How Missouri Botanical Garden hopes to bring extinct plants back from the dead
Conservationists are working against the clock to save endangered species of plants and animals — after all, once a species goes extinct, there is no turning back. Or is there? Can scientists turn back time and bring new life to a globally extinct species?
Missouri Botanical Garden conservation scientist Matthew Albrecht and herbarium director Jordan Teisher are attempting to do exactly that.
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, the two scientists shared what is at stake in the global “de-extinction” effort and what part the botanical garden has in the experiment.
Sixty-one herbaria — think of them as plant libraries — worked together to identify extinct plant species and locate their preserved specimens and seeds across the world. Then began the experimentation process of figuring out how to germinate the seeds, some of which are nearly 200 years old.
The Missouri Botanical Garden’s plant specimen collection started the same year the garden was founded in 1859. Over time, the herbarium has collected and received specimens from around the world, including plants collected by renowned scientists such as Charles Darwin and George Washington Carver. The most precious plant specimens in the garden’s herbarium are of the 12 extinct plant species with seeds, four of which will be part of this worldwide experiment.
This experiment is the first of its kind, and it brings new possibilities for herbaria and the uses of preserved extinct plant specimens. How the garden acquired these plants and their seeds is the result of a long waiting game.
“On various specimens, it's just kind of lucky that they happen to be in fruit and in seed at the time that these species were collected. [Past plant scientists] probably didn't know they were going extinct,” Teisher said. “They definitely weren't thinking about 150 years later, ‘Let's see if we can sprout them.’ It's just because we've kept them in good condition, tried to keep them away from bugs that would eat them, that they're still preserved and potentially useful.”
It’s not just the plant specimens that are being scrutinized by researchers. The scientists who collected them often included notes about the conditions in which they were found, as well as weather records and observations of how the plant was used by humans and animals. Today, these notes are critical in figuring out how to make the seeds sprout. Although decades have passed, these historic notes could change how plant conservation is done now and in the future.
“Our goal as conservationists is to prevent the extinction of plant species. [This experiment] gives us an opportunity to advance science and understand these particular species,” Albrecht said. “And we might have a better understanding of their relationships with modern-day plant species or their close relatives that are not extinct in the wild.”
Through the efforts of scientists past and present, the Missouri Botanical Garden’s herbarium will be part of one of the biggest conservation efforts in history — and plant a seed in the public’s consciousness about what herbaria mean to the future of our planet.
“Part of the reason we keep these seeds … is we're preserving them for the future generations [of scientists],” Teisher said, “and the future technological breakthroughs that we have no idea what's going to be possible in another 50 years.”
Albrecht added, “This study is a great example of the value of our collections and how important they are to maintain.”
To hear more about MoBot’s “de-extinction” effort and plant conservation with Matthew Albrecht and Jordan Teisher listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.