Science Talk

Exploring the science of plants, from the field to the lab

One Thousand Plant Genomes: Understanding One Billion Years of Evolution

Posted in Applied Science on October 25, 2019 by Samantha Frangos

Samantha Frangos is a Laboratory Technician in the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory of The New York Botanical Garden.


Mosaic of diverse plant speciesThe green plant tree of life is built upon many evolutionary innovations. Plants have come a long way since they began as single-celled organisms one billion years ago. They have transitioned from water to land and managed to become the beautiful, towering, flowering and fruiting beings that are the backbone of life on earth. They have complex life histories—creating vascular systems, waxy cuticles, spores, seeds and flowers. These innovations define key turning points in the history of green plants, and they are what separate the major plant groups: green algae, mosses and liverworts, ferns, gymnosperms and flowering plants.

The One Thousand Plant Transcriptomes Initiative, also known as the 1KP initiative, is a global collaboration of nearly 200 plant scientists, including NYBG’s Dr. Dennis Stevenson. “This long term project integrates field work, herbarium research, and living collections with the latest in laboratory and information sciences as an international collaboration,” Dr Stevenson said. For almost 10 years, this group has been attempting to sequence the genes of one thousand plants, spanning every plant family on the tree of life. The publication of these sequences, 1,147 in total, brings science significantly closer to understanding how the tree of life works in the plant kingdom. By examining the similarities and differences in genes, we can more fully understand how plants created evolutionarily significant transitions. For example: we can use this data to understand how conifers, which disperse their seeds in cones, are related to flowering plants, which disperse their seeds in fruit and only appeared in the fossil record about 200 million years ago.

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Celebrate Archives Month with Alexander P. Anderson’s “Eighth Wonder of the World”

Posted in Applied Science on October 21, 2019 by Stephen Sinon

Stephen Sinon is the William B. O’Connor Curator of Special Collections, Research and Archives, in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of a Puffed Rice AdvertisementDr. Alexander P. Anderson (1862–1943) was a plant physiologist and the inventor of the process for making puffed cereals. His interest in starch grains began as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota studying agriculture. Encouraged by his instructors, Anderson earned a master’s degree in plant physiology in 1895. He then traveled to Munich, Germany to study with leading botanists, earning his doctorate degree in plant physiology in 1897. After completing his studies, Anderson accepted a teaching and research position at Clemson Agricultural College (Clemson University today) where he taught from 1897 to 1901.

Anderson came to work at the NYBG Laboratories in 1901 through the encouragement of Dr. Daniel Trembly MacDougal, who was at the time Director of Laboratories at NYBG. When offered a position as Curator of the Herbarium of Columbia University with the use of the Laboratories at The New York Botanical Garden, he resigned his teaching position in South Carolina and moved to New York. His work on starch granules continued at the laboratories at NYBG.

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Dr. Douglas Daly on the Ground in Rondônia, Brazil: Day 3

Posted in From the Field on September 27, 2019 by Matt Newman

The Amazon Rain Forest still holds many mysteries for botanists. Dr. Douglas Daly and his Brazilian collaborators are in the Jacundá National Forest of Brazil’s Rondônia state to collect plant specimens and investigate the extent of damage from recent fires. Today’s efforts uncovered a species of tree that Dr. Daly and his team had never seen before, and could even be new to science. Follow along with Dr. Daly’s ongoing expedition here.

Living Fossils: Applying Advances in Genome Sequencing to Decode the Genomes of Ancient Plants

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 26, 2019 by Samantha Frangos

Samantha Frangos is a Research Technician in NYBG’s Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory.


A photo of a ginkgo leaf
Ginkgo biloba ‘Pendula’

The concept of a “living fossil” was first proposed by Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. The term “living fossil” is used to describe species that have managed to remain physically identical over the course of millennia and are still alive today. As these species have survived a wide range of extreme environmental conditions, including several mass extinctions, they beg the question:  how have the living fossils been able to persist over millions of years? Scientists at The New York Botanical Garden believe the answer may be found in the living fossils of the plant kingdom. Most of these “living fossil” plant species are in the cone-bearing, non-flowering group of plants, called gymnosperms. Gymnosperms have very large and complex genomes, some being almost seven times the size of a human genome. Decoding the genomes of these species may give us some clues as to understanding their resilience over time. 

The most widely recognized living fossil of the plant kingdom is Ginkgo biloba. It is easily recognizable by its distinct fan shape leaves that resemble those of the maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris), giving it the common name of maidenhair tree. Ginkgo has remained unchanged for over 280 million years, surviving several glaciation events, fluctuations of carbon dioxide concentration and temperature, and mass extinctions. Because of its resilience, it is often seen lining city streets, including the streets that border The New York Botanical Garden.

