Nyree Zerega

Nyree Zerega

Director,  Program in Plant Biology and Conservation 
Northwestern University & The Chicago Botanic Garden

Phone: (847) 467-1266
E-mail: n-zerega@northwestern.edu

Ph.D. 2003, New York University and The New York Botanical Garden
M.S. 1998, New York University
B.A. 1995, Truman State University


Lab Members

Elliot GardnerPhD topic: Genomics and plant domestication

Kristen Laricchia - MS thesis topic: Comparative transcriptome study in breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)

Theresa Melhem - MS thesis topic: Origins and diversity of jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) in India

Maria Wang - MS thesis topic: Diversity and genetic structure in Chempedak (Artocarpus integer) and its putative wild progenitor



Lindsay Darling – MS thesis (2013): Genetic diversity and population structure of three tree species across and urban to remnant landscape gradient

Diane Huebner - MS Thesis (2009): Conservation genetics of American Sea Rocket (Cakile edentula, Brassicaceae). Current position: PhD student at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Tracy Misiewicz - MS Thesis (2009): Phylogeny, Biogeography, and Pollination in Dorstenia (Moraceae)
Current position: Doctoral student in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley

Colby Witherup - MS Thesis topic (2013): Jackfruit diversity and genetic structure in Bangladesh under changing propagation methods


Research Interests


Jackfruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus

Breadfruit dispersal. Click here for larger image

Breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis

Jackfruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus 

Dorstenia hildebrandtii

Moraceae biogeography and divergence times. Click here for larger image

Antiaropsis decipiens infructescence


My research integrates molecular, morphological, and phylogenetic tools with fieldwork to investigate the systematics, evolution, biogeography, and reproductive ecology of plants. I am also interested in the origins of cultivated plants. My work has focused primarily on members of the Moraceae (mulberry) family (~1100 species in 37 genera). The family displays an amazing array of diversity in inflorescence structures, pollination syndromes, breeding systems, floral characters, and growth forms. This diversity makes it an excellent group for addressing many intriguing evolutionary questions. Additionally, it includes several important food and fiber sources such as breadfruit, jackfruit, figs, and paper mulberry. I am also broadly interested in plant evolution and systematics and conservation genetics of plants. Some recent and ongoing projects are briefly summarized below. I welcome students who are interested in working on any of these projects or would like to develop their own. 

JACKFRUIT DIVERSITY AND ORIGINS.  The place of origin and wild ancestor of jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus, Moraceae) is unknown. It has been cultivated for millennia and was referred to as early as 300 B.C. by Theophrastus. It is now so widely cultivated that the region in which it is indigenous and where its greatest diversity may lie is unclear. Today it can be found in cultivation at low elevations from the Indian subcontinent through Bangladesh, Myanmar, into Southern China, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia and Oceania. It is also commonly cultivated in the Philippines, and has been introduced throughout Africa and the Neotropics. While the western Ghats of India is commonly cited as its location of origin, there is very little evidence to support this and little work has been conducted on understanding jackfruit diversity. We are developing microsatellite markers for jackfruit to investigate its genetic diversity and origins and are also conducting ethnobotanical studies of jackfruit in Bangladesh 

BREADFRUIT ORIGINS.  Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis, Moraceae) is a traditional starch crop in Oceania where it has been cultivated and improved upon by human selection for millennia and today hundreds of seedless as well as seeded cultivars exist. The entire tree can be utilized by humans, but it is primarily grown for its fruit. I have used AFLPs (Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphisms) to investigate the origins of breadfruit and its human-mediated dispersal through Pacific Island groups (Zerega 2003, Zerega et al. 2004). I am currently developing microsatellite markers for breadfruit.

BREADFRUIT SYSTEMATICS.  The taxonomy of breadfruit has long been controversial with variable numbers of species being recognized and possible hybridization among them. I have used DNA fingerprinting and morphological characters to revise breadfruit taxonomy (Zerega et al. 2005). Three species and hybrids are recognized. Thee plant material used in this study came from fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, and the world's largest and most comprehensive breadfruit germplasm collection located at the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) in Hawaii.

ARTOCARPUS PHYLOGENY. Artocarpus is the third largest genus in the Moraceae family and comprises approximately 60 species native to Southeast Asia and Malesia. Members of the genus are all latex producing, monoecious trees (rarely shrubs) with syncarpous fruits that can attain tremendous sizes (i.e. jackfruit, A. heterophyllus and chempedak, A. integer). While only the jackfruit and breadfruit, A. altilis, are commonly cultivated throughout the tropics, several other species are cultivated on a more regional scale in Southeast Asia for their timber, fruit, or seeds. Using nuclear and chloroplast DNA sequence data and morphological characters, an Artocarpus phylogeny has been reconstructed to study the evolution of inflorescence characters, address taxonomic issues, and identify wild relatives of the cultivated species in the genus (Zerega et al. 2010).

DORSTENIA SYSTEMATICS AND POLLINATION. With 105 species, Dorsteniais the second largest genus in the Moraceae family. Despite its close relationship with figs, virtually nothing is known about its reproductive ecology, and evolutionary relationships within the genus are not well understood. The genus is predominantly herbaceous (a unique condition in the family), and is evenly distributed between the Neotropics and Afrotropics (with one species reaching into Asia).A MS student, Tracy Misiewicz, focused on Dorstenia phylogeny reconstruction to test its monophyly, sectional classification, study character evolution, and understand Dorstenia biogeography. She has also conducted preliminary pollination studies in the family.

