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Nightshades: the paradoxical plants

3 Posts tagged with the biodiversity tag

I am in Berlin - home of Checkpoint Charlie and the ex-Wall - at a Biodiversity networking meeting, talking with a totally new set of colleagues about how to connect the science we do with government policy in Europe and at home. Really interesting and has opened my eyes to a new world where nightshades are important (of course!), but where people and how they connect across cultures, languages and ways of working are even more important.


But while sitting in the talks and workshops, in the back of my mind I am thinking about Friday this week and the annual Science Uncovered event in London. Fortunately, I will be back in time.....  just.


This year, in addition to being part of the Food station with an array of potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines and their friends and relatives, I will be part of Science Fess Up - where a couple of us at a time will talk with people about what WE don't know about science. Challenging? You bet! Not because there is a lack of things to talk about, but just where to start, the depths of my ignorance about lots of things is so profound........ 



An array of eggplants in Avignon - all but the red one in the centre are members of the same species, Solanum melongena - the aubergine.


This event has been a great opportunity for me to reflect on just why I love science so much - and why I feel so lucky to be doing it as a daily job - it is a constant adventure, something new around every corner. So come along and let's talk about why its good not to know everything, and why exploring what you don't know is so exciting...oh and of course there will be lots of nightshades - thanks to new colleague Xavier Aubriot, who has just joined the team to study the nightshades of Asia - a big area where we know very little.


Part of the Food station will be a pile of however many different sorts of edible nightshades we have been able to find in the markets of London - we hope lots!! These crops are so much a part of our daily lives we often forget about their wild relatives that harbour important genetic diversity that will be key to improving agriculture in the face of environmental change - including that of our climate - that we know lies ahead. The taxonomic work we do here at the Museum into these species is key to unlocking this treasure trove.... come and hear about our latest ideas and adventures, and share what you think we should be thinking about!


See you there!


Science Uncovered takes place tomorrow, Friday 27 September at the Natural History Museum, London. Join us from 4pm to midnight.


As I mentioned in an earlier post on the Seeking Nightshades in South America blog, I am in North Carolina at Duke University to give a talk about Alfred Russel Wallace (whose centenary we celebrate this year with lots of exciting events at the Museum in London) at the opening of an exhibit featuring the Duke herbarium.


Collections associated with universities are under threat worldwide - they take up lots of space that could be given over to labs or teaching space, and are often not considered necessary for the research projects that attract funding. Larger collections like the ones we hold at the Natural History Museum in London, or those at Kew Gardens or the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh sometimes have an easier time justifying themselves in the face of competing pressures, but not always!


The herbarium is thriving at Duke - with almost a million specimens, it is one of the largest plant collections associated with a university in the United States. There is new housing for the flowering plants, and the university administration values the herbarium as an integral part of the Department of Biology. This is a real success story.



New compactors for the flowering plant specimens in the basement of the celebrated Duke Phytotron building; curator Layne Huiet bring me more Solanum specimens to identify!


I have spent the last couple of days working in the collection here, and it has come home to me how important these specimens are, and how important it is that they are held in institutions of higher learning and not just given away to big national museums.


The value of university collections


The Duke collection is a resource for a person like me - who comes in and wants to see as many solanums (or whatever else they might be working on!) as possible, but also a resource for the students, who can use the collection on-site to explore questions about the natural world.


These university collections are also unique in that they hold the materials that have been generated as part of PhD studies, or first year field courses - they are a part of the legacy of the institution in the same way as is a library. Unlike a library though, students can be part of building a museum or herbarium collection through their own contributions. The plants they collect on field trips or field courses become permanent records and can help other students.


The Duke collections are strong in plants of the region - making the herbarium locally relevant - and in plants from Costa Rica, where a long association with the Organization for Tropcial Studies brought projects and interest. So how did the botanists manage to make the herbarium seen as an asset and not a drain?