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Project Rondônia: On the Ground in Brazil’s Amazon Rain Forest

Posted in Environment on September 17, 2019 by Douglas Daly

Douglas Daly, Ph.D., is the B.A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany and the Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden.


“Destruction [of forests] represents an attack on humanity, an affront to the sources of life, and an assured means of destroying future generations.”

—Roberto Burle Marx, “Garden and Ecology,” 1969

Forest burning near Porto Velho, the capital of the Brazilian State of Rondônia. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times/Redux)

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical forest, spanning nine South American countries and housing 10 percent of the world’s living plant and animal species. Its trees absorb about 25 percent of carbon emissions taken in collectively by all forests on Earth, replacing harmful CO2 with the oxygen we breathe. Recent reports indicate the number of fires blazing in the Amazon in late August 2019 is the highest on record, representing an 83 percent increase over the number of fires at the same time last year.

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Examining the John Torrey Papers During #ClimateWeekNYC

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on September 17, 2019 by Stephen Sinon

Stephen Sinon is the William B. O’Connor Curator of Special Collections, Research and Archives at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of John Torrey
John Torrey—Harvard University Library,
Weissman Preservation Center.

John Torrey is considered one of the most important botanists in the early development of scientific botany, horticulture, and agriculture in 19th-century America. He corresponded with hundreds of scientists, educators, explorers, and natural historians throughout America and Europe, and his wide network of correspondents enabled him to collect, describe, and classify plant specimens from around the world; when comparing Torrey’s accurate records with herbarium specimens and current data, a clear picture arises as to changes in the flora of these regions since his time, due to climate change, urbanization, and other factors. While Torrey’s correspondence contains important information on his botanical work, the documents are also a valuable resource to scholars, students, and members of the public studying American history, including North American expeditions, westward expansion, and the evolution of American science in the 19th century.

The LuEsther T. Mertz Library and Archives of The New York Botanical Garden has embarked on a project to make the John Torrey Papers available online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The project began in 2016 with grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Some 10,000 sheets of Torrey’s correspondence—consisting primarily of letters received by him from over 350 individuals—were digitized, then made available for crowd-sourced transcription. Interested volunteers can currently register to transcribe letters in the collection which will then be made available to scholars alongside the digital images.

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Amazonia Ablaze: A Record Year for Forest Fires in Brazil

Posted in Environment on August 23, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of Roberto Burle Marx
A photo of Roberto Burle Marx in Brazil, taken by his protegé, Raymond Jungles.

The recent report about the fires in the Brazilian Amazon compels us to reflect on how painful the Amazonian fires would have been to Roberto Burle Marx (1904–94), one of Brazil’s earliest and most important advocates for the rain forest and the subject of our current major exhibition, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx.

A renowned landscape architect, Burle Marx was also a passionate, outspoken conservationist. His writings on environmental topics in Brazil—powerful when written a half-century ago—have a renewed, relevant resonance in 2019. For example, in Burle Marx: Homenagem à Natureza¹, he is quoted as saying, “You have to understand that it is my obligation to oppose everything that I consider an ecological crime … the sacrifice of nature is irreversible.” In 1969, he wrote: “This destruction [of forests] represents an attack on humanity, an affront to the sources of life, and an assured means of destroying future generations.”² A more powerful, fitting response to the news of the Amazonian fires could not be penned today.

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At a Crossroads: Plants and the Endangered Species Act

Posted in Environment on August 16, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


The federal government recently announced plans to significantly weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the most important legislation ever enacted to protect threatened plants and animals in the United States. There are currently 947 plant species and 1,471 animal species listed through the ESA. The new rules, which will take effect next month, will curtail future listings and potentially reverse a half-century of salvation in the wild. An article in The New York Times outlines the plans; most of the response and commentary has focused on animals—for instance, Carl Safina’s compelling opinion piece with statistics about triumphant saves of condors, alligators, grey wolves, and pelicans since the act became law in 1973. 

However, the new rules also have grave implications for plants. 

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Brazil’s Mata Atlântica

Posted in Environment on July 2, 2019 by Matt Newman

Photo of the Mata Atlantica in Brazil

Throughout our run of Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx, we’re sharing glimpses into the natural world that informed Burle Marx’s love of plants and the landscapes that he traveled through in his home country and beyond, discovering new plants and working to protect those under threat of deforestation, development, and more. He called these journeys his viagens de coleta, or “collection trips.”

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The Specimens of Sitio Roberto Burle Marx

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 11, 2019 by Matt Newman

Sitio Roberto Burle Marx, the eponymously named home of the iconic Brazilian landscape architect, was a haven of native Brazilian plants, from tropical bromeliads and philodendrons to orchids, legume trees, and more—many that he discovered himself. Discover just a few of the Brazilian specimens from the NYBG Herbarium that called the Sitio home, some even named for Burle Marx, in the latest from The Hand Lens.

Ctenanthe burle-marxii

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