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American Journal of Botany Highlights Biology Faculty Research
source:     author:     2014-10-24

A new special issue of the American Journal of Botany (AJB) addressing the challenge of global food needs includes research from Saint Louis University professors Allison Miller, Ph.D., Peter Bernhardt, Ph.D., and Zong-Xin Ren, Ph.D., a faculty member at Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in China who conducted post-doctoral work with Bernhardt at SLU.

The issue includes 19 articles by a diversity of scientists describing basic research in aspects of plant science that are relevant for agriculture and food security and calls attention to the diversity of studies that bridge basic plant science and applied agricultural research. Research fields in the issue include plant ecology, evolution, phylogenetics, quantitative genetics and economic botany.

The AJB indicates one of the planet's leading questions is how to produce enough food to feed the world in an increasingly variable climate. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that food production must rise 70 percent over the next 40 years to feed a growing global population, and plants are one major component of the necessary rise in food production.

Plants -- grains, cereals, fruits, vegetables, and more -- feed humans directly and indirectly by supporting livestock. Current research must tap into the knowledge of how plants work to develop more efficient and higher yielding agricultural systems that produce more food using fewer resources and with reduced environmental impacts.

Miller, an associate professor in SLU's department of biology and co-editor of the publication, pointed out the broad significance of the research.

"There are more than 300,000 species of plants on the planet that have evolved and diversified into a breathtaking array of forms," Miller said. "Understanding these forms has the potential to shed new light on what we know about how plants survive and thrive in a range of environments and under a host of different selection pressures."

Traditionally, basic plant research is motivated by curiosity to understand fundamental biological phenomena, while applied research is mainly motivated by practical applications. Miller added that basic research discoveries often extend beyond their original intention.

 "The more we know about how plants work, how they evolve, the genes underlying adaptive variation and many other topics, the better our capacity to develop sustainable agriculture, and to understand the impacts of agriculture on natural plant diversity," Miller said.

Miller, also a research associate with the Missouri Botanical Garden, and co-editors Elizabeth Kellogg, member and principal investigator at the Danforth Plant Science Center and former president of the Botanical Society of America; and Briana Gross, assistant professor of biology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, hope to inspire botanists to reexamine their work in the broader context of basic plant biology and relevancy to plant-related global issues like agricultural practices, plant and soil conservation and biotechnology.

"A good way to start is by encouraging scientists to bookend publications with statements about how the knowledge of their study system might apply to sustainable agriculture," Miller added.

Bernhardt, a professor of biology at SLU and noted author of several books on rare orchids and wildflowers, collaborated with colleagues at China's Kunming Institute of Botany, including his former student Zong-Xin Ren, Ph.D., on pollination biology in important food and medicinal plants used in Yunnan in southwestern China.

"The widespread decline of pollinator diversity remains an international concern in agriculture and genetic conservation," Bernhardt said. "In particular, there are large gaps in the study of the pollination of economically important and traditionally grown species in China, a mega-biodiversity hotspot for medicinal and food plants."

"The interesting thing about domesticated plants in China is the concept that all plants are food and all foods are medicine. Consequently, our study looks at a number of species that seem atypical to western ideas but it opens the door to understanding how breeding systems change as farmers select for higher yield plants over many generations.."

"Some of our species are only semi-domesticated," Bernhardt added. "The Chinese allow wild species to colonize and invade their gardens because they have extra resale value as herbal medicines or as flavor additives for traditional dishes. What we learned is that a number of these herbs and veggies have very atypical pollinators like the golden wasp that appears to be the primary pollinator for the bellflower, Codonopsis subglobosa, a local substitute for true ginseng root."

Today Ren Zong-Xin continues his research and his SLU connection with Bernhardt with a view of the impact for the people of his country and the world.

"My research mainly focuses on the breeding systems and pollination ecology of endangered and economically important plants species in southwestern China," Zong-Xin said. "I try to connect basic questions of evolutionary ecology and their implications for conservation and sustainable use of plant species I studied. I have a long-term collaboration relationship with Dr. Bernhardt to study rare and native orchids in China."

"China has the largest populations to feed and food security is and will be a huge challenge for the Chinese people. This is the reason why my coauthors and I contributed to this special issue. We try to understand current limitations in our knowledge of the pollinator deficit in southwestern China. We encourage our pollination ecologists and entomologists to broaden their research areas to both ethnic and industrial agroecosystems because the applied science is so important to increase the yield of crops. The applied science of pollinator management and the yield of crops awaits Chinese investment and invites international collaboration."

For additional information, contact Allison Miller at amille75@slu.edu. Abstracts of the published articles, as well as the introduction to the issue, are available on the American Journal of Botany website (www.amjbot.org).

About Saint Louis University 

Saint Louis University is a Catholic, Jesuit institution that values academic excellence, life-changing research, compassionate health care, and a strong commitment to faith and service. Founded in 1818, the University fosters the intellectual and character development of more than 13,000 students on two campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Building on a legacy of nearly 200 years, Saint Louis University continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to a higher purpose, a greater good.

About the American Journal of Botany 

The Botanical Society of America is a non-profit membership society with a mission to promote botany, the field of basic science dealing with the study and inquiry into the form, function, development, diversity, reproduction, evolution, and uses of plants and their interactions within the biosphere. It has published the American Journal of Botany for 100 years. In 2009, the Special Libraries Association named the American Journal of Botany one of the Top 10 Most Influential Journals of the Century in the field of Biology and Medicine.

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