Dolores Piperno's research is concerned with the antiquity and character of prehistoric human adaptations in the lowland tropical regions of the Americas, together with the biogeographical and climatological history of the tropical biome. A major focus is the investigation of agricultural origins and dispersals, which occurred in the Neotropics and elsewhere in the world between 11,000 and 9000 years ago, through studies of plant remains preserved in archaeological sites. Understanding crop plant evolution and the process of plant domestication is central to these investigations. This can be achieved through experiments on modern representatives of crop plants and their wild progenitors.
Darwin first recognized the value of domestication as a model of evolution and ever since, research on plant and animal domesticates has gone hand-in-hand with revolutionary advances in the biological sciences. Most recently, the integration of formerly separated fields such as developmental and evolutionary biology together with a consideration of the roles of epistasis and the external environment are generating novel data and insights that have thus far been missing from gene-centered approaches. It is clear that a broader, more interdisciplinary framework is required to understand how prehistoric people domesticated plants.
Accordingly, Piperno's lab at STRI is investigating the role of developmental plasticity and gene expression in the domestication of maize. The wild ancestor of maize, Zea mays ssp. parviglumis (commonly called Balsas teosinte and native to tropical southwestern Mexico) is being grown in environmental growing chambers at the STRI Gamboa field station under the reduced levels of temperature and atmospheric CO2 that characterized the end of the last ice age, shortly before people started cultivating teosinte. Our experiments are exploring whether gene expression changes at a major maize domestication genetic locus, teosinte branched 1, could have been environmentally-induced, leading to heritable, maize-type phenotypes in plant and inflorescence architecture before human influence began. Our study will also provide some of the first information on plant characteristics in ice age environments, which dominated the globe for 80% of the time during the past two million years, and be of value for predicting the possible range of plant responses to future environmental change.
- "2011 Piperno, D.R. The Origins of Plant Cultivation and Domestication in the New World Tropics: Patterns, Process, and New Developments. In The Beginnings of Agriculture: New Data, New Ideas, edited by D. Price and O. Bar-Yosef. Special Issue of Current Anthropology. Volume 52, No. S4, 453-70.
- 2009 Gremillion, K. and D. R. Piperno. Human behavioral ecology, phenotypic (developmental) pasticity, and agricultural origins. Insights from the emerging evolutionary synthesis. Current Anthropology 50:615-519.
- 2007 Piperno, D.R., Moreno, J.E., Iriarte, J.E., Holst, I., Lachniet, M., Ranere, A.J. and Castanzo, R. Late Pleistocene and Holocene environmental history of the Iguala Valley, Central Balsas watershed of Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104:11874-11881.
- 2006 Piperno, D.R. The Origins of Plant Cultivation and Domestication in the Neotropics: A Behavioral Ecological Perspective. In Foraging Theory and the Transition to Agriculture, edited by D. Kennett and B. Winterhalder, pp.137-166. University of California Press, Berkeley. CA.
- 2001 Sanjur, O., D.R. Piperno, T.C. Andres, and L.Wessel-Beaver; Phylogenetic Relationships Among Wild and Domesticated Cucurbita (Cucurbitaceae) Inferred from a mtDNA Gene: Implications for Crop Plant Evolution and Areas of Origin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 99:535-540.