fungi compositions may vary (or not vary) over a wide range. I look at several different North American orchids from this perspective but currently I am most interested in the three birds orchid, Triphora trianthophoros, one of our most mysterious native orchids. To do this, I collect data on environmental conditions (e.g. light), plant functional traits (e.g. leaf area, plant height, etc.), stable naturally occurring isotopes in plant tissues (which tells us where the Carbon is coming from), and isolate plant and fungal DNA over a wide distributional range. 

Image from Brandon Corder

How Brandon got interested in the botanical sciences:
I can thank my Dad, an amateur orchid grower and native plant enthusiast, for sparking my interest in plants. I have so many fond memories of exploring the forests of Florida with him as a kid! But when I started college at the University of Florida, I didn't immediately gravitate towards botany as a career. It wasn't until a few semesters into my undergrad when a friend and I took an intro plant diversity course by Stuart McDaniel. It resonated so much with my memories of admiring Florida's flora that I switched things up right there! Dr. McDaniel later offered me a volunteer position in his lab, and the rest is history. Soon I was diving into all of the courses offered including local flora, plant anatomy, plant systematics, and even paleobotany. All my professors were so encouraging and passionate, it really cemented botanical sciences as a pursuit for me.


Image from Brandon Corder

Brandon's advice for those just starting their botanical journey:
There is a really incredible and diverse community of plant people out there on the internet, be it as other botanical researchers, native plant enthusiasts, hobby growers, etc. Go on your social media platform of choice and follow some folks, learn, and make some friends! It's a great way to ask questions (about biology or about grad school / careers) and learn in a more laid-back way. I learn a lot about different career paths and opportunities just by simple diffusion from other people. Academically, it's another way to get caught-up on current conversations in the field in a more bite-sized way. I especially would recommend following some folks active in your region. It's a way to jumpstart your knowledge of local flora -- a great plant to practice and hone your botanical skills!


Other Passions:
The great thing about botany as a field of study, I've always thought, is that it naturally lends itself to so many related things: geography, soils, animals, language, food, etc. Because of that, I feel like I'm always getting into some new thing. I always love to do roadtrips, both for my research and for fun and especially enjoy when I can combine plant-watching with all the other fun things you can see on the road: cool rocks, a nice building, some good food, etc. I spend a lot of time just exploring like that. I encourage everyone to explore more of your own backyard, whether it's by foot, bike, car, whatever.

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