Untapped potential: the importance of preserving plant life

26th November 2021

Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, talks to Chris Seekings about how the untapped properties of plants and fungi could hold the key to tackling some of humanity’s greatest challenges

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – home to the world’s largest collection of living plants and fungi – unveiled a new science strategy in September, outlining how it will intensify its world-leading research over the next five years and beyond.

The properties of plants and fungi remain largely unknown and could potentially uncover solutions to some of humanity’s most pressing challenges, such as food insecurity and climate change. However, the situation is desperate, with scientists in a race against time to study and categorise species as deforestation, heatwaves and droughts contribute to escalating biodiversity loss worldwide.

Building on more than 260 years of scientific experience, Kew will look to harness its strengths, along with cutting-edge technologies, to push the frontiers of taxonomic research and the study of plants and fungi. The organisation’s director of science, Professor Alexandre Antonelli, explains how the next few years are a “closing window of opportunity” to protect and restore our remaining biodiversity – and help deliver numerous benefits for people, the environment and the climate.

How did you first become interested in the study and protection of plants?

I was born in Brazil, so spent a lot of my childhood visiting rainforests with my family and saw first-hand how those forests were disappearing rapidly. I’ve always been interested in nature, and wanted to take this a step further and do something to protect it, rather than just watch it being destroyed. Much of my own research has been about documenting biodiversity in the tropics, especially in Latin America, and finding sustainable ways to conserve it.

“We need to move away from our dependence on so few plants”

You joined Kew in 2019. Why did you think now was the best time to publish its new science strategy?

The world is changing fast, and we are living in a moment of crisis with climate change and biodiversity loss. We wanted a scientific basis for delivering on our manifesto, to intensify efforts to understand and protect plants and fungi for people’s wellbeing and the future of life.

At the strategy’s launch, you said that “the useful properties of plants and fungi are largely untapped and hold the potential to bring equitable benefits to people and nature”. Can you tell me about those benefits?

Plants have been crucial for humanity throughout our evolution and will be in future as well, but the crops we grow today will probably not be the same in the future. Wheat and bananas are being affected by pathogens and pests, and some foods are not going to be suitable in a few decades due to heatwaves, drought and salt intolerance – the latter being an issue because of rising sea levels. We need to find solutions. For example, Kew is working on finding coffee species and varieties that tolerate a warmer climate, and it’s the same with beans.

We need to move away from our dependence on so few plants. There are more than 30,000 different plant species with a known human use, but more than half of all calories we consume today come from only three: wheat, rice and maize. If a disease affected those, there could be negative consequences for billions of people.

It is, to some extent, about replacing some of those crops, but also about increasing the options.

How can the study of plants help to tackle climate change?

Plants play an important role in capturing and storing carbon from the atmosphere. Most people know that trees perform this role, but the value of grasslands, mangroves and other ecosystems in this process is understated. Our research can improve biodiversity, but also keep carbon out of the atmosphere by developing our understanding about planting the right trees in the right places for the right outcomes. It’s the same with grasslands and mangroves. There is also a risk that governments planting billions of trees might do so in a way that is not holistic, which could cause a lot of damage. We should not try to solve one crisis by making another worse, which is why we have just published the Kew Declaration on Reforestation, and ‘10 golden rules for restoring forests’.

“Rates of deforestation are so high that some species may be lost before they are documented”

How do you go about discovering new species and their properties?

We need to avoid the term ‘discovered’, because many of the plants found have been known by local communities for a long time. But we are scientifically describing around 2,000 new plants per year through Kew and our collaborators – it’s a big global effort. A lot of that is done through fieldwork by our own scientists. Every year around 20,000 specimens from different parts of the world are sent to Kew, and we study their morphology – what they look like – and increasingly use molecular techniques, sequencing species’ DNA and comparing them to find out whether they are new. We estimate that there are around 360,000 plant species, and that number is increasing.

Where are the most promising regions for new research?

Brazil is the country where most species are being described as new to science, and we know there is a huge amount of biodiversity there still to be documented, but it is across all ecosystems and regions. Here in temperate Europe, you might imagine that all species have already been described, but that’s not the case – especially when it comes to fungi. Kew is known for its plant collection and research, but we also have the largest collection of fungi, and estimate that at least 95% of fungi are not known to science. There are probably several million species that haven’t yet been found, including species in the UK.

Kew’s science strategy talks about enhancing partnerships worldwide, and a new digital revolution – tell me more about that.

Kew holds the largest collection of living and preserved plants and fungi, but there are also significant collections in Paris, New York and Missouri, among others, which we are working with closely, and we need new partnerships across the world. But if someone from Brazil or Madagascar wants to know whether something they have found is a new species, they need to compare that with previous collections. Unfortunately, a lot of our collections are not available digitally, so for many species there are no high-resolution images of the specimens and their associated information. We are now working with the government to digitise all our collections and make them freely available, which will speed up species description, conservation and the finding of new traits. A large proportion of the collections we hold are from other countries, so we are doing everything we can to share the information widely so it is a benefit for all on a free basis. There is a broad understanding that this is absolutely critical – it’s about democratising the information we hold.

What is the most important thing the government can do to support your research?

The most important thing is to come up with concrete plans to deliver on goals that benefit nature, people and climate in a holistic way. We are in a race to secure enough resources and find innovative ways of speeding up species description and identification, and to understand their conservation status – the threats they face and their risk of extinction. Many new species are now immediately estimated to be threatened because there are so few. In many areas, the rates of deforestation are so high that species may be lost before they are even documented. The challenge is to find and conserve them before they disappear forever.

Further information

Read Kew’s Science Strategy 2021-25 at bit.ly/Kew_ScienceStrat

Find the Kew declaration on reforestation for biodiversity, carbon capture and livelihoods at bit.ly/3pMp9BR and its ‘10 golden rules for restoring forests’ at bit.ly/3EqSlSZ

Image credit | Akin-Falope | Jessica-Marsh

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