Conservation, Restoration, and a Little Relaxation

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The new Plant Conservation Science CenterThe new Plant Conservation Science Center

The Chicago Botanic Garden is much more than just a pleasant way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon. They are also a thriving research institution with more than 200 scientists, students, and interns working to save the plants on which our planet relies.

Now, visitors to the garden can learn about this research firsthand by visiting the new Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, opening to the public on September 23rd. Science in Society met up with Greg Mueller, vice president of science and academic programs, and Pat Herendeen, co-director of plant science and conservation and director of academic partnerships, to learn more about the garden’s exciting research, and what is special about the building itself.

Besides housing the garden’s research efforts, I understand the new building is making the world a greener place all on its own. What are some of its eco-friendly features?
The new science center was designed to earn a “gold” rating for sustainable design from the US Green Building Council. We used recycled materials wherever possible—rubber tires make up the floor, and trees that were cut down to build the center have been transformed into tables and bookshelves. Solar panels on the roof provide around 5% of the energy needed to power the facility.

The building is also home to two rooftop gardens, which contribute to both the sustainability of the center—reducing temperature, providing insulation, etc.—and our research. Currently, there is a limited number of plants that are used widely in rooftop gardens, so we’re testing a number of new varieties to see what works. We’re also experimenting with the levels of the clay and manure mixture in which we grow the plants. Knowing that plants can thrive in four versus eight inches of soil would allow us—and other garden facilities—to reduce weight on the roof.

Both gardens—one that houses all native American plants, and another that includes plants from around the world—are open to public.

I know the new science center was designed so that visitors can witness the garden’s research up close. What are some of the other research projects they’ll learn about?
Work at the garden touches on many critical environmental topics—invasive species, conservation, restoration, soil ecology, seed banking, and climate change, to name a few.

For example, through our Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank project, we are working to collect seeds from 1,500 native US tallgrass prairie species in the Midwest whose habitats are threatened. These seeds, which can be stored for up to 200 years, will be used to study genetic diversity and eventually to restore plant populations.

Why is genetic diversity among the seeds important?
Genetic diversity is important for plants for the same reasons it’s important for humans. If human beings were endangered, you wouldn’t want to conserve “seeds” from just one family—you would want to represent the greatest possible spectrum of diversity.

For example, if you only conserved one population of a plant, and that population is genetically more susceptible to a disease, the arrival of that disease could wipe out the entire population.

At the garden, we also use genetic diversity to study the differences between plant populations that are becoming increasingly fragmented, with people and concrete as separations. If the plants in an area are all very genetically similar, we can infer that they aren’t being cross-pollinated with plants in other areas, leaving them isolated and inbred. Inbreeding is just as bad for plants as it is for humans, so this forecasts a real problem.

You mentioned climate change as one of the critical topics on which work at the garden is focused. How might research at the garden combat its harmful effects?
First, we study the evolutionary history of plants and fungi, which helps us understand how current species came to be, how biodiversity has changed, and how plants have responded to climate change in the past. This could inform how plants will respond to climate change in the future.

We also study carbon sequestration—how plants absorb carbon and store it in their roots and soil—to learn how they might be used to mitigate climate change. Which plants can absorb the most carbon? Using climate-controlled incubators, we’re testing different species to find out.

Finally, we are working to conserve endangered plants by finding them new habitats. We first determine the restrictions to their habitats—moisture, temperature, soil conditions, etc. Then, using models of future climate change, we can predict where these plants can be moved so their needs are met. In the past, plants could migrate naturally on their own. But, with so many man-made roadblocks in their way, assisted migration is necessary.

We hear much more about endangered animals than we do endangered plants. What are some of the reasons that plant conservation is so important?
Experts estimate that we could lose almost 30% of our plant species in the next 50 years. Each of these species has their own important role in the ecosystem, as well as in our lives. They provide the air we breathe, and, in some cases, food and clothing.

One important reason is their potential medicinal benefit. At least 50% of medicines are plant-derived. Many are now synthetic versions, but still with origins in plant biology. If we lose an entire plant species, we wouldn’t only lose their contribution to their ecosystem and to biodiversity, but we might also miss out on a valuable treatment or cure.

To learn more about the exciting research at the Chicago Botanic Garden, visit their Plant Conservation Science Center, which is open to the public during regular garden hours beginning September 23rd. The center features interactive displays, access to the rooftop gardens, and a glimpse of real scientists at work through the viewing gallery.

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