How do you bring an endangered plant species back from the brink of extinction? The answer might be found in zoo animals.
That’s the inspiration for Chicago Botanic Garden scientist Jeremie Fant’s latest research. Fant, a molecular ecologist and plant genetics guru, is working with other botanic gardens around the world to develop conservation and reintroduction plans modeled after the ones used by zoos to protect endangered animal species.
“When we conserve plant species, it’s possible to preserve hundreds of individuals, and the genetic information they contain, by banking their seed or using cuttings to propagate them,” said Fant. “But when this is not possible, these plant collections are maintained by continually crossing with other plants to produce new seed. This is akin to animals in zoo collections. Zoos have used genetic information to develop ‘studbooks’ to decide what crosses are compatible so they maintain genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding.”
Fant’s work is based on zoological cases including black-footed ferrets in the 1980s. Zoologists created a breeding program that ultimately reintroduced the threatened species back into the wild. The zoologists used genetic information taken from the remaining black-footed ferrets, and bred a strong, biodiverse population that could keep the animals healthy and, more importantly, increase numbers, which is the aim of all good conservation programs.
Fant’s work centers on one plant in particular: the Brighamia insignis, or “Cabbage on a stick,” or as we’ve fondly named it, “Cabby.” This is Cabby’s story:
To stay tuned on what Fant, and the rest of the Garden’s conservation scientists are doing, check out the latest news at chicagobotanic.org/research.
Competition is heating up in the western United States. Invasive and native plants are racing to claim available land and resources. Alicia Foxx, who studies the interplay of roots of native and invasive plants, is glued to the action. The results of this contest, says the plant biology and conservation doctoral student at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University, could be difficult to reverse.
Cheatgrass, which is an aggressive, invasive plant with a dense root system, is in the lead and spreading quickly across the west. Native plants are falling in its wake—especially when it comes to their delicate seedlings that lead to new generations.
Foxx is one of the scientists working to give native plants a leg (or root) up. She hypothesizes that a carefully assembled team of native plant seedlings with just the right root traits may be able to work together to outpace their competition.
“We often evaluate plants for the way they look above ground, but I think we have to look below ground as well,” she said. Foxx’s master thesis focused on a native grass known as squirreltail, and her hypothesis addressed the idea that the more robust the root system was in a native grass, the better it was at competing with cheatgrass. Now, “I’m looking more at how native plants behave in a community, as opposed to evaluating them one by one… How they interact with one another and how that might influence their performance or establishment in the Colorado plateau.”
In the desert climate, human-related disturbances such as mining, gas exploration, livestock trampling, or unnaturally frequent fires have killed off native plants and left barren patches of land behind that are susceptible to the arrival of cheatgrass.
“Some of our activities are exacerbating the conditions [that are favorable for invasive plants]. We need to make sure that we have forage for the wildlife and the plants themselves, because they are important to us for different reasons, including the prevention of mudslides,” she said. “We are definitely confronted with a changing climate and it would be really difficult for us to reverse any damage we have caused, so we’re trying to shift the plant community so it can be here in 50 years.”
Garden conservation scientist Andrea Kramer, Ph.D. advises Foxx, and her mentorship has allowed Foxx to see how science theories created in a laboratory become real-life solutions in the field. “I think I’m very fortunate to work with Andrea, who works very closely with the Bureau of Land Management…it’s really nice to see that this gets replicated out in the world,” said Foxx. Seeds from their joint collecting trip in 2012 have been added to the Garden’s Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.
In a way, Foxx is also learning from the invasive plants themselves. To develop her hypothesis, she considered the qualities of the invasive plants; those that succeeded had roots that are highly competitive for resources. After securing seeds from multiple sources, she is now working in the Garden’s greenhouse and the Population Biology Laboratory to grow native plants that may be up to the challenge. She is growing the seedlings in three different categories: a single plant, a group of the same species together, and a group of species that look different (such as a grass and a wildflower). In total, there will be 600 tubes holding plants. She will then evaluate their ability to establish themselves in a location and to survive over time.
There has been very little research on plant roots, but Foxx said the traits of roots, such as how fibrous they are, their length, or the number of hair-like branches they form, tell us a lot about how they function.
“I’m hoping that looking at some of these root traits and looking at how these plants interact with one another will reveal something new or solidify some of the theories,” said Foxx.
She aims to have what she learns about the ecology of roots benefit restorations in the western United States. It is possible that her findings will shape thoughts in other regions as well, such as the prairies of the Midwest. Future research using the seeds Foxx collected could contribute to the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration, of which the Garden is a key resource for research and seeds for future restoration needs.
The Chicago native has come a long way since she first discovered her love of botany during high school. After completing her research and her Ph.D., she hopes to nurture future scientists and citizen scientists through her ongoing work, and help them make the connections that can lead to a love of plants.
The National Parks provide dream vacations for us nature lovers, but did you know they also serve as vital locations for forward-thinking conservation research by Chicago Botanic Garden scientists?
