Tiina Särkinen

Biodiversity Scientist

Email: t.sarkinen@rbge.ac.uk

Phone: +44 (0)131 248 1030

Research Interests

I am a molecular biologist and a plant taxonomist studying plant evolution through time. My research focuses on understanding how climate affects species diversification and species diversity patterns we observe today.

Current Projects 

Extinction Risk in Plants 

National Geographic Society is currently funding my work on exploring extinction risk in plants. The project will explore extinction risk in relation to geography in one of the world’s most species-rich regions, the tropical Andes of Peru. This work is in collaboration with Museo de Historia Natural, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina. We are investigating the relationship between a species’ geographic range size (the area over which it occurs), and the breadth of habitats in which it occurs (niche width or habitat specialization). Range size is currently considered important in assessing the conservation status of species, but little is known about the link between extinction risk and ecological specialisation in plants. Data from animal studies has shown that ecological specialisation, as measured by the diet or host plant specificity, correlates strongly with threat status. Read more about the project in Botanics Stories.

Biome Evolution & Distribution Modeling 

I am continuing my previous work on biome evolution and biome distribution modelling in collaboration with Darién Prado (Universidad Nacional de Rosario, Argentina) and João Iganci (Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil). Our aim is to build a composite distribution model for the seasonally dry tropical forest biome through modelling a larger set of individual species endemic to the biome. We are also running similar analyses on the southern Brazilian high-elevation grasslands to model their distribution, and looking for funding to extend the work to test how biomes and their dominant plant species will respond to the predicted climate change scenarios.

Solanaceae Molecular Systematics

We have just finished our project on building a large, densely sampled molecular phylogeny for the whole of Solanaceae. This work was a collaborative effort with Lynn Bohs, Richard Olmstead, and Sandra Knapp. The phylogeny includes 1,075 of the total c. 2,700 species of Solanaceae, and all except two monotypic genera Darcyanthus and Capsicophysalis for which samples are sparse. As part of the project, we did a complete review of the Solanaceae fossil record, and discovered 50 fossils previously assigned to the family. Some of these fossils show a set of unique characters that can be used to confidently place them in the family phylogeny, and we have used these fossils to time-calibrate the large phylogeny with Bayesian relaxed molecular clock models. Publications from the project are currently in revision.

Solanaceae Taxonomy

Together with Sandy Knapp from the Natural History Museum, London we are building a taxonomic monograph for one of the most poorly understood clades of Solanum, the Morelloid clade. This clade includes c. 68 species often referred to as Black nightshades or the Solanum nigrum complex. The clade was not recognised in any of the sectional delimitations of Solanum, but was discovered as a strongly supported monophyletic clade in phylogenetic analysis by Bohs (2005). The clade includes the previously recognised sections Solanum, Episarcophyllum, Campanulisolanum, Parasolanum, and Chamaesarachidium.

There are currently 550 names for the c. 68 species in the clade, and much work is needed to sort out these names. The labyrinth of names is mainly due to the complex morphological variation found in some of the species. Most of the 68 species are endemic to the tropical Andes, although a set of ten agriculturally important species from the Solanum nigrum complex sensu stricto are native to Africa (Edmonds & Chweya 1997, Manoko 2007).

To aid the morphology-based revision, we are using molecular phylogenetic tools to better understand species diversity and species limits in this complex clade. I have used the three available plastid genomes of Solanum to develop a set of variable chloroplast markers for the clade. We are now building a densely sampled species-level phylogeny for the whole of the Morelloid clade using multiple accessions of each of the species to test species limits. We work in close collaboration with Lynn Bohs and her lab in the University of Utah where phylogenetic and taxonomic work on many of the Solanum clades is being carried out.

Research Background

Plants are found across all climatic extremes, from the driest desert to the wettest rain forests. Plant families or particular lineages are often specialised to specific climatic conditions - for example, the plant family Cactaceae are predominantly adapted to dry conditions, and only a few cacti have made it to the temperate grasslands in the Andes or the Amazonian rain forests. In comparison, there are many plant families that are mainly restricted to rain forests, such as Sapotaceae. My research focuses on understanding how do such climatic adaptations evolve along lineages over time.

