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Using science to conserve endangered plant species

Using science to conserve endangered plant species

Investigating Rhododendron biodiversity through genetics

Auckland, New Zealand. 18 March 2009. Science developed to support apple breeding is being used in the conservation of a large, well known ornamental plant family, the rhododendron.

Scientists at Plant & Food Research are using their knowledge of plant genetics, including DNA fingerprinting technologies developed to identify traits of interest for commercial fruit breeding, to catalogue rhododendron varieties. The research aims to ensure the full range of genetic diversity is retained in botanical collections to safeguard them against extinction.

“There are over 1,000 species of Rhododendron globally, with the majority of the 300 tropical vireya species native to South East Asia,” says Dr Sue Gardiner. “These plants are under threat, as their natural habitat, the tropical rainforest, is being lost through deforestation. In some cases, it could be too late, as we think some species may already be extinct.

“Previously, varieties of plants have been classified by their physical appearance and morphology. However, there may be large genetic differences between plants classified using this traditional method, and developing collections based on morphology alone may result in some genetic variations being lost. These variations are important, not only to conserve the species as fully as possible but also for retaining potentially useful properties in the plant.”

By using technologies developed by Plant & Food Research’s researchers, vireya rhododendron species housed in New Zealand collections will be classified according to their genetics, ensuring species with different gene variations are preferentially managed. This information, along with similar studies with USA collaborators, will be used in the Red List assessment of Rhododendron, a project being conducted by Botanic Gardens Conservation International in London, as part of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation.

Dr Gardiner’s team are initially looking at Rhododendron collections held at the Pukeiti Gardens and by Palmerston North City Council. Funding for the project has been received from the Sir Victor Davies Foundation, New Zealand Postgraduate Study Abroad Awards (NZPSAA), Institute of Natural Resources (Massey University), New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences, and the New Zealand Rhododendron Association.

“Plants are plants, and DNA is DNA, so applying technology developed for apples to another species is reasonably straightforward. I’m very excited about being able to use these technologies on the plant genus I am passionate about in my private life,” enthuses Dr Gardiner.

ENDS

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