From sand to sea, the parks are a celebration of America’s diversity of plants, animals, and fungi, according to the Garden’s Chief Scientist Greg Mueller, Ph.D., who has worked in several parks throughout his career.
“National Parks were usually selected because they are areas of important biodiversity,” Dr. Mueller explained, “and they’ve been appropriately managed and looked after for up to 100 years. Often times they are the best place to do our work.”
As we celebrate this centennial year, he and his colleagues share recent and favorite work experiences with the parks.
Take a glimpse into the wilderness from their eyes.
This summer, Mueller made a routine visit to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to examine the impact of pollution and other human-caused disturbances on the sensitive mushroom species and communities associated with trees. “One of the foci of our whole research program (at the Garden) is looking at that juxtaposition of humans and nature and how that can coexist. The Dunes National Lakeshore is just a great place to do that,” he explained, as it is unusually close to roads and industry.
Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., adjunct conservation scientist, relied on her fieldwork in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to study one of only two known populations of Lepidospartum burgessii, a rare gypsophile shrub, during a postdoctoral research appointment at the Garden. “We were able to work with park staff to study the species and make recommendations for management,” she said.
As a Conservation Land Management intern, Coleman Minney surveyed for the federally endangered Ptilimnium nodosum at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park earlier this year. “The continued monitoring of this plant is important because its habitat is very susceptible to invasion from non-native plants,” explained Minney, who found the first natural population of the species on the main stem of the Potomac River in 20 years.
According to conservation scientist Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., “In many cases, National Parks provide the best and most intact examples of native plant communities in the country, and by studying them we can learn more about how to restore damaged or destroyed plant communities to support the people and wildlife that depend upon them.”
The parks have been a critical site for her work throughout her career. Initially, “I relied on the parks as sites for fieldwork on how wildflowers adapt to their local environment.”
Today, she is evaluating the results of restoration at sites in the Colorado Plateau by looking at data provided by collaborators. Her data covers areas that include Grand Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument.
Along with colleague Nora Talkington, a recent master’s degree graduate from the Garden’s program in plant biology and conservation who is now a botanist for the Navajo Nation, Dr. Kramer expects the results will inform future restoration work.
At Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, Natalie Balkam, a Conservation Land Management intern, has been hard at work collecting data on vegetation in the park and learning more about the intersection of people, science, and nature. “My time with the National Park Service has exposed me to the vastly interesting and complex mechanics of preserving and protecting a natural space,” she said. “And I get to work in one of the most beautiful places in the world—Alaska!”
The benefits of conducting research with the National Parks extend beyond the ability to gather high-quality information, said Mueller. Parks retain records of research underway by others and facilitate collaborations between scientists. They may also provide previous research records to enhance a specific project. Their connections to research are tight. But nothing is as important as their ability to connect people with nature, said Mueller. “That need for experiencing nature, experiencing wilderness is something that’s critical for humankind.”
For research and recreation, we look forward to the next 100 years.
Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) is gaining ground in its native Oregon for the first time in more than 80 years. Recent reintroductions have seen the charismatic species flourish on its historic prairie landscape. To keep the momentum going, scientists are pulling out all the stops to ensure that the new populations are robust enough to endure.
“Genetic variability will be key to the reintroduction success of golden paintbrush,” explained Adrienne Basey, graduate student in the plant biology and conservation program of the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University.
Basey, who previously managed a native plant nursery, is now studying the genetic diversity of golden paintbrush plants before, during, and after they are grown in a nursery prior to reintroduction to the wild.
“My work is looking at the DNA, or genetics, of the wild, nursery, and reintroduction populations to see if there is any change through that process,” she said. If there is a change, she will develop recommendations for adjusting the selection and growing process to better preserve diversity. “My goal is to give both researchers and practitioners more information to work with,” she noted.
Building for the Future
The research is unique in the relatively young field of restoration science, according to Basey’s co-advisor and molecular ecologist at the Garden, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. “Adrienne’s study is awesome because of the fact that it has data and the samples to back it up; it is early on in this game of reintroductions and restorations, and potentially could have a lot of impact, not just for that species but what we tell nurseries in the future,” he said.
Basey is working with data collected over the past decade by research scientists at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Corvallis, Oregon, and University of Washington herbarium specimens from Washington and Oregon dating as far back as the 1890s, and data she has collected from existing plants during field work. “It’s a perfect partnership,” said Dr. Fant, who noted that the Garden is guiding the molecular aspect of the study while colleagues in Washington and Oregon are providing a large portion of the data and samples.
The availability of all of this information on a single species that is undergoing restoration is very rare, explained Fant. “It’s a very unique scenario that she has there, so we can look at how diversity changes as we go from step to step and hopefully identify any potential issues and where they are occurring in the process.”
The study itself will likely serve as a research model for other species in the future. “There isn’t much research out there to help propagators understand when and where genetic diversity may be lost during the production process,” said Basey’s co-advisor and conservation scientist at the Garden, Andrea Kramer, Ph.D.