There is evidence that lineages inherit their climatic niches from their ancestors, a concept referred to as phylogenetic niche conservatism. But we also know that big changes in climatic adaptations eventually occur, but how and when remains a question. Genetically, climatic adaptations are complex traits controlled by multiple genes. This means that large changes would be needed for a rain forest lineage to adapt to dry desert conditions. Such changes have taken place, however, and understanding whether some adaptations are easier/faster to gain/lose compared to others is important. Is the evolution of some of these climatic traits inter-related? Is there directionality to change in climatic adaptations? Is it harder for a rain forest species to adapt to drought, compared to a drought-tolerant plant species adapting to rain forest conditions?

Evolutionary studies of climatic adaptations can help us to understand how plants deal with climate change, which in turn can allow us to better predict how plants will cope with future changes. Climatic adaptations also relate to agriculture and crop breeding. Traits such as drought, frost and salt tolerance are of major importance in enhancing our crops and adapting them to future challenges. Understanding climatic adaptations in a broader, evolutionary context can bring us insights into the mechanisms that underpin them. Our studies on the evolution of climatic traits across diverse plant lineages could hopefully identify lineages that possess unique and interesting adaptations that could be further studied genetically.

Study Systems

My current study system is the plant family Solanaceae, a major crop family that includes the cultivated potato, tomato, eggplant, tobacco, and chili and sweet peppers. My work links with the Solanaceae Source project and the SOL Genomics Network.

My work focuses in the Andes and South America in general. Some of my work looks at biome evolution, where we draw together data from various plant families from species specialised to particular biomes to understand whether biomes act as biological meta-communities and control evolution at a higher level.


My work involves building densely sampled species-level phylogenies, time-calibrating phylogenies using fossils, and studying how climatic adaptations have evolved along lineages. Main bulk of the data I use comes from herbarium specimens: each specimen carries with it location data, and this can be georeferenced, which in turn allows me to draw climatic parameters from remote sensed data with GIS to study the climatic adaptations and to model species’ climatic niches.


