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One list for all the world's plants

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 29, 2010 - Today the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew announce the online publication of The Plant List, the world's first database of all land plant species. The Plant List includes all accepted botanical names and their synonyms, as well as a number of names whose status as accepted or synonym is unresolved in the current literature.

"If we want to conserve plants, we need to know what species there are," said Peter Wyse Jackson, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden. "We all need to work from the same page."

Conservation today is a worldwide undertaking. Fully one-fourth of existing botanical species are in danger of extinction. The preservation of biological diversity demands shared priorities.

Information technologists and scientists at the botanical gardens in St. Louis and London worked together to develop innovative computer strategies to make the database comprehensive and available in a timely manner. The plant list is available to anyone in the world with access to a computer.

History Behind The Plant List

The project began with the 1999 International Botanical Congress, held in St. Louis and attended by 5,000 scientists. At that meeting, then Missouri Botanical Garden president Peter Raven rallied his colleagues with his statement that the world needs to wake up to the importance of plants and the threats they face. He called for the establishment of a United Nations agency to focus on plant conservation.

Botanists developed the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation. It was adopted through the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in 2002, and ratified by 193 countries. (The United States, the Vatican and Andorra are the only exceptions.) The strategy set 16 goals to be completed by 2010, with The Plant List priority one.

The Plant List is the only goal achieved on time.

However significant progress has been made with the other Global Strategy targets, according to Wyse Jackson. One of the goals is maintaining 60 percent of threatened species in botanic gardens or seed banks. Botanists are nearly half way there. More than 30 percent of threatened species are saved in living form (either seeds or under cultivation) away from their native sites. The Millennium Seed Bank at Kew Gardens contains approximately 10 percent of the world's wild plant species, and aims for 25 percent by 2020.

The Global Strategy set a goal of protecting 50 percent of the world's most important areas for plant diversity by 2010. That hasn't happened, says Wyse Jackson, but many countries have made great progress in identifying those areas. The goals state that the protected areas would be identified primarily at local and national levels. Diverse areas where numerous species are endangered would take priority for protection.

Attendees at the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Nagoya, Japan, this October established and accepted updated goals for 2020. "We've got one more chance to do it," Wyse Jackson said.

What is in The Plant List?

The Plant List contains 1.25 million Latin plant names. Of the 1.04 million species names included, about 300,000 (29 percent) are currently accepted, about 480,000 (46 percent) are synonyms, and 260,000 "unresolved." The list will be maintained and updated as new information is published.

Plant species, like animal species, are defined as interbreeding populations. There may be tremendous variability within a species. Take dogs, for example. They all belong to the species Canis lupis familiaris, but someone unfamiliar with dogs might find it hard to believe that a Yorkshire terrier and a Great Dane are closely related. Likewise, in the plant kingdom, members of the same species may look very different. Some may have smooth leaves, some toothed. Flower size and color may vary. Taxonomists are the scientists who make the species classifications.

Knowing the species name of a specimen is important for people in widely varying fields. Researchers doing environmental impact studies and land use planners need to know what organisms in their location are rare or endangered. Pharmaceutical collectors need to gather the proper species, and their collecting should be guided by relative abundance.

Ecologists and ethnobotanists, who study the same area over time, also need to be certain of the species in their areas. As described in an earlier Beacon story, Garden ethnobotanist Jan Salick studies the effect of global warming on mountain plants in the Himalayas. When she returns to a certain plot after a number of years, it is important that she follows the same species with variations. Some species may disappear from a plot and move up the mountain to a cooler environment, while some species may persist in the warmer environment.

How the List Was Made

All names on The Plant List come from online databases. The two largest are the Garden's Tropicos database, which contains more than a million names and about half a million synonyms; and Kew's World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. (Charles Darwin began the latter list.) Merging just those two lists was a huge undertaking.

Robert Magill, senior vice president, science and conservation at the Missouri Botanical Garden, pointed out that Tropicos and the Kew list were only the beginning. Databases from the sunflower project (International Compositae Alliance), the peas and beans project (International Legume Database and Information Service), the nightshade (tomatoes and potatoes) project, as well as plant listings from other botanical research institutions throughout the world were added.

Chuck Miller, vice president of information systems at the Missouri Botanical Garden, suggested creating and using a computer algorithm to sort the data. Since 2008, specialists at Kew Gardens and the Missouri Botanical Garden compiled the data using rules mimicking the process a botanist would use to determine the proper name for a plant.

"De-duplication" was the first task. Programmers needed to write algorithms that would not only find matches in the botanical names, but would allow for any misspellings and other data entry mistakes. De-duplication was repeated three times. They completed the list many steps later by applying rules such as finding the oldest or the most recent accepted name for a species.

Miller says he fully expects many revisions to The Plant List, as well as new entries. For example, if nobody has electronically recorded a piece of information, it will not appear in The Plant List. Material in books may well be in that category. Some digitized information is in PDF format, but not in a database. And he expects that many botanists will go to The Plant List to find their specialty, and realize that they have relevant data that needs to be entered electronically.

New Goal -- a Complete World Flora

Taxonomists and computer specialists will not have much time to celebrate their accomplishment thanks to the recent revision of goals. By 2020, the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation intends to have a complete online World Flora.

The Plant List is a hierarchy of names. The flora listing will include more: Detailed descriptions, geographical occurrence, photos and drawings and where and when the plants were discovered. It also will point users to available herbarium specimens.

To learn more about The Plant List, go to www.mobot.org/theplantlist. An explanatory video starring major researchers from Kew and St. Louis is available.

To get an idea of what will be in an online flora, visit the Garden's Tropicos, at www.Tropicos.org. Enter "redbud" under "common name."

What's in a Name?

In the naming system originated by Linnaeus in 1753, all organisms have a genus (general name) and species (specific name). For example, the flowering redbud that turns some Missouri hillsides pink in the spring is Cercis canadensis. The genus, always capitalized, is Cercis. The species is canadensis. In our local redbud, the flowers grow directly on the wood. In one Chinese version of the redbud, Cercis racemosa, the flowers droop down on a stem in a type of cluster called raceme.

A legitimate species name must be in Latin, according to Robert Magill of the Missouri Botanical Garden. The name must be accompanied by a Latin description and this description must be published in a widely distributed scientific journal. The description must include the location of the herbarium in which the type specimen is stored. Any botanist should be able to examine the original type specimen.

Importance of Plants

From the flour in your bread to the potato in your French fry, crop plants are the basis for our food supply. Plant fibers such as cotton clothe us. Wood, bamboo, thatch and other plant materials shelter us. Thousands of plant species are used in traditional medicines.

And of course, plants take in carbon dioxide and turn out the very oxygen necessary for us to breathe. And well-balanced ecosystems establish the environments in which animals can survive. They control erosion, purify water.

Jo Seltzer is a freelance writer with more than 30 years on the research faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine and seven years teaching tech writing at WU's engineering school. 

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