SciWorks Radio
5:41 pm
Fri March 14, 2014

Plant Species Preservation

Clingmans Dome Spruce Fir Tree
Clingmans Dome Spruce Fir Tree
Credit By Brian Stansberry (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

As we face climate change, what happens to regional plant populations? Many may not be able to adapt quickly enough, and a mass extinction could lead to the loss of potential life saving chemicals found only in these yet unstudied plants. Over-harvesting of wild plant life is another looming threat for certain species that cannot be overlooked. Thankfully scientists are taking all this into account. I spoke with Dr. Joe-Ann McCoy

I direct the development of a large collection of native plants for long-term conservation , the North Carolina Arboretum Germplasm Repository Located in Asheville North Carolina.

Germplasm, a lot of people don’t understand what it is. its simply hereditary material passed from one generation to the next, In this case normally in the form of seeds. The seed bank is a long term seed storage facility. We had chosen to develop the program here in western North Carolina because it's such incredibly diverse Part of North America. Part of the reason why western North Carolina is such a bio diverse region is obviously because of the coastal plain, the Piedmont and the mountain region with all of our incredibly diverse habitat type. But in addition throughout the last three ice ages, this portion of North America what not under ice. So, as the glaciers receded this portion of North America helped to re-seed the other portions. So this is like a glacial relic area and that makes it a very valuable region for seed collecting and plant life

The most recent ice age lasted almost 100,000 years and ended roughly twelve thousand years ago. While the northern and southern regions of the earth were covered with ice sheets that may have been 2 miles thick in some places, our region was exposed, and became a kind of refuge for the plant species that could survive here. But what happens when things get hotter instead of colder?

as climate change becomes more of an issue, it becomes much more important to add this portion to conservation goals. Which is long-term seed storage of specifically rare populations, Or even common populations. The more seeds we can get to a long term seed storage facility the better, because then we can use them for reintroduction purposes in the future, if needed. Plants can’t run like animals can. They get landlocked. for example In North Carolina one of our most threatened habitat is the spruce fir zone. If climate change continue these high elevation populations have nowhere to go there's nowhere for them to move. They've already been moved to the top of the mountain peaks. and so, if we can actually start population of these at a lower elevation from the germplasm there, we can always introduce the rare species at lower elevation to give them a competitive edge for climate change.

But even without the threat of climate change, they could face deadly invasive species or even diseases. Regardless of how they disappear, their loss could deprive us humans of something very important.

we also do research based on the collection, specifically medicinal plant species, which is what we work with for our projects. And then once we get the collection in place we actually do research on some of the species like the medicinal plant species, we can make extracts and use those for screenings. For example, we have a the national collection of black cohosh. Black cohosh is one of the top selling medicinal in the US, and actually world-wide. Its only native to North America, And this product is sold in every Walmart and Ekkards int he US, and its sold world-wide. Its usually wild harvested from native populations for its root which will eventually wipe out the population. So we have the national collection here. We have 22 populations throughout its range. And we’re looking at those, and what we’d like to do is encourage the development of a cultivar (?) for people to grow as a crop as opposed to wild harvesting it from native populations, as the popularity of it as a product is increasing rapidly. We expect that increase even more in the future. Wild-Harvesting is just not going to be a rational method to produce the products. So, we are working diligently trying to develop a cultivar, and we are selecting it based on Disease resistance, vigor, triterpene glycosides concentrations . Also, we have the seeds stored for all 20 populations in 3 seed banks. We have it stored in the Nortic gene bank in Norway, we have it stored in fort collins colorado, sand we have it backed up here at the North Carolina arboretum . so if anything happens to this plant that is becoming very commercially popular we have it backed up at 3 sites, the seed, and we have the seed germination protocols ready, so this plant, I guess we have its back. It’s safe no matter what happens at this point. And we’d like to encourage people to propagate it as a crop. Thats a really good example of efficient use of a germ plasm collection. You know, potential economic development for your growers but with conserving something long term that we don’t want to be wiped out in the future.

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