climate in crisis

East Bay Institute Working to Record California's Disappearing Plants

Cal State East Bay assistant professor identified several factors causing the demise of some plants: Rampant development of plant habitats, plant disease, and a growing contributor -- climate change

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A newly-created Bay Area research group is attempting to collect the DNA of all California plants on the verge of extinction, with the goal of saving them or at least creating a record of their existence.

The Green Biome Institute was formed in 2019 at Cal State East Bay to study the state's disappearing plant species. According to the group's scientists, of the state's six thousand plant species, as much as 30% are a conservation concern. Nearly 1,000 of those species are listed as threatened or endangered.

"Losing that diversity is really bad because we don’t even know what we’re losing," said Green Biome Institute scientist Melis Akman. "There’s not a lot of research done on these plants."

Inside the institute's laboratory, student scientists and faculty are collecting and sequencing the DNA of threatened plants. They're using the data to create a sort-of molecular library to catalog the plants, some of which may soon disappear forever.

"We’re trying to understand how we can better improve or preserve the genetic diversity that is there," said Cal State East Bay assistant professor Ana Almeida."

Almeida identified several factors causing the demise of some plants: Rampant development of plant habitats, plant disease, and a growing contributor -- climate change.

"The issue is the speed of which things are changing," Almeida said. "The speed in which climate is changing might not allow time enough for groups of organisms to adapt."

It's not only changing weather patterns that are threatening many plants, the state's increasingly frequent wildfires are quickly wiping out vast regions of habitat that are home to countless species.

"Losing those plants to fire is going to be getting more serious over time," said Akman.

The changing climate is quickly creating inhospitable environments for some plants, having an impact on everything from food to medicine to clothing derived from plants. For instance, some believe the Napa Valley wine region could eventually grow too hot for the area's prized cabernet grapes, and there are forecasts that parts of the midwest could grow too hot for many varieties of corn within a century.

Inside the GBI lab, student researcher Alejandra Moreno is studying a species of manzanita that grows only in California and is on the doorstep of extinction. Through her research Moreno discovered that specific type of manzanita is found in medicines used to treat urinary tract infections, pointing toward a collateral impact created by the potential loss of certain plant species.

"Since our environment and our climate is constantly changing around us," Moreno said, "I think it’s always important to know what environment you live in -- what’s going away, what’s coming back."

While part of the group's mission is to create a data base of all the state's endangered plants -- there is also a focus on intervening to save them before they're gone forever. The group is creating a seed bank which could allow biologists to cultivate and potentially resurrect plants in the lab.

"The work we do to conserve these plants," Akman said, "is becoming more and more crucial and important and urgent."

With its mission to help save endangered plants, the group is sharing all of its data with other researchers and scientists in the hopes it will attract more resources to the conservation effort. For GBI's members, identifying exactly what is threatened is the first step.

"You can imagine the vast amount of things we might be missing out," Almeida said, "by not really understanding what we’re losing."

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