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

Applied Science

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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Michael Balick on The Scientist Podcast

Posted in Applied Science on December 27, 2018 by Matt Newman

Photo of Michael Balick

It’s around this time of year that we often think about family, and keeping traditions alive. Michael Balick, Vice President for Botanical Science and Director of the Institute of Economic Botany, talks about maintaining longstanding family traditions using ethnobotany, collaboration, and chewing on ginseng with scientist and podcaster Toshiki Nakashige on The Scientist Podcast.

Give it a listen!

An NYBG Internship Experience: Connecting the Dots to Understand Relationships between Living and Extinct Cycads

Posted in Applied Science on May 15, 2018 by Cynthia Huyck

Cynthia Huyck is a former intern at NYBG’s Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory. She is completing her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College, concentrating in botany and Japanese.

In this image of a stained cross-section of a Cycas media ovule, the vascular bundles in the center are starting to divide into three separate bundles as opposed to two.

Editor’s Note: As the end of the academic year approaches, The New York Botanical Garden’s Plant Science and Conservation program will soon welcome a new class of summer interns. As described in this post, these internships offer valuable experience by allowing students to work closely with NYBG scientists on cutting-edge research.

I spent last summer and fall as an intern working with Vice President and Cullman Curator Dennis Stevenson, Ph.D., on the Gymnosperm Seed Evolution Project at The New York Botanical Garden. The goal of this project is to better understand the relationships among different gymnosperms based on their seeds and seed-bearing organs. My work focused on the anatomy of early phases of ovule development, with an emphasis on branching of the vascular bundles, which contain the specialized cells that transport water and nutrients throughout the plant. I used an anatomical approach because my work involved comparing extant and extinct cycads. Although we cannot extract DNA from the fossils, we can look for structural features in both the fossils and extant species in order to place our fossils on a phylogeny (evolutionary tree) and establish a minimum age for cycads.

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Saving the Plants of the World: Celebrating International Day for Biological Diversity

Posted in Applied Science on May 22, 2017 by Lawrence Kelly

Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., is Associate Vice President for Science Administration and Director of Graduate Studies at The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of Saving the Plants of the WorldEvery year on May 22, The New York Botanical Garden joins the global community in celebrating International Day for Biological Diversity. Established in 1993 by the United Nations, this day recognizes international cooperation and commitment to take global action to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss. It is also an outstanding opportunity to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues, especially, for us here at NYBG, the issues facing the plant kingdom.

It is no exaggeration to say that without plants, life on Earth would be impossible. Plants provide food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and the raw materials to meet most human needs. Plants make the air we breathe, they create the rain that waters the world, and they are essential for healthy ecosystems. The beauty of plants nurtures our souls and inspires our imaginations. Yet the plant diversity that sustains us is imperiled today as never before in human history. One-third of Earth’s nearly 400,000 plant species are at risk of extinction.

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Citizen Science: Coaxing Life from Frozen Waters

Posted in Applied Science on March 2, 2015 by Madeline Breda

Madeline Breda is a GreenSchool Science Education Intern at The New York Botanical Garden.

In the Thain Family Forest
In the Thain Family Forest

“What is that?”
“What lives in there? Are they dangerous? Do they bite?”
And, loudest of all, “EWWWWWW!”

These are some of the many questions (and noises of disgust) hurled in retaliation to the dripping, mucky leaf pack I hold up at the front of the classroom. Water fresh from the Bronx River streams from the decomposing leaves into a bucket below, and an odor that could be described as either “earthy” or “gross” pervades the GreenSchool classroom. My charges for the next 90 minutes—a group of unsuspecting middle schoolers—want nothing to do with whatever is going on in that mess of organic matter. Little do they know that within minutes they’ll be clamoring to sort through the leaves and rocks and mysterious river sludge to find living treasures underneath…

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Documenting Plant Diversity: Using a Flora to Describe Flora

Posted in Applied Science on February 20, 2015 by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is a Curator Emeritus associated with the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rain forest trees.

Two graphs showing the history of plant collection in central French Guiana. A. Progressive accumulation of vascular plant species known from the flora of central French Guiana from 1950 to 1999. B. As the species of the area became better known each of the collections became more valuable because of the new information it provided.
Two graphs showing the history of plant collection in central French Guiana. A. Progressive accumulation of vascular plant species known from the flora of central French Guiana from 1950 to 1999. B. As the species of the area became better known each of the collections became more valuable because of the new information it provided.

Among the many products of the research published by scientists at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) are Floras. A Flora is a book in which species are described, while the word flora refers to the totality of plant species in an area; in other words, a flora is described in a Flora.

