Cornell University

"Forty-five Years of Modeling Plant Evolution" - Karl Niklas

Friday, March 23, 2018 at 12:20pm

Plant Science Building, 404

Karl Niklas
Professor, Plant Biology, Cornell University

I am a plant evolutionist who uses physics, engineering, and mathematics to understand the relationship between plant form and function and how this relationship has evolved in consort with the physical environment over the course of Earth's history.

Research Focus: My focus is on plant evolution, particuarly how the shape, size, internal structure and reproductive biology of plants have changed over the course of millions of years of evolution.

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Abstract: For the past forty-five years, I have researched the biophysical relationships between organic structure and function using the tools of mathematics and physics. My goal has been to understand the evolution of plants (here defined to include the polyphyletic algae) from an organismic and quantitative perspective. Many of my investigations have employed computer generated mathematical models to quantify functional relationships. Each of these models has been empirically tested and validated (as best as possible) using extant plants so that each model can be used to infer the structure-function relationships among extinct plants. I will review four case studies in an effort to illustrate the virtues (and pitfalls) of using models or organic macrostructure. In order of presentation, these case studies are modeling (1) reproductive organ shape, geometry, and orientation and their effects on the capture of air-dispersed spores or pollen, (2) the effects of phyllotactic patterns and leaf orientation and geometry on the efficiency of light-capture, (3) the simultaneous performance of manifold tasks (e.g., light-capture and mechanical stability) and plant phenotypic diversity, and (4) the effects of different biomass allocation patterns on tree and forest growth. These four case studies illustrate the adage that “data without theory is a corpse and theory without data is a ghost”.

Event Type



Plant Biology, Sustainability


nysaes, CALScomm, plant biology, sips




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Tara Reed

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Karl Niklas

Speaker Affiliation

Cornell University

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