New York Voices; 608; New York Botanical Garden
Why. You know it's there's a whole side to this court and the public is that we are and that's the research end of the garden. We are now working on standardizing which gene will be used universally around the world for creating an encyclopedia of life because of plants we have everything and we have food to eat. So it behooves us to understand how they grow where they are what they are and where they've been.
New York Voices is made possible by Elise JAFFE And Jeffrey Brown. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund Michael t Martin and the members of 13 funding for this special edition provided by George Soros. Welcome to YOUR VOICES. You know most New Yorkers may not realize it but the New York Botanical Garden is not only a place of great beauty it's also a center of cutting edge science. It's 250 acres are visited by more than half a million visitors each year. Most of them come simply to enjoy its many gardens and plant collections. But with the opening of the new Pfizer plant research laboratory the botanical garden will enhance its reputation as a world class research institution. We begin our own tour of the garden by following a small group of botanists who have been collecting for specimens to confirm how very small segments of the plant's DNA may be enough to distinguish one species from another. The technique is called DNA barcoding and its impact on the future study of endangered species and climate change could be enormous.
So I think we should probably collect this buttercup DNA barcoding is a term that is being applied to an exciting new technique for identifying plants using genetic information. It's ridiculous vicarious biologists like myself have been sequencing dozens of different genes for different playing groups. For more than 10 years. But. We are now working on standardizing which will be used universally around the world for creating an Encyclopedia of Life or universal DNA barcode library solid standalone. Plane of rocks and for that reason I've launched a pilot project exploring the use of DNA bar codes in the plant for plant species identification. The reason that we call these DNA bar codes is that we're trying to make a comparison or an analogy to a product barcode that you would find
on any product in the supermarket shelf. Obviously they're not black lines on a white background but they are varying patterns that can distinguish one species from another. I haven't checked in your memory what the earliest collection of species from the garden was. In order to collect plant material for this DNA barcoding project. My colleagues and I from the botanical garden are going out into the forest each week. The team consists of myself representing the laboratory science a member of our horticulture staff Jessica Kate Dr. Michael MIDI from the herbarium and then one of our graduate students Donald who represents the next generation of scientists and students who work here in the garden. So we don't want to dig the whole plant up because it has a huge stem or root down in there. So all of the slots to nice leaves specifically this
pilot project targets the native and naturalized plants within the 50 acre forest located within the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Going lower smell bad hence the name skunk cabbage. Simple car perspective this. Because of the fetid odor This is a really interesting forest because in fact it has never been cleared for agriculture. And to date we estimate approximately three hundred forty different plant species that are either native or have escaped out of cultivation. And those are the targets of our pilot project. We want to make the. DNA samples shredded up into a few little pieces. They say really do stick every living thing on earth is built up of cells and the DNA within those cells is made up of the same building blocks regardless of whether it's a plant fungus or animal. In fact there are four building blocks that make up DNA. We call these four
nucleotides and they have a long scientific names but we rebate them by letters. There is an A. Building Block A G A C and a t. You can think of these as beads on a string A's G's C's in t's that are strung together in different patterns and the repeating pattern of these four building blocks these nucleotides is what makes one gene different from another gene. Finding. A DNA bar code however from that entire genome thousands and thousands of genes may not be so easy. This is the trick. This is the tricky part of of of bar coding. We want to find small fragments little snippets from across the entire genome that can distinguish one species from another. So after we've returned from the forest Dr. need takes the voucher specimens the prest samples to the herbarium they will be processed and deposited there.