MORACEAE PHYLOGENY. Recent work has focused on biogeographical patterns and evolutionary rates of divergence in the Moraceae to understand when and where the family diversified (Zerega et al. 2005). Of particular interest are the temporal and geographic origins of the genus Ficus (figs) because of its highly specialized obligate mutualism with pollinating fig wasps. Figs and fig wasps are often considered to be a model for the study of coevolution and the implication is that figs diverged in parallel with their pollinators because the reproductive interdependence of these obligate mutualists requires that the lineages be temporally and geographically congruent.  Although this supposition is commonly applied to host-specific ecological interactions, few studies have actually tested this hypothesis by considering independent divergence dates for interacting lineages. Estimation of divergence dates for Moraceae will enable the comparison of scenarios for the origin of fig pollination based on dates from both figs and fig wasps.

POLLINATION IN THE SISTER TRIBE TO FIGS.  Although the obligate pollination mutualism between figs and fig wasps is well studied, very little is known about pollination in the rest of the Moraceae family. In order to better understand Moraceae pollination and the origins of the fig pollination syndrome, a member of the sister tribe (Castilleae) to figs has been investigated. Antiaropsis decipiens, a dioecious New Guinea endemic, is an early diverging lineage in the Castilleae. Based on phenological measurements, insect trapping, and pollinator exclusion experiments, a new species, Thrips antiaropsidis (Thysanoptera, Thripidae), has been recorded feeding on Antiaropsis pollen, breeding in the staminate inflorescences, and pollinating the carpellate inflorescences (Zerega, Mound, and Weiblen, 2004).  It appears that thrips are lured from staminate to carpellate inflorescences by deceit. These findings combined with evidence of thrips pollination in neotropical Castilleae suggest that thrips pollination is common if not ubiquitous in the sister group to figs and entomophily coupled with breeding in inflorescences preceded the origin of the fig pollination mutualism. I am interested in pursuing additional pollination studies in the Moraceae family, particularly in the genus Artocarpus and closely related genera.


Witherup, C, D. Ragone, T. Wiesner-Hanks, B. Irish, B. Scheffler, S. Simpson, F. Zee, M. I. Zuberi, N.J.C. Zerega. 2013. Development of microsatellite loci in Artocarpus altilis (Moraceae) and cross-amplification in congeneric species. Applications in Plant Science 1(7): 1200423http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.3732/apps.1200423#.UhOtVmR4bfg

Zerega, N.J.C. In press. Origins and Development of Breadfruit, in C. Smith (ed.). Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology: xx-xx. New York: Springer.

Misiewicz, T. and N.C. Zerega. 2012. Phylogeny, Biogeography and Character Evolution of Dorstenia (Moraceae). Edinburgh Journal of Botany 69(3): 413-440.

Zerega, N.J.C., M.N. Nur Supardi, and T.J. Motley. 2010. Phylogeny and recircumscription of Artocarpeae (Moraceae) with a focus on Artocarpus. Systematic Botany 35 (4): 766 - 783

Khan, R., N.J.C. Zerega, S. Hossain, and M.I. Zuberi. 2010. Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus Lam.) Diversity in Bangladesh: Land Use and Artificial Selection.  Economic Botany 64(2): 124-136.

Rønsted, N., G.D. Weiblen, W.L. Clement, N.J.C. Zerega, and V. Savolainen. 2008. Reconstructing the phylogeny of figs (Ficus, Moraceae) to reveal the history of the fig pollination mutualism. Symbiosis 45: 45-56

Zerega, N.J.C., D. Ragone, and T.J. Motley. 2005. Breadfruit Origins, Diversity, and Human-faciliated Distribution. Pp. 213-238 in T.J. Motley, N.J.C. Zerega, and H.B. Cross [eds.], Darwin 's Harvest: New Approaches to the Origins, Evolution, and Conservation of Crops. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA.

Motley, T.J., N.J.C. Zerega , and H.B. Cross. 2005. Darwin 's Harvest: New Approaches to the Origins, Evolution, and Conservation of Crops. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA .

Zerega, N.J.C., D. Ragone, and T.J. Motley. 2005. Systematics and species limits and a taxonomic treatment of breadfruit (Artocarpus , Moraceae). Systematic Botany 30(3): 603-615.

Zerega, N.J.C., W.L. Clement, S.L. Datwyler, and G.D. Weiblen. 2005. Biogeography and divergence times in the mulberry family based on chloroplast and nuclear DNA sequences. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 37: 402-416.

Zerega, N.J.C., Mound, L.A. , and G.D. Weiblen. 2004. Pollination in the New Guinea endemic Antiaropsis decipiens (Moraceae) is mediated by a new species of thrips, Thrips antiaropsidis (Thysanoptera: Thripidae). International Journal of Plant Sciences 165(6): 1017-1026.

Zerega, N.J.C., D. Ragone, and T.J. Motley. 2004. Complex origins of breadfruit: Implications for human migrations in Oceania.American Journal of Botany 91(5): 760-766.

Motley T. J., L. Lück and N. J. C. Zerega. 2004. Genetic diversity and DNA fingerprinting of black cohosh (Actaea racemosa). Proceeding of the Global Summit on Medicinal Plants 1:112-118 .

Zerega, N.J.C. 2003. The Breadfruit Trail. Natural History 112(10): 46-51.

Zerega, N.J.C., S. Mori, C. Lindqvist, Q. Zheng, and T.J. Motley. 2002. Using amplified fragment length polymorphisms (AFLP) to identify black cohosh (Actaea racemosa). Economic Botany 56(2): 154-164.

Bultman, T.L. and N.J. Conard. 1998. Effects of endophytic fungus, nutrient level, and plant damage on performance of Fall Armyworm (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). Environmental Entomology 27(3): 631-635.

October 21, 2014