When there’s a good sale at the grocery store, we tend to stock up. If steak is on sale, why not buy a few extra and put them on ice? Then when the price goes up or it’s not available anymore, there’s a ready stash in the deep freeze. Well, as it turns out, scientists at the Smithsonian have started a project that is very similar, only instead of stocking up on chicken wings or steak tips, they’re attempting to freeze the genomes of all of the world’s plants. Why? Because there’s an extinction coming, the sixth great extinction to be exact, and it’s going to be a doozy.
The mission to collect plant DNA is part of the Global Genome Initiative, a project whose goal it is to collect and categorize the genetic material from all life forms on Earth and store them cryogenically. The initiative to gather plant DNA is being led by scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and this is a good place to start. The DC area has many botanic gardens and estimates are at that about half of the world’s plant families can be found there.
While extinction estimates are complex and can’t be precisely identified, many experts point to declines in certain animal species and plant types as proof that another mass extinction could occur. In an interview with the BBC, John Kress, interim Under Secretary for Science at the Smithsonian Institution said, "Everything that is alive and living in a natural habitat is now being threatened by degradation of those habitats primarily because of what we're doing as humans." Kress went on to explain that the rate of extinction of some species and plants is almost 100 times faster than normal.
Seed banks have been established for important food crops and secured around the world, but the push to collect the DNA from all living plants is about understanding the history of plant evolution. Kress explained, “The genome project is to preserve the genomic history and content of these plants so we can understand how life works."
Much like in heart attack victims where “time is muscle” in collecting plant material, time is DNA. If not frozen within minutes, the DNA can start to break down, rendering it useless. Storage facilities for the Global Genome Initiative exist all over the world. The one that will store the plant genomes is in Maryland can hold millions of samples.
Three gardens in the DC area will provide samples- the National Arboretum, the Smithsonian Gardens and the US Botanic Garden-and the collection will be done largey by volunteers, making it one of the largest citizen science projects to date.
In a statement to the BBC, Ari Novy, Executive Director of the US Botanic Garden said, "Botanical institutions such as ours have spent decades and in some cases centuries collecting plants. The US Botanic Garden has almost 250 families which is half the total number of plant families on the planet. That makes this project a lot easier."
Check out the video below to see a tour of the US Botanic Garden.
I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.