A team of scientists, with the participation of the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid, have identified 160 species of extinct plants as candidates for recovery and point to 15 others believed to be extinct when in fact they are not.
We live in the Anthropocene, an era defined by unprecedented human pressure on biodiversity. About 40% of plant species are threatened with extinction, representing the loss of unique and valuable characteristics and resources developed over millions of years. Therefore, there is an urgent need for conservation to halt, or at least delay, this trend based on sound scientific research.
An international group of scientists has conducted a complex study on the potential to resurrect more than 360 plant species currently considered extinct. Although many of them are lost forever, some could be recovered. This is the so-called science of “de-extinction” which aims to develop knowledge and methods to bring extinct species back to life.
Some 32 institutions participated in the research, including CSIC’s Royal Botanic Garden (RJB). Professor Thomas Abeli and Dr Giulia Albani Rocchetti, from Roma Tres University, coordinated the study in collaboration with Angelino Carta and Andrea Mondoni, professors from the universities of Pisa and Pavia, respectively.
reproduce missing plants
Many plants reproduce by seed that has the potential to germinate for decades or even centuries. “This raises the possibility of reviving extinct plants whose seeds are preserved in natural history collections, including herbaria.“, they specify.
If we discover that there are viable seeds, can we say that the species is extinct?, asks the head of the MA Herbarium of the RJB-CSIC, Leopoldo Medina, who participated in the study . The team has identified some 160 extinct species whose seeds still exist in more than 60 herbaria around the world,”a key breakthrough“, according to Medina.
To parameterize this list of candidate plants to be “resuscitated”, the scientists took into account criteria such as the resistance of their seeds to storage, the age of the specimens and the evolutionary distinction of the species.
Candidate species include various plants of the legume family (Fabaceae) which includes endopteran astragalus, plant endemic to the Azores (Portugal). Its seeds are characterized by great longevity.
The risks of an outdated scan
This research, published in the journal natural plants, also highlights the risks and benefits of the recent proliferation of databases and aggregators. While these tools have accelerated access to biodiversity data, “they can also spread misinformation by not updating the conservation status of species“, says Medina. So conservation actions can be misleading, especially with endangered plants.
The team identified inconsistencies in the recorded conservation status between major international databases. They thus discovered that 15 species of plants considered extinct are not really extinct, since they are kept in botanical gardens or in the natural environment itself.
“The results of this study have important implications for conservation, providing tools to guide the first possible “rebirth” of extinct plant species and to plan conservation actions, including the reintroduction of highly threatened species that have been declared wrongly turned off.Medina concludes.
Rochetti, GA, et al., (2022). “Selecting the best candidates to resuscitate extinct wild plants from seagrasses”. natural plants.