Traversing Turkey in Search of Gold-of-Pleasure

Day15 018I was ecstatic when I found out I would travel to Turkey to do field work for the summer of 2014 on a BRAVO! grant. This wasn’t my first time in Turkey though, it was my third. However, I was presented with a unique challenge this year, independently coordinating and traveling half way across the world in search of my plant of interest, Camelina.

You might be wondering, what is Camelina and why did you travel so far to collect this plant? Camelina is a genus in the mustard family (Brassicaceae) which includes the long-cultivated and re-emerging oilseed crop, Camelina sativa. Also known as gold-of-pleasure, Camelina sativa seeds and oil have been consumed since antiquity, but recently it has also become a promising bioenergy crop. Both commercial and military jet aircraft have been tested using Camelina sativa oil blends, indicating its potential as an alternative aviation fuel. Furthermore Camelina sativa may be grown on marginal crop land with minimal inputs such as fertilizers.

While Camelina sativa cultivation has many benefits, it is thought that the genetic diversity among Camelina sativa crops is low. This leads to many problems for plant breeders who are seeking to increase the crop’s productivity and introduce beneficial traits such as salt or drought tolerance. Therefore, my project is focused on discovering new populations of Camelina to uncover potentially new and useful traits in wild relatives, but also to uncover the relationship between other species in the genus and Camelina sativa. My findings will provide essential information to breeders who can use it to further improve Camelina sativa.

That’s where Turkey comes in – it is the bridge between Europe and Asia, has a diverse array of climates and geographies, and it is an area of high Brassicaceae (and Camelina) diversity. For my trip I was able to organize a five day field collection Day11 060expedition with my Turkish collaborator, Dr. Ali Dönmez. We explored central Anatolia as well as some Black Sea terrain in hopes of finding under-represented Camelina species. This trip allowed me to collect plant specimens that will improve our knowledge of Camelina distribution as well as to collect some interesting variants of Camelina hispida, an unusual species in the genus. Best of all, I was able to see more interesting places in Turkey. My last two trips to Turkey took me all over the Mediterranean coast, the inner steppe, and west of the Bosphorus. This year I was able to experience the beauty of the Black Sea region, from rocky coasts and blue waters to unique cuisine and distinct traditions.

As part of my trip, Dr. AliDönmez invited me to the 22nd National Biology Congress, an incredible honor that left me with an abundance of memories and knowledge. It was fascinating to observe a foreign conference and get a first-hand look at the biological research going on in Turkey. Admittedly, it tested the limits of my Turkish and I often found myself scratching my head or lost in the middle of lectures. During the conference I was able to network with Turkish professors and students, many of whom invited me to visit their labs, my favorite of which was a scorpion research lab that contained dozens of scorpions and spiders- creepy! Other professors invited me to their universities to see their herbaria (collections of pressed plant specimens), where I was able to see some fascinating Camelina specimens collected from across Turkey over the past couple hundred years. During my free time I hung out with students that I met at the conference, and I was even able to take day trips to different cities with some of them, further expanding my list of cities visited.

It is hard to say what was the most enjoyable part of the trip. I am tempted to say that it was the diverse and delicious food, but then again, driving around Turkey was a thrilling adventure. And unlike my other trips to Turkey, this time I was all alone and completely immersed in Turkish language, culture and cuisine. This not only forced me to engage others in their native tongue but it also allowed me to experience Turkish culture first hand, sometimes visiting family homes for home cooked meals, and other times joining in the festivities of Ramadan.

In all I collected dozens of Camelina specimens, stayed in beautiful cities such as Ankara, Bursa and Eskişehir, passed through nearly a hundred villages and towns, and explored archeological and historical sites such as Midas city, Sinope, Seyitgazi and Beypazarı. This magnificent trip wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration of my Turkish collaborator, Dr. Ali Dönmez who provided field expertise and navigated the occasionally treacherous Turkish roads. I thank BRAVO! for giving me and other students the fantastic opportunity to research abroad!TurkishCongress
Funded in part by a grant to the University of Arizona from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI 52006942)