I bring back the dried leaf samples in silica gel. We extract the DNA from those leaf samples. We pull out the target gene and we take the DNA molecules apart and we actually color them. Through a chemical process and then we insert those fragments into a DNA sequencing machine and as the the fragments of DNA pass in front of the laser the laser can read the color. This is an A this is a T. This is another T. And by doing that over a matter of hours we actually unravel or sequence the genetic code. What we're really looking for is one gene that carries enough variation that has enough mutations in it that can distinguish one species from another species on the top we see the DNA sequence for Kerry of the Little Buttercup that we collected from the forest and on the bottom we see the skunk cabbage simple carpus fed to this most of the DNA sequence matches up
quite well. But any place that there is a mutation or a difference between those species it's indicated by a black dot on the summary line below. And what we can see here is that there are actually a number of mutations or differences in the genetic code between skunk cabbage and Buttercup. So this particular gene would be a nice choice for a DNA barcode because it can very easily distinguish these two and hopefully other species from one another. Today it takes us about a full day or two to fully sequence a gene. But in the future it's hoped that people will be able to carry out into the forest with them a handheld device that they can squash a little bit of leaf tissue on and push a button and perhaps two minutes later it will tell the person exactly what species this is. We want to know what's out there. We want to know where it came from and where it's going. People have asked me how could barcoding be used to protect endangered plants. And
my answer to that is is that we can't protect what we don't know. We need to have an inventory. We need to know what's out there. Before we can protect it. I think most would agree that the New York Botanical Garden is the most extensive and remarkable botanical garden in the world. Barry when did this start. Ironically it started with a trip to London in the 1880s. This fellow here. And Nathaniel Lord Brittan and his wife travel to London they visit the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. At that time the most famous gardens in the world and they loved the idea so much they felt New York should have such a facility. Throughout the 1890s Britain pieces together a public private consortium of money so he brings in the Vanderbilt he brings in the
Morgans he brings in the Carnegie not back then. And by 1898 he has chosen this piece of land here in New York city adjacent to the Bronx River including the old Lorillard estate with its beautiful gardens and the largest remnant left of virgin forest here in New York it's 50 acres along the Bronx River that has never been clear cut for farming. So that's remarkable. They they also in 1909 they plan the unit helped conservatory a glass the glass house right here. As a matter of fact here it is being built. And it was at the time the largest such conservatory in America and here it's brand new and you can see it across the landscape. Now this garden today. Is made up of forty eight different gardens and this includes two gardens devoted to children. This 19 0 6 photograph. Is a wonderful way of showing. That even at the beginning this garden was devoted to showing kids about plants working with pleasure but they also have the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden
which is remarkable both in June and September when the roses come back. You have an orchid garden you have two conifer Gordons evergreen garden flowering tree garden and then with in the in it how conservatory you have a world of plants you have temporary exhibits like the annual orchid show that everybody knows about and the holiday train show which is spectacular. You mean you go through over a hundred tiny replicas of New York City landmarks. It's what I would have loved to have done when I was a kid. But you know it's it has a whole side to this court and the public is not aware. And that's the research end of the garden. The Mertz library in its original nine thousand one building its one of the largest and most respected facilities of its kind for botanists and horticulturists and the public in general and the building greenhouses that we have in that we just open. This is part of that research into the garden that we are so in from the roots. And a man who knows a lot about all of this is Tom Forrest he is vice president for horticulture and living collections here at the Botanical Garden time. But thank you for
inviting us to come being part of this I mean just. It's just amazing. Well thank you so much for coming it really is an amazing place and deserves as much attention as I can get. These are the knowing greenhouses for living collections which are basically a state of the art brand new facility in which we grow all the tens of thousands of plants we use in our three major program areas science education horticulture. We just completed this building this year and in it we incorporate all of this technology that's been developed since a conservatory was built over 100 years ago that allow us to grow plants more effectively under glass. So when you say technology what does that mean. How how high tech is this and in what way. Well basically the signature technology of this facility are the open are events the rooms open like vests so that when the weather is perfect outside for growing the plants they can bring that weather outside inside. The technology is over 100 years old for growing plants during the winter. What's difficult is growing plants during
summer. So we have evaporative coolers which actually acts like sweat and the human body. The water is evaporated the air is cold it sucked through this house and it actually cools the temperature. What is this exhibit which surrounds us here. This is called carnivores Plant City. Meet this exhibition features plants from environments that are so difficult for the plants to get the nitrogen they need. The plants evolved the ability to get nitrogen from trapping and digesting the sun's wonderful pitcher plants and Venus Fly Traps and things that are active and alive and are literally eating digesting insects for their nutrition. Will the completion of the Pfizer plant research laboratory the New York Botanical Garden begins a new era of scientific research. The State of the art lab will triple the gardens current research capabilities and also provide room to educate and train the next generation of plant scientists. I recently met with the director of the new Pfizer laboratory Dr. Dennis Stephenson and Dr. Stevens and why this plant science matter.
