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Nightshades: the paradoxical plants

4 Posts tagged with the solanum_melongena 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.


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.....


So it seems that everybody just duplicates everything… As Sandy wrote from Étape Eggplant in Montfavet, our last week’s focus on eggplants has revealed that duplicates are an issues not only in our database but in any collections such as world’s seed bank collections. So what is it with duplicates that make them an issue?


My role last week included gathering data on eggplant wild relatives, including both records of their natural distribution and currently available germplasm collections in seed banks. The idea of the gap analysis is to see whether eggplant crop wild relative (CWR) diversity is conserved in seed bank collections, and to identify where new collections should be made. It is a fascinating job – not only does it surprise you that such basic questions have not been looked into before, but the job also turns out to be more complex than you would expect at first.


It is easy to assume we (or somebody high up in one of the United Nations offices) know what is currently conserved in seed bank collections around the world. Seed banks are, after all, cornerstones of food security, banking seeds for the future if something would to happen. So somebody is counting what is being conserved across the globe, right? The answer is not that simple. For the ten or so most important food crops, specialised research institutes have been established to secure conservation and management of these important crops. For others, such as eggplant, the story is different.


World’s major seed banks, or genebanks as they are often called, all have their focus groups or focal areas. The bulk of these genebanks belong to CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which is an informal network of 16 international agricultural research centres. Together, these 16 institutions manage c. 600,000 agricultural seed samples – that is quite a lot! On top of these international giants, there are national or more regional genebanks, such as the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Plant Germplasm Service (NPGS), and the Dutch national seed bank at Wageningen University, the Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands (CGR). Despite their different sizes and slightly different mandates, these seed banks all share the aim of preserving crop diversity.


Svalbard.jpgPicture of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault: located in Spitsbergen, an island north of Norway, the Vault is storing seeds for the future.


The idea behind seed banking is to conserved diversity for future, short or long term, needs. These needs change through time. Currently, focus is being given to breeding crops to prepare them for the changing climates, as well as increased disease and environmental stress resistance. What needs to be analysed, however, is whether the currently conserved accessions in seed banks have potential in breeding efforts for these priority traits. Gap analysis, such as our project on eggplants and their wild relatives, have been developed to answer these questions and play an important role in understanding the potential of currently banked accessions for these priority breeding targets.


How does this all relate to duplications? Well from my short experience in this field, I have learnt that many of our global seed collections are actually duplicates. I have now worked on both tomato and eggplant CWR collections, downloading germplasm data from individual genebanks and then merging them to a single file to prepare them for the gap analysis. Seed banks exchange material, not only for diplomatic reasons but for the very important reason of securing their collections. Such duplications are called safety duplications, and are mandatory for large genebanks. This assures that if something would to happen due to political (wars do happen unfortunately) or environmental reasons (e.g. earthquakes), not all eggs were put in one basket.


What does this mean for food security? Well firstly it is great that if something would to happen, duplicates are safe somewhere around the world. But the other side of the coin is that although seemingly looking large at first sight, the actual number of seed collections conserved around the world is not that big after all. Conserving and preserving seeds in long term storage is costly, and this reduces the amount that can be kept in the banks.


My job this week continues to focus on pruning some of these duplicates out. For the sake of our gap analysis, we want to make sure we represent the global collections realistically. Some argue that duplicates can be viewed as unique collections because seeds have to be regenerated at regular time intervals and this process leads to slight differences between the duplicate collections. From the point of view of unique genetic resources that could be used for adapting our crops to climate change, we need truly unique collections that represent extreme environmental adaptations. Complex traits such as drought resistance or salt tolerance do not vary between duplicates – they evolve over hundreds if not thousands or even millions of years.


Sandy and Tiina, in Montfavet, near Avignon, France 


We had a small diversion in our sporting calendar to the south of France; we were invited to participate in a meeting convened by the Global Crop Diversity Trust ( to discuss how the diversity of eggplant wild relatives could be conserved. The eggplant or aubergine is a species of SolanumSolanum melongena, and although not very physically similar to potato (Solanum tuberosum) or tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) it does have genetic similarities.


We worked hard, our days were not quite as physically demanding as those in the Tour de France ascent of the nearby Mont Ventoux (left out of the 2012 Tour), but we made a lot of progress! One fascinating fact is that in English, French biologists refer to our vegetable aubergine as the eggplant – just goes to show how language exchange can be pretty random!


Christine Daunay of INRA (, Jaime Prohens of the Universitat Politècnica de València (, Hannes Dempewolf of the Trust along with Tiina and I talked about the taxonomy of wild eggplants (based on the work of Maria Vorontsova), the state of seed collections of wild eggplants and what eggplant breeders need to improve the crop, especially in the face of climate change.


Despite its importance as a world crop, the community of plant breeders working on eggplant are few and far between – it is clear from the meeting that future collaboration with colleagues in India and China – the home of eggplant domestication – will be critical. The wild relatives of the crop are from Africa and future collecting to understand their ranges and environmental tolerances will be important for eggplant improvement. This is where the world of taxonomy intersects with the world of plant breeding and agriculture – knowledge from wild relatives can really help with problems faced by those in agriculture, not just in terms of genes that can be introduced into crops from wild relatives, but in understanding adaptation to different environments and habitats.


Our colleague Christine keeps a collection of seeds of wild relatives of eggplants, and we toured her fields and greenhouses – reminding us that Solanum species are more amazing than imaginable – truly paradoxical plants!


We returned to London and Edinburgh via TGV (Train à Grand Vitesse – and it is really fast!) through the French countryside and came back to an excited Britain – lots had happened while we were deep in discussing food. Time to catch up with all the other action!