Bioinformatics Ph.D. Student Conducts Research on Plant Native to Southeast Coastal Lands

Date Published: 
Friday, July 28, 2017

Shawn Chaffin, a Ph.D. student in the College of Computing and Informatics’ Department of Bioinformatics and Genomics, is focusing his research on the molecular analysis of yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria Ait.).  Yaupon holly, native to the coastal lands of the southeast, is a dioecious evergreen that grows in the form of a shrub and small tree.  Current efforts to revitalize the use of yaupon as a caffeinated beverage high in antioxidants by ASI Tea based in Savannah, GA ( caught the attention of Chaffin.

“The use of yaupon holly as a caffeinated beverage has origins in unrecorded history among precolonial southeastern Native American tribes,” said Chaffin.  “Evidence suggests trade networks existed for the crop from its coastal southeastern range of the United States from Virginia to Texas all the way to Wisconsin, Arizona, and down into Mexico. The plant was used in both social and ceremonial settings, and was highly regarded for a range of medicinal benefits and commonly referred to as the ‘Purifier’, the ‘Beloved Tree’, and ‘Big Medicine’.”  

Chaffin is exploring the native yaupon holly through genomic research.  Through this research, he is hoping to provide a genomic and phenotypic resource that could be used in both phylogenetic studies of yaupon and as a preliminary basis for future breeding efforts aimed at developing yaupon as a caffeinated tea commodity in the U.S.

“With the disruption of indigenous and early colonial trade networks of yaupon, much of the knowledge of its uses faded into obscurity,” said Chaffin.  “The plant was reduced to an ornamental shrub, though efforts were made by the USDA in the early 1920s to revitalize it as a U.S. grown tea commodity.  Only now have market trends in the organic beverage industry provided the ideal marketing environment for yaupon’s revitalization as a locally sourced organic U.S. grown tea, providing us a native reduced carbon footprint caffeine source rich in antioxidants, with natural drought and salt tolerance, and disease resistance.  While extensive variation exists among its use as an ornamental, no attempts have yet been made to breed the crop for traits desirable as a tea commodity.”

Chaffin expects to graduate in the Fall of 2018 and hopes to continue plant research into yaupon, yerba mate, guayusa, and other lesser known caffeinated plants upon graduation.  Chaffin also has strong interest in further research of the medicinal traditional of the indigenous Siekopai (Secoya) community of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon rainforest, with whom he has spent over 18 months developing familiar bonds as he studied among the eldest remaining cruanderos or healers of the tribe.  The medicinal plant knowledge of the Secoyas comes to the present day from an unbroken lineage into the unrecorded history prior to the reign of the Incas.   

About the College of Computing and Informatics
The College of Computing and Informatics (CCI) is the largest and most comprehensive technology program in North Carolina, and one of the largest in the nation, offering scale and critical mass in cutting-edge research and innovation. CCI is a national leader in interdisciplinary partnerships, bridging fundamental research with critical scientific, societal, and national defense challenges. It is also the home to leading research centers and institutes, including the Cyber Defense and Network Assurability (CyberDNA) Center, the Bioinformatics Research Center, the Charlotte Visualization Center, the Complex Systems Institute, and the Center for Education Innovation.  Active research awards currently total $38 Million.  @UNCC_CCI

About the University of North Carolina at Charlotte

UNC Charlotte is North Carolina’s urban research university. It is the fourth largest campus among the seventeen institutions of the University of North Carolina system and the largest institution of higher education in the Charlotte region. Current enrollment exceeds 28,000 students, including 5,000 graduate students.


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