Scientists come up with innovative ways to save endangered plant

14 November 2017

mediumScientists from the University of Stellenbosch are using technology to save a critically endangered plant from extinction. The paintbrush lily (Haemanthus coccineus), found in a fynbos vegetation type known as Renosterveld, is one of the smallest of the lily group. Urbanisation is diminishing its habitat, a similar fate to an increasing number of plant species. Human development has been the cause of major destruction in nature. Ironically, it’s this very development that could also be its saving grace.

Where the species once thrived in Stellenbosch, among other areas, it’s estimated that less than 200 plants still survive in nature. A group of scientists has embarked on a mission to save the species.

Dr Gary Stafford of the University of Stellenbosch’s Institute for Plant Biotechnology says, ‘using science and technology we can reverse the process of what’s happened already and hopefully introduce more plants back into this environment and other environments where it occurred before. For example there’s a brick factory not too far away from here which historically had a population of these plants and we would like to return some plants to that. There’s a development around one of the schools nearby that we would like to introduce the plants into a wetland rehabilitation programme so ideally we would like to save this population, get it to be self-sustaining.’

Taking nature into the concrete jungle structures of the university they are using existing basic techniques to develop a new method of plant multiplication. The process is similar to cloning.

Dr Paul Hills, also of the University of Stellenbosch’s Institute for Plant Biotechnology says, ‘because it’s so endangered we don’t want to destroy any of them so we’re hoping we can just use the leaves and then from each little piece of the leaf we’re hoping we can make one maybe two little bulblets by treating with the right hormones, the right conditions and from that we can take those plants and divide those again and make more so micro propagation has the potential to create millions of plants from just one small sample.’

And the next generation of scientists are already on board. Dominique West, an honours degree bachelor of science student says, ‘I think a lot of people go into medicine, that’s the normal route, but BSc has a lot to offer so it depends. Genetics has always been an interesting one for me actually determining what’s going on in our bodies on a molecular level.’

If successful, specimens will be sent to botanical gardens around the world for safekeeping. Saving even the smallest paintbrush lily could one day prove to be the saving grace of the great balance of all life on Earth.

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