I mean what going to do for us. Plant Science matters because plants organisms in our environment. And in fact are the. Because of plants we have air to breathe and we have a food to eat. So it behooves us to understand how they grow where they are what they are and where they've been. And how they work. Tell me how this building was designed what was in your head what did you hope to create physically. One of the things that we began to understand was that the old model of an independent researcher with his own lab the Stevenson lab. And then down the hall the Cameron lab and. Down the hall little farther the lit lab. That that model wasn't there any more that most people were collaborative and together. So one of the things that we thought very serious about how could we build a very large open laboratory space. And actually divided into procedures. In a sense you'll have the sequencer in one area and everyone who uses sequencing would be using that area. That meant you didn't buy three sequencers for three different labs.
The other thing was that people would then see each other all the time and if they were having problems with something or had an idea they could communicate it so there would be a lot of more interaction more communication then what the architects came up with which I think is really neat is the building in terms of the way it faces and captures natural light. We often don't have to turn the lights on in this building yet it's not too bright because all the trees are there. And so if. We understood that a big open area like this would just make a more conducive work environment that people would sort of relax a little more and think a little more. Now you've been conducting research on a group of plants that the species called cycads. There are about 200 million years older. I read what you're interested in cycads cycads are what we call their what we call the most primitive living scene plants in other words they have this long fossil history. So they're interest because they've been around a long time. And I just tell you they're strange looking at it sort of peaked my interest was a little serendipitous that I was in a place where they had a
vast collection of them. As I understand it the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks is also working with cycads what's the link there. Well I think this is an interesting thing because this often happens in research where you get links with people you're not you normally would never even meet. And part of that link is that the cycads make a peculiar compound called DNA. And. It actually is implicated in Guam's dementia in Oliver's book island of the colourblind where he talks about this and that compound as a Benedetta fied as something that can cause neurological disorders. And so studying this toxin somehow might lead to a discovery of how to prevent dementia like Alzheimer's. Right we would like to know particularly I think Lou Gehrig's is is the big one here. And the idea is that it's Someday you might have gene therapy where with stem cells you generate a whole new nervous system so that if your body caused that to collapse and for five years you in fact would have built in resistance. So what kind of new experimentation and new research
do you foresee in the in the coming years and this new facility. I think. That. What's going to happen is that technology is going to continue to grow. And so we're going to be able to do experimental things that we never. Did before or never thought of. And I think what it's going to do is it's going to allow us to some extent understand more and more how organisms got to be here. And how they function and grow. And I think we're going to find more and more commonality to life. And genes that were used for one purpose here have been co-opted in use for another purpose over here. And that's going to give us a very much a much better basic understanding of what's going on out there. Right now we are in the conservatory. The New York Botanical Garden the conservatory is designed to be a way to show the public plants from all over the world regardless of the time of year so that here we are in a tropical setting right now even if it
was December we could still be enjoying these plants. This habitat is very similar to what you might find in the mountains of Puerto Rico where you have a cloud forest with high rainfall and just an utter lushness of green everywhere. The Britons who founded the garden were taken with Puerto Rico in fact for a period of about 30 years between one thousand six in the early 1930s Britain made sixteen different expeditions to Puerto Rico. He also sponsored many more that he didn't go on himself. The goal of Britain's fieldwork was to completely characterize the plants that grew there. He wanted to collect every single species he wanted to be able to put a name on it or describe it as new if it didn't already have a name. He wanted to be able to say what its flowers looked like what its fruits looked like how big a tree it became. And the way that botanist do that is by collecting specimens. The plants were dried in the field and brought
