Economic Botany at the Missouri Botanical Garden
The Missouri Botanical Garden has long been known for the strength of its research in systematic botany, the breadth of its rich herbarium and library collections, and the extraordinary amount of information captured in its TROPICOS database. In the new century the Garden is leaping forward with a vibrant program of applied research in economic botany and ethnobotany and a newly established Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development on an international level. The programs of applied research and the conservation center seek to apply the accumulated expertise of the Garden’s large, active staff of researchers and the incredible wealth of information on plants they have gathered to the mission of finding new ways to preserve and enrich life.
There has been an interest in economically important plants and their application in the development of new products at the Missouri Botanical Garden since its earliest days. George Englemann, to whom Henry Shaw turned for advice when he began planning his garden in the 1850s, was interested in useful plants. Englemann’s taxonomic studies include notes on the uses of agaves and other useful plants. His studies of grapes helped to solve a vexing problem in the French wine industry. Working closely with entomologist C. V. Riley and several French scientists, Englemann helped with the search for grape varieties resistant to Phylloxera, a small insect related to aphids, that was ravaging French vineyards at the time.
Hermann von Shrenk, who received his Ph.D. in plant pathology from Washington University in 1897, became the first federal forest pathologist in the United States while employed as an instructor in the University’s Shaw school of botany in 1899. At the 1904 St. Louis World’s fair he introduced the technique of impregnating railroad ties with creosote, which quadrupled their life.
The real father of economic botany at the Missouri Botanical Garden was certainly Edgar Anderson, who was Director of the Garden from 1954 to 1956 and Curator of Useful Plants from 1957 to 1966. Anderson is best known for his investigations of the origin of corn. His studies brought strong taxonomic rigor and new methods for studying the process of hybridization to research on the origin and domestication of crop plants.
Hugh Cutler worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden from 1953 to 1977, much of that time as either Curator of Useful Plants or assistant director. Cutler was a great pioneer and promoter of flotation methods for the recovery of floral materials from paleoethnobotanical investigations. The majority of his research focused on prehistoric races of maize, squashes, and gourds. Long time Garden Senior Botanist and Washington University Professor Walter Lewis coauthored the popular textbook Medical Botany with his wife Memory Elvin-Lewis. In addition, he has conducted extensive ethnobotanical surveys in Amazonian Peru, and he continues his research on anti-malarials in Peru with the support of the Wellcome Foundation.
More recently, several staff members have focused some aspect of their research on useful plants. The aroids that are the center of Tom Croat’s studies are important ornamentals, and Ihsan Al-Shehbaz has completed a taxonomic survey of the genus Arabidopsis, the preferred species for studies in plant genetics. The late Al Gentry published numerous notes on the uses of Bignoniaceae, including a study of the genus Martinella, which indigenous groups throughout South America use to treat eye infections. In addition, Gentry and his student Oliver Phillips pioneered the use of quantitative sampling methods to evaluate the importance of forest species to indigenous groups.
The first formal, large-scale effort to collect plants for the development of new medicines began in 1986 when the Garden was awarded a contract by the United States National Cancer Institute to supply samples of plants from tropical Africa and Madagascar for screening and development of new anticancer drugs. That program is now in its fourth five-year contract period. In 1990, the Garden added a drug discovery partnership with the Monsanto Company, an effort that spanned ten years and included the collection of approximately 15,000 samples to support discovery of new pharmaceutical, agricultural, and nutritional products. Another large pharmaceutical discovery program began in 1993 with the establishment of the multi-institutional International Cooperative Biodiversity Group, led by Dr. David Kingston at Virginia Tech, which supported activities in Suriname and later in Madagascar. In 1995, these programs were formally joined to create the Applied Research Department.
Botanists of the Applied Research Department focus on collecting botanical specimens, samples, and information about the uses of plants. They collect plant samples to support discovery research, preserve samples of leaves to support studies of relationships among plant groups, and gather information and specimens to understand the reliance of traditional societies on plants. Current research includes:
- Partnerships for the discovery of new pharmaceutical, agricultural, or nutritional products. Garden botanists continue to collect plants for pharmaceutical discovery in Madagascar for the National Cancer Institute and the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group programs. For Sequoia Sciences, the Garden collects plants for possible commercial applications. From the years of its first contract with the National Cancer Institute, the Garden has been a leader in promoting ethical and legal frameworks for bioprospecting.
- Ethnobotanical research to understand and preserve endangered traditional knowledge about the use of plants. In the Meili Mountain Range of northwestern Yunnan Province in China, the Garden is working with The Nature Conservancy, the Kunming Institute of Botany, the Alpine Botanical Garden at Zhongdian, and other local organizations to study, develop, support, and resurrect indigenous cultural practices that effect nature conservation and cultural systems that maintain and enhance biodiversity. In the Spring of 2002 the Garden will host a Biocomplexity Workshop on Ethnobiology funded by the National Science Foundation that will address research, methodology, analysis, education, and funding within the field.
- Systematic research to understand the evolution of crop plants and their relationships to wild relatives. Over 600 million people in tropical countries depend on cassava (Manihot esculenta) as a major food crop, but there is little substantial data either on the evolution of Manihot or its domestication. Garden researchers propose to produce these data using modern molecular techniques, traditional morphological analyses, and ethnobotanical experimentation and interviews with indigenous people in the area of cassava domestication.
- Taxonomic study of the species used as herbal medicine and the development of these species as alternative crops, creating high value for small-scale farmers and helping ensure conservation of wild populations. With the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Center for Phytonutrient and Phytochemical Studies, the Garden is collecting medicinal plants in the wild, identifying plant material, and storing voucher specimens of plants used for research. The main goal of the Garden in this project is to produce a guide for the identification of the species used in the manufacture of herbal dietary supplements. Researchers are also cultivating medicinal plants of interest at the Garden’s Shaw Nature Reserve.
- Training and capacity building. Scientists of the Applied Research Department provide on-the-job training in field collection techniques as they work with team members from other countries, as well as more formal workshops in field botany. This year in St. Louis they presented a workshop in ethnobotany, collections management, and botanical research methods that was attended by ten participants from abroad. The Garden has helped the herbarium at FOFIFA in Madagascar by providing materials for camping and plant collecting and by establishing and maintaining their e-mail capacity.
- Preservation of materials in a DNA bank that supports molecular phylogenetics. Garden botanists collect samples of plant material, usually young leaves, in plastic zip-lock bags with silica gel as a desiccant. This collection is intended to promote phylogenetic research, while easing demand on herbarium specimens. The samples are stored in freezers, and vouchers for the specimens collected are deposited at the Garden and in at least one institution in the country of origin.
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News from MO 2001 was created by Kathy Hurlbert, Leslie Miller, Eloise Cannady and Mary Merello (October 2001) and placed on the MOBOT webserver 1/22/02.