  • Särkinen, T., and C. E. Hughes (2013) Systematics and biogeography of Amicia Kunth (Leguminosae, Papilionoideae). Systematic Botany Monographs, in revision.
  • Särkinen, T., L. Bohs, R. Olmstead, and S.D. Knapp (2013) A phylogenetic framework for evolutionary study of the nightshades (Solanaceae): a dated 1000-tip tree. BMC Evolutionary Biology 13: 214. pdf
  • Särkinen, T., and M. George (2013) Predicting plastid marker variation: Can fully sequenced plastid genomes from closely related species help? PLoS One, in revision.
  • Reynel, C., R. T. Pennington, and T. Särkinen (2013) Cómo se formó la diversidad ecológica del Perú. Centro de Estudios en Dendrologia & Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Lima. download
  • Lewis, G., B. Mackinder, R. T. Pennington, M. J. Sanderson, M. F. Wojciechowski, A. Egan, R. H. Fortunato, J. Hawkins, T. Kajita, B. Klitgaard, E. Koenen, M. Lavin, M. Luckow, B. Marazzi, M. M. McMahon, J. T. Miller, D. J. Murphy, H. Ohashi, L. P. de Queiroz, L. Rico, T. Särkinen, B. Schrire, M. F. Simon, E. R. Souza, K. Steele, B. M. Torke, J. J. Wieringa, B.-E. van Wyk (2013) Legume phylogeny and classification in the 21st century: Progress, prospects and lessons for other species-rich clades. Taxon 62: 217-248. weblink
  • Iganci, J., S. Miotto, T. Souza-Chies, T. Särkinen, B. Simpson, M. Simon, and R. T. Pennington (2013). Diversification history of Adesmia ser. psoraleoides (Leguminosae): Evolutionary processes and the colonization of the southern Brazilian highland grasslands. South African Journal of Botany, in press. weblink 
  • Fortuna-Perez A., M.J. da Silva, L.P. de Queiroz, G. Lewis, A.O. Simões, A. de Azevedo Tozzi, T. Särkinen, A.P. de Souza (2013) Phylogeny and biogeography of the genus Zornia (Leguminosae: Papilionoideae: Dalbergieae). Taxon 62: 723-732. weblink
  • Särkinen, T., M. Staats, J.E. Richardson, R.S. Cowan, and F.T. Bakker (2012) How to open the treasure chest ? Optimising DNA extraction from herbarium specimens PLoS ONE 7: e43808. pdf
  • Särkinen, T., R.T. Pennington, M. Lavin, M.F. Simon, and C.E. Hughes (2012) Evolutionary islands in the Andes: persistence and isolation explain high endemism in Andean dry tropical forests. Journal of Biogeography 39: 884-900. weblink
  • Särkinen, T., J.R.V. Iganci, R. Linares-Palomino, M.F. Simon, and D.E. Prado (2011) Forgotten forests - issues and prospects in biome mapping using Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests as a case study. BMC Ecology 11: 27. pdf
  • Simon, M.F., R. Grether, L.P. De Quieroz, T. Särkinen, V.F. Dutra, and C.E. Hughes (2011) The evolutionary history of Mimosa (Leguminosae) towards a phylogeny of the sensitive plants. American Journal of Botany 98: 1201-1221. pdf
  • Särkinen, T., J. L. Marcelo Peña, A. Daza Yomona, M. F. Simon, R. T. Pennington, and C. E. Hughes. (2011) Underestimated endemic species diversity in the dry inter-Andean valley of the Río Marañón, northern Peru: An example from Mimosa (Leguminosae, Mimosoideae). Taxon 60: 139 - 150. weblink
  • Hoorn, C., F. P. Wesseling, H. Ter Steege, M. A. Bermudez, A. Mora, J. Sevink, I. Sanmartín, A. Sanchez-Meseguer, C. L. Anderson, J. P. Figueiredo, C. Jaramillo, D. Riff, F. R. Negri, H. Hooghiemstra, J. Lundberg, T. Stadler, T. Särkinen, and A. Antonelli (2011) Origins of Biodiversity - Response. Science 331: 399.
  • Auvrey, G., D. J. Harris, J. D. Richardson, M. F. Newman, and T. Särkinen (2010) Phylogeny and dating of Aframomum (Zingiberaceae), In: Diversity, Phylogeny and Evolution in the Monocotyledons. Aarhus University Press: Aarhus, 287 - 305.
  • Hoorn, C., F. P. Wesselingh, H. ter Steege, M. Bermudez, A. Mora, J. Sevink, I. Sanmartín, A. Sanchez-Meseguer, C. L. Anderson, J. Figueiredo, C. Jaramillo, D. Riff, F. R. Negri, H. Hooghiemstra, J. Lundberg, T. Stadler, T. Särkinen, and A. Antonelli (2010) Amazonia through time: Andean uplift, climate change, landscape evolution, and biodiversity. Science 330: 927 - 931. weblink
  • Pennington, R. T., M. Lavin, T. Särkinen, G. P. Lewis, B. B. Klitgaard, and C. E. Hughes (2010) Contrasting plant diversification histories within the Andean biodiversity hotspot. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. 107: 13783 - 13787. pdf
  • Särkinen, T., R. T. Pennington, M. F. Newman, P. J. M. Maas, H. Maas, A. D. Poulsen, D. J. Harris, A. Clark, and M. Hollingsworth (2007) Recent oceanic long-distance dispersal and divergence in the amphi-Atlantic rain forest genus Renealmia L.f. (Zingiberaceae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 44: 968 - 980. weblink


Research Students 

Morvah George, MSc Imperial College London (2011-2012), Phylogeography of Solanum umbelliferum (Solanaceae), now at Kew Millennium Seed Bank

Guy Atchinson, MSc University of Edinburgh & Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (2011-2012), Phylogeny of the genus Physoclaina (Solanaceae), now in University of Zurich

Back to Top

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)