The power of positivity is at work here - the halls outside the herbarium are full of posters showing how herbarium specimens have been used to answer big questions in biology - climate change, invasive species, spread of disease - with big full page pdfs of articles in those high impact journals so beloved of those in charge. Kathleen Pryer, the director of the herbarium and fern systematist (and the person who, with her student and another colleague, rather famously named a fern genus for Lady Gaga!!), markets the collections tirelessly, with good effect.


Rather than giving ties or engraved glass bowls to visiting dignitaries Duke administrators now give away framed scans of beautiful herbarium specimens - and people love them! In fact, they are so in demand that the botanists are talking about going out and collecting some iconic local plants to make some new special prints - what a clever idea. Each scan comes with its biological relevance, driving home the message. The exhibit that opens today is entitled 'Botanical Treasures from Duke's Hidden Library' - a very good analogy.




Framed scans of herbarium specimens from the Duke collections in a biology conference room



There is a lot of discussion worldwide about consolidation of collections and some universities at least are deciding they no longer wish to keep the herbaria and museums that formed part of their past academic offering. Perhaps they are seen as old-fashioned, a drain on resources or just not relevant anymore. This is a mistake I feel, as these collections are the starting place for many new questions - if they are made accessible and valued.


It is not necessarily easy, but university collections are special just because of where they are, in the thick of training the next generations not only of scientists, but of citizens.


Long may they last in their academic homes, inspiring students and being part of the fabric of universities everywhere......


Human beings depend upon a handful of flowering plants for 80% of their caloric intake - this in spite of the estimated approximately 400,000 species of flowering plants! In the face of discussions and concerns about global food security, agriculture's attention is turning to the wild species that are related to these staple crops for ideas about how to face massive environmental change.


For the past few days, I have been at a meeting convened by the Global Crop Diversity Trust ( and funded by a variety of organisations to discuss the challenges and opportunities wild relatives of crops represent. Now, my take on these plants is very firmly from the biodiversity end of the spectrum - and is pretty narrowly focused on Solanaceae, so these few days have been a real learning experience! The group includes people working on rice, maize and wheat, but also apples, barley, amaranthus, soybean, peanut - you name it, the crop is there!  The place is also fantastic - the Asilomar Conference Center on the Monterey peninsula in central California - what better place to come together and leave day-to-day cares behind to really talk about issues.



The view of the Pacific Ocean (very cold!!) from Asilomar State Park


What has surprised me is the degree to which the world of germplasm banks (sort of museums for the seed and plant collections used by plant breeders to improve our crop plants) is parallel to, but rarely intersecting with, my more familiar museum world. Databases are an issue, the avalanche of data coming from genomic approaches .... we all have these same challenges! We could do a lot to help one another, and to see how the challenges we face are actually the same at their core, with subtle differences depending on the specific circumstances.


I feel incredibly privledged to have been invited to be a part of this group - and realise how relevant the data we hold in our rich and global collections can be used to help other communities ....  however distant those might be.


Solanaceae - my nightshades - have as members many important vegetable crops - tomato, potato, pepper, eggplant (aubergine).... vegetables are often left out of the equation in terms of food security, where focus is on the big grain crops that provide our carbohydrates. But vegetables are key to a balanced diet - vitamins and nutrients are key to human health.  Vegetablse are also locally adapted and consumed, providing a unique opportunity for linking local and global issues, and for linking food prduction to biodiversity issues.


My brain is buzzing with new ideas and possible new projects for the future....  at museums we often get bogged down in the enormity of our task, describing wild diversity and enablign its conservation, such that the sheer massive usefulness of the informationfrom our collections we hold and curate for future generations to biology beyond the museum walls can slip into the background. Getting out into communities very different from our own can be scary (lots of words I don't know were bandied about these few days!!) but it is critical for realising the role the Museum can play - its big, and a bit frightening, and very different - but oh so exciting!.


Getting out is GOOD!!



Sunset over the Pacific.....