Seminars on Science
Kirsten Fisher

Zohar Ris
Dr. Fisher. ©AMNH

Kirsten Fisher is a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in Durham, North Carolina.  Her research interests include plant systematics, biogeography, and the use of phylogenetic trees for exploring evolutionary questions in general.  In particular, she is interested in extending the principles of systematics and biogeography to understanding the evolutionary history of gene families.  Kirsten’s current research at NESCent focuses on the complex trait of desiccation tolerance in land plants. 

Desiccation tolerance is the ability of an organism to recover after drying down to only 10% or less of its original water content.  It is a rare trait that is broadly distributed throughout the tree of life, and is generally restricted to tiny organisms or propagules (resting cysts, seeds, etc.).  In the plants, desiccation tolerance is fairly common in the lineages descending from the earliest land plants, the bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts).  Through land plant evolution, this trait was lost in the vegetative bodies of plants, but was retained in the pollen and seeds.  In the flowering plants, desiccation tolerance of the vegetative tissues has re-evolved at least 8 times.  Kirsten’s research looks at some of the key gene families thought to be involved in desiccation tolerance, in an attempt to trace their functional evolution throughout the history of the land plants.  She is particularly interested in the origins of vegetative desiccation tolerance in the flowering plants, and the ancestral functions of the genes involved in the convergent evolution of this trait.

Kirsten received her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and went on to graduate school at UC Berkeley, where she received her PhD in 2004.  Her dissertation research, funded by an NSF PEET (Partnership for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy) grant, involved the morphological and molecular phylogenetic systematics of a large pantropical moss family called Calymperaceae.  During the course of this research, she had the good fortune of organizing field trips to French Polynesia and Madagascar to collect specimens.  In 2005 Kirsten finally left Northern California and moved to Durham, North Carolina for her current position at NESCent.  She has a strong interest in evolution education, and has been involved in teacher training workshops, undergraduate and K-12 teaching, and curriculum development at both UC Berkeley and NESCent.

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