Floristic publications document and describe the diversity of a given group of plants growing in specific geographic areas. They may be floras of algae, mosses, ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms or combinations of these groups. For example, a Flora might include all of the vascular plants (ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms) of the northeastern United States. The equivalent of a Flora for fungi is called a Mycota, because fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants.

Some examples of Floras are the Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada by Henry A. Gleason and Arthur Cronquist, the Intermountain Flora recently completed by Noel and Patricia K. Holmgren and their colleagues, and Pleurocarpous mosses of the West Indies by William R. Buck–all published by The New York Botanical Garden Press. Floras are important because they allow both amateur and professional botanists to identify plants—the first step in developing a deeper appreciation of plants and for carrying out research on them. In addition, scientific Floras or Mycotas serve as the basis for field guides such as Roy Halling and Gregory M. Mueller’s Common Mushrooms of the Talamanca Mountains, Costa Rica.

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Earth Day Everyday: Citizen Scientists Making Plant Research Available to All

Posted in Applied Science on April 21, 2014 by Barbara Thiers

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and Vice President for Science Administration at The New York Botanical Garden.

Notes from Nature

Every year around Earth Day, many people wonder if there is anything they can do that will make a difference in the effort to understand and preserve our environment. Of course there is! There are all kinds of volunteer projects for all sorts of interests. Here at The New York Botanical Garden, for instance, volunteers are helping us make a critical part of our scientific collection available online so researchers everywhere can have easy access to the information.

The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is taking part in a citizen-scientist transcription project called Notes from Nature, which enlists volunteers to help make the contents of the world’s biological collections accessible to the public through the Internet. Notes from Nature is part of Zooniverse, which has enlisted volunteers to look for new planets and transcribe climate data from ships’ logs. Notes from Nature is celebrating its first anniversary this week and also an important milestone: its volunteers have completed a half million transcriptions!

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Buyer Beware: What’s Inside A Bottle of Saw Palmetto Supplement?

Posted in Applied Science on February 13, 2014 by Damon Little

Damon P. Little, Ph.D., is Assistant Curator of Bioinformatics in The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics. In addition to his research projects involving large sets of plant DNA data, he studies the cypress family of conifers.

Serenoa repens

Saw palmetto is the third best-selling herbal supplement in the United States, with sales totaling more than $31 million in 2012, but are the men who buy these supplements getting saw palmetto or something else?

That was the question my collaborator and I set out to answer when we extracted DNA from 34 saw palmetto supplements that we bought at retail stores in New York City and online. By comparing the DNA sequences of the supplements with DNA from samples of saw palmetto and its close relatives, we would find out whether the supplements were genuine or not.

Men take supplements made from the fruit of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens, a member of the palm family) to alleviate the symptoms of an enlarged prostate. Almost all commercial saw palmetto fruit is harvested from wild plants that can be found throughout the southeastern United States (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina). Several clinical studies have tried to determine if saw palmetto is beneficial, but the results remain inconclusive.

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In Search of Thomas Edison’s Botanical Treasures

Posted in Applied Science on October 30, 2013 by Lisa Vargues

Lisa Vargues is a Curatorial Assistant at the New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Her work includes digitizing plant specimens for the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, with a focus on the West Indies, the Amazon Basin, and historical specimens from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Solidago edisoniana, a goldenrod specimen named in Thomas Edison's honor.
Solidago edisoniana, a goldenrod specimen named in Thomas Edison’s honor.

The quiet corridors of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium here at The New York Botanical Garden are lined with steel cabinets where preserved plant specimens are stored for scientific study, but they are also a treasure trove of history, filled with stories waiting to be told.

One of those stories came to light recently when I set out to determine whether any traces remained in the Steere Herbarium of a significant but little-known research project that involved one of America’s most famous inventors—Thomas Alva Edison.

In the late 1920s, Edison was on a quest for plants that could be grown locally, quickly, and economically to produce latex and provide America with a domestic source of rubber. At the time, the country was dependent on imported rubber for such important products as automobile tires, and Edison and his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone were concerned that an international crisis such as a war could cut off that supply. In 1927, they formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in Fort Myers, Florida, and Edison enlisted crews to collect plant specimens throughout the United States, particularly in the South.

Edison’s quest brought him to the Botanical Garden to conduct botanical research in collaboration with the Garden’s Head Curator, John Kunkel Small. At one point the inventor who perfected the light bulb even had a small laboratory in the grand Beaux-Arts building that now houses The LuEsther T. Mertz Library. Tests concluded that the goldenrod (in the plant genus Solidago) contained the most promising amount of latex.

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