Last year, Basey, Fant, and Kramer worked together to write a paper outlining ten rules to maximize and maintain genetic diversity in nursery settings. “My goal is to support reintroduction efforts by informing nursery practices and demonstrate to nurseries on a broader scale how their practices can influence genetic diversity through a single case study,” said Basey.
A Green Light Ahead
Her preliminary research is focused on four golden paintbrush populations. Early evaluations show clear distinctions between a few of them, which is good news. Basey will next compare those genetic patterns to those of plants in reintroduction sites.
According to Fant, earlier studies by other researchers have shown that many restoration efforts for threatened species suffer from low levels of genetic diversity prior to reintroduction, due to a number of causes ranging from a small population size at the outset to issues in propagation. It is critical to work around those issues, he explained, as the more genetic diversity maintained in a population, the better equipped it is to survive environmental changes from drought to temperature shifts.
Basey will also compare the current level of diversity of golden paintbrush to that of its historic populations, to get a better sense of what the base level should be for reintroduction success. She plans to wrap up her lab work well before her summer 2015 graduation date.
For now, she is pleased with the level of diversity she sees in the current population. “I think the fact that it has a high genetic diversity means that these reintroductions could be successful,” she said. “But if we are creating a bottleneck, we need to know that so we can mitigate it as quickly as possible.” (A bottleneck is an event that eliminates a large portion of genetic variability in a population.)
Fant is enthusiastic about the timing of the study as the field of restoration is taking off. “We can jump in early as programs are being started,” he noted. “If we all learn together, I think it really does ensure that everyone gets what they need in the end.”
For Basey, it’s about building a bridge between the theoretical and the applied aspects of restoration. “My interest isn’t so much in this single species but more in the communication of science to practitioners. I like to bridge the line between research and the people who are using research,” she said.
Basey, like the golden paintbrush, is looking toward a bright future.
Huddled on a sand dune, the small community of bristly Lepidospartum burgessii plants would be easy for most of us to overlook. But to scientists from the Chicago Botanic Garden, the rare shrubs shine like a flare in the night sky. This is one of two known locations of the species worldwide—both in New Mexico—and the center of a rather dazzling rescue mission.
Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., a Garden postdoctoral research associate, is pulling out all the stops to save the sensitive species. Commonly called Burgess’ scale broom, it has suffered from a mysterious lack of seed production since the late 1980s.
Standing about five feet tall, the silvery-green plants only grow on gypsum dunes. They possess unique characteristics that allow them to help stabilize sand dunes in the desert conditions where they live.
“I’m interested in how we can use genetics broadly to address conservation and ecological restoration questions,” said Dr. Williams. Her curiosity led her to the Garden in 2011 to join a team of genetic experts for this formidable undertaking.
The team suspects that, because the two populations of Lepidospartum burgessii are relatively small, the existing plants have interbred and are now too closely related to pollinate one another—which means they cannot produce seeds and create new plants.
Williams set out to confirm this theory, gathering plant cuttings during summer fieldwork in 2013. She hoped to grow the cuttings into full plants that she could cross-pollinate and study at the Garden. She also took samples from 320 plants back to the Garden. There, using a microsatellite technique, she recorded the genetic pattern of each plant, noting similarities and differences.
“When we have all of these different shrubs from a population, we want to use a fine genetic tool to tease apart genetic variations,” she explained. The microsatellite approach allowed her to identify genetic markers occurring in multiple plants down to the finest level of detail.
The results were encouraging. Williams found enough genetic diversity within the two populations that they should be able to cross pollen, or DNA material, and produce seeds. “Because there is diversity in these populations, we’re really hopeful that if we do a genetic rescue we can get some seeds in these two different populations,” said Williams. A genetic rescue, she explained, is when a species is revived with the addition of new genes, which normally occurs during pollination.
That day didn’t come right away, as the cuttings failed to grow in the Garden greenhouses. Accustomed to the trial and error process of scientific discovery, Williams moved on to her backup plan.
She returned to the field in October, where she personally carried pollen-filled flowers from one population of plants to another, brushing the fluffy yellow blooms against other plants that may accept their genetic material. With plants as much as one mile apart, it was a process of patience and precision.
Williams is poised for the challenge of whatever she may, or may not, find. Ultimately, she hopes to convey a successful technique to land managers who carry out the daily work of furthering the species and enriching the biodiversity of the southwestern landscape.
“I really like that as part of the Garden we can help these public agencies and use our knowledge of genetics and conservation to stabilize and increase some of these rare populations. That’s really important to me,” said Williams.
She has been intent on advancing conservation science since childhood, inspired by her aunt, an ecologist. Her interest grew into expertise as she studied the genetics of ferns while earning her Ph.D. in botany at the University of Wisconsin.
In winter at the Garden, Williams takes every opportunity to walk through the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. “I like being here in the winter and seeing a side of the Garden that’s unexpected: the snow and the beautiful structures in the Malott Japanese Garden,” she said.
Perhaps it is that perspective, of looking for the unexpected, that will unlock the mystery of Lepidospartum burgessii one day soon.