back to the New York Botanical Garden herbarium. The herbarium is basically a library of dried plants. The New York Botanical Garden has about seven point two million of these specimens. So since we have Britons Puerto Rican specimens here if we pull them out of the herbarium and I pulled a few out here it's as if we could go back in time and see what Britain collected and he walked through the forests of Puerto Rico. This is one of the approximately 10000 specimens. This is a specimen of this or commonly known in Puerto Rico as Maga. It's the national flower of Puerto Rico. And it is very important the Puerto Rican plant people because it grows only in Puerto Rico. It has implications far beyond just those few of us botanists who like to study them. The plants can be important for documenting climate change over time. Plants respond to their environment we all know this when it's extra warm in the winter time the plants
flower early and as we suspect that the global temperature is on a warming trend. And plants will help us document that. At that as it gets warmer we find that they are flowering earlier and earlier we can see that with our own eyes today. But we don't know what happened maybe 40 years ago. But by going to the herbarium specimens we can plant was collected in March and it was flowering and normally that plant doesn't flower until April or May that must have been a warm year we can look for trends. We also are interested in. Plants that might be developed for horticulture agriculture. You might by looking at her barium specimens find relatives of a plant that's important as a source of drugs or as a source of food. You might be able to collect those and grow them and maybe they have genes that could be introduced to a breeding stock that would make the plant more drought tolerant or better in some way or for agriculture. The way that we preserve plant specimens is pretty much the way it's been done for the last two
hundred or so years very low tech requires nothing but paper and some glue and the plant. As long as we keep them dry and we don't let them bend or get damaged in any way. They last indefinitely this way we have specimens that go back to the late 16 hundreds. The new things that are happening are not so much with how we're preserving the specimen but how we're sharing the information. Botanists traditionally come to the herbarium and look at the specimens are we mail them to them but today we are also making our specimens available online through what we call our virtual herbarium. This is the 100th anniversary of Britain's first trip to Puerto Rico. So we think it's a particularly appropriate to do this project now.
The exhibit we have on now is the torch of colors the Great Age of the light and botanical garden and it combines water colors from the National Library of the Netherlands and live with the books from the west a team which library here at the New York Botanical Garden. And with the prince and the water colors we tell the story of this unique garden that was small in size but had enormous impact on the research and instruction of horticulture and botanical sciences. The watercolor exhibit is located in the run DNA gallery which is part of the library. The Dutch had tremendous access to the East Indies and the West Indies to the Dutch trading companies. They were safe people and they had a great drive for commerce. And I think they had this curiosity about the world and really science is really inquiry that's really what science is all about. Well because of the great access to many of these plants from all over the world
came into the lighted garden and there they were studied and researched and described. The garden of Leyden was established as part of the University of Life. The University was established in 15 75. Leyden was actually the site of a terrible siege that took place in 15th 74. The leader of the revolt was this nobleman William the first Prince of Orange in the US. And to thank the people of Leyden for their perseverance in this terrible siege he offered them either. No taxation or university. And the leaders of Leyden in their great wisdom chose the university. You can talk about Leyden without talking about this because he was the one that arranged the garden from a botanical as opposed to a medical point of view. And this was something very new. Carol's craziest was the father of descriptive botany.
He knew all the botanist and corresponded with botanist all over Europe. They had an active seed in plant exchange and his reputation was such that it really put. Leyden and the garden on the map. I have many favorites but I think the favorite watercolor is this that beautiful red Amaryllis is known as the Aztec Lily which really now I'm a realist and it comes from Mexico and it was one of the first plants that was includes his garden. Linnaeus was born at the turn of the 18th century and he is known as the father of taxonomy. Alive and 735 and he stayed only for three years but those three years were really very important in terms of his future career. His system standard and stabilised platen aims. I think my favorite book is the guest book because it's so beautiful and it shows such an
array of flowers and in a way it shows how botanical illustration was affected by the Inland classification scheme that the flower was was the focus instead of the entire plant. Well I think the garden at this particular point in time was in a very interesting position because of the globalization that was taking place. I must've been a fantastic time to buy these beautiful flowers. Unusual colors arrangements. And because of the Dutch spirit you know this so practical and innovative they were able to put it together. And they had this curiosity and a sense of scientific community that they wanted to know it. To tell you know all men by nature want to know. And. They pursued that.
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