by Ashley Mooney

Biology professor Kathleen Pryer discussed the sex lives of ferns with a group of students Monday in the Center for LGBT Life.

“We’re trying to develop a new lifecycle (of ferns) that we hope textbooks will pick up,” Pryer said. “There are a range of ways that ferns have sex and each of these has is own evolutionary consequences and genetic outcomes.”

At the lunchtime lecture, Pryer also revealed her lab’s newly discovered fern species, Gaga germanotta, named after pop star Lady Gaga.

By naming a species after somebody outside of the world of scientific research, Pryer said she wanted to give Lady Gaga a namesake that will recall her activism efforts.

“The work that she’s done, the money that she’s put behind the Born This Way foundation, I think is incredible,” Pryer said. “She’s a real champion for justice and equality, and I wanted to do this so that she would have a scientific namesake—something that will last forever long after she’s gone.”

Lady Gaga also bears some likeness to a fern gametophyte, which is a fern early in its developmental cycle. At the 2010 Grammys, Lady Gaga wore a costume that strongly resembles a gametophyte, Pryer said.

The new species is part of a genus containing 19 species that were originally listed as cheilanthes. True cheilanthes—ones that have kept their original designation—are South American ferns that are nearly indistinguishable from Gaga ferns in appearance. Their differences, she said, are in their DNA.

“When we line up all our sequence data [of the Gaga ferns]… in a particular gene there is a string of GAGA,” she said. “The closest relatives of the genus Gaga doesn’t have that synapomorphy.”

Flowering plants—the most diverse types of plants on the planet with approximately 350,000 species—reproduce using seeds. Ferns on the other hand reproduce through spores contained on the undersides of their leaves.

Pryer noted that many people do not understand the vast diversity of ferns. There are about 12,000 species, including the typical forest ferns, aquatic ferns, desert ones and ferns that are the size of trees.  Pryer’s main focus has been on desert ferns—most of which appear similar but have different DNA patterns.

Beyond the variation in appearance of fern species, Pryer said the plants have multiple mating strategies, even though textbooks usually only teach one form.

Pryer describing the fern lifecycle often depicted in textbooks. Credit: Ashley Mooney.

One of the lifecycles they’re investivating involves a bisexual gametophyte, which is usually the first gametophyte in a population to mature. It forms a notch where it produces archegonia while antheridia develop on the outside. Most ferns have archegonium—the female component where eggs are located—and antheridia, which contain sperm. The gametophyte emits a pheromone that signals to all nearby developing gametophytes that they should become male.

Pryer said the diversity she found in ferns is only one type of sexual diversity in the world, and she hopes that a common interest in such differences will connect her field with the general population.

“We live in this world and we’re all interested in diversity in many different ways,” she said. “This makes a connection between what [scientists] do and human diversity and it also makes people who are Gaga fans say, ‘hey, what’s up with these botanists.’ I’m hoping that we can engage the two communities. When people talk about interdisciplinary work, I’m taking it to ‘the edge of glory.’”

YouTube Video about the naming: 19 Species of Ferns Named for Lady Gaga

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