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Scientist sends MoBot plants to the Smithsonian in case they go extinct

MoBot researcher Mónica Carlsen-Krause and her intern, Gabrielle McAuley, are collecting plants in the garden's greenhouse, the Climatron, that they're sending to the Smithsonian for long-term preservation.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
MoBot researcher Mónica Carlsen-Krause and her intern, Gabrielle McAuley, are collecting plants in the garden's greenhouse, the Climatron, that they're sending to the Smithsonian for long-term preservation.

For the past year, a researcher at the Missouri Botanical Garden has been collecting samples from hundreds of plants in the garden. They’ll be preserved at the Smithsonian Institute, where scientists are collecting plants from around the world.

Scientists are discovering new plants across the globe, but about one out of five plants are at risk of becoming extinct, due to climate change, human development and other threats to the environment. The Smithsonian’s Global Genome Initiative aims to have samples from every plant species on the planet, so scientists can learn about them and use them to solve human and environmental problems.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has one of the world’s largest collections of plants, which makes it a valuable resource for the Smithsonian’s project, garden researcher Mónica Carlsen-Krause said. At the garden, plants from different continents are located just a few feet of each other.

Carlsen-Krause, who is prioritizing plants that are threatened and endangered, said saving samples is important in case the species become extinct.

“The technology to bring plants from extinction is not quite there yet, but who knows? Maybe five, 10 years down the road, it will be,” she said. “If we go back to the sample in the repository, at least we have some information about what the plant looked like and what was the genetic makeup of this plant that then we can bring back to life.”

Eventually, Carlsen-Krause would like to collect samples from the 35,000 species that live among the garden’s main grounds. For now, she’s focused on the garden’s Temperate House and the Climatron — the garden’s large greenhouse that mimics a tropical rainforest. Together, those areas contain about 1,500 plants. With the help of local high-school and college students, she’s acquired samples for more tha  300 in the last year.

Carlsen-Krause and her assistants use silica gel and liquid nitrogen to keep the samples fresh in case researchers need to study them in the future. Silica gel can preserve plant specimens for about a decade, while the plants that are frozen in liquid nitrogen can be preserved for a couple centuries.

“If you think about it, we’re going to be collecting samples that are going to be here for 200 years, and we’re going to be dead,” said Gabrielle McAuley, a freshman at Clayton High School who is helping Carlsen-Krause this summer.

“I hope that my great-great-great-great-grandkid, if he’s interested in science, will look at this sample and say, ‘Oh, my great-great-great grandmother collected this,’” Carlsen-Krause responded.

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Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes to St. Louis after covering the eroding Delaware coast, bat-friendly wind turbine technology, mouse love songs and various science stories for Delaware Public Media/WDDE-FM. Before that, she corralled robots and citizen scientists for the World Science Festival in New York City and spent a brief stint booking guests for Science Friday’s live events in 2013. Eli grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where a mixture of teen angst, a love for Ray Bradbury novels and the growing awareness about climate change propelled her to become the science storyteller she is today. When not working, Eli enjoys a solid bike ride, collects classic disco, watches standup comedy and is often found cuddling other people’s dogs. She has a bachelor’s in environmental sustainability and creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has a master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on science reporting, from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.