West Shore Community College announces the publication of a research study by Associate Professor of Biology Paul Bilinski in the May issue of the scientific journal PLOS Genetics. A member of college’s science department, Bilinski specializes in botany.
His article, “Parallel altitudinal clines reveal adaptive evolution of genome size in Zea mays” was well-received by the scientific community. The study examines corn – Zea mays – and the way it’s adapted to growing regions.
“Maize has been grown for several thousand years in both Central and South America,” he explained. “Usually, it is grown at low elevation, but it has adapted to high elevations in both areas. We looked at the corn that’s grown today to see whether it has adapted in the same ways in high altitude Mexico and high altitude South America.”
The two crops used the same genetic mechanisms to adapt to high elevations, Bilinski and his team discovered. “We believe that shrinking part of the genome helped it adapt to higher elevations,” he said.
The findings will potentially shed light on the development of local plant life, as well. “A lot of pitcher plants and bladderworts grow in Western Michigan,” he said. “They’ve adapted to soil here that lacks the nutrients they need. We think their small genomes have used the same process to adapt to their environment that maize is using to adapt to high elevation.”
Bilinski’s work could also prove useful in addressing the problem of Michigan’s invasive plant species, such as autumn olive, garlic mustard, and Japanese stiltgrass. “We have an idea about what genetically is allowing these plants to be so prevalent,” he said. “In order to combat them, we need to more fully understand what is happening that makes them succeed here.”
Joining the Community
Bilinski has felt at home on campus since his arrival in January. “West Shore is a phenomenally beautiful place,” he said. “I was drawn to it primarily because it’s a strong academic institution with a priority on student learning. But you can’t beat the location and the beauty of the campus.”
The West Shore campus is a botanical laboratory, Bilinski said, where students can observe plants and trees in their native habitat and conduct projects in the woods, fields, and along the lake and stream. In his walks across campus, he has identified several lycopods, the unique princess pine, and a large variety of orchids. “It’s like a treasure hunt to see these different species and how they’ve adapted to their different niches, how they coexist, and how they thrive in Western Michigan,” he said.
Bilinski’s courses in botany, general biology, local flora and life sciences complement the work of Professor Mike McKinney in biology, anatomy, and zoology. “Paul is a top-notch researcher,” said McKinney, chair of the college’s science division. “West Shore is fortunate to have a person of his quality on the faculty.”
“My role here is to give students the tools they need to succeed in careers in the plant sciences,” Bilinski said, noting that such careers include work in ecology, conservation, and agricultural operations including the breeding of hops.
He hopes to increase the awareness of and appreciation for local flora both on and off campus. “There’s definitely a role for the citizen scientist,” he said. “It’s important to understand local plant life in order to protect diversity and the ecosystem.”
Bilinski came to West Shore from a postdoctoral position with the Research Group for Ancient Genomics and Evolution at the Max-Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany.
He received his PhD in plant biology in 2016 from University of California, Davis, and his masters and bachelor’s degrees from UC San Diego, and he taught botany at Napa Valley Community College.
Since moving to the area, Bilinski and his wife, Natasha, have already discovered the natural beauty and recreational opportunities throughout the college district, including running clubs and snowshoeing at Ludington State Park. “It’s fantastic that there’s so much care and interest in our environmental jewels,” he said.