By William Allen
Of the Post-Dispatch

Aug. 8, 1999

Edited by Virginia Baldwin Gilbert


Humans are pulling a life-sustaining rug out from under themselves and don't even know it.

The world's diverse plant life is on a precipice of mass extinction, even though scientists have yet to find most kinds of plants, learn how they work and apply that knowledge to human benefit.

That theme -- part bitter paradox and part clarion call -- was the overarching message of last week's 16th International Botanical Congress, held in St. Louis.

Plants make human life possible, but environmental destruction is killing plants and tearing apart the ecological webs that they bind, scientists said.

"Why are we doing this?" asked Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden. "Are we mad, or do we just not understand the enormity of the crime that we are perpetrating on our children, their children and all human beings who will live in the future?"

Raven was president of the congress, which drew 4,900 scientists from more than 80 nations to America's Center downtown. The weeklong congress, which ended Saturday, was the first in six years and the first held in the United States in three decades.

Researchers announced a wide range of breakthroughs during the week, from genetically engineered rice that has more Vitamin-A and iron to redrawing the evolutionary tree of life in a way that showed the plant kingdom is actually four separate kingdoms.

Most of the work was done in meeting rooms, where scientists worked through such issues as "Morphological and Molecular Insights on Brown Algal Phylogeny" and "Biology, Ecology and Systematics of a Late Devonian Progymnosperm."

But in full sessions, the congress's wider message mixed sufficient impending ecological apocalypse to satisfy the pessimist with just enough hope to fuel the optimist.

The unifying mission was to define the role of plant science and scientists in building a future in which society can continue to benefit from plants.

"Plant science is about developing better food, finding new medicines, providing healthier air and developing whole new streams of research," said Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, the nation's main funder of basic science. "Continuing and aggressive research in the family of plant sciences is key to understanding how to balance pro tection of the planet while sustaining the health and prosperity of our growing populations."

A dark cloud

Raven, whose skill as a politician and reputation as a scientist brought the congress to St. Louis, gave a plenary address Wednesday that outlined a possible dark future for the human race.

"Events of the last 50 years have demonstrated clearly that we are not living sustainably," he said. Put simply, that means humans have depleted resources more quickly than they can be replaced or renewed.

Those events bode ill for the future, Raven said. He noted overpopulation, destruction of tropical forests and an extinction rate of animals and plants that rivals the mass death at the end of the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Among other evidence:

* Half the people of the world are malnourished.

* One-fourth live in extreme poverty.

* Fourteen million children under age 4 starve to death each year.

Meanwhile, the residents of the United States and other developed countries are consuming resources in an unsustainable way.

"This is a short-sighted exercise in stupidity," Raven said. "It's discrimination on a global scale whether we recognize it or not."

To survive in the next century, humans will need more knowledge about plants. And they're disappearing faster than science can even find them, he said.

He criticized the U.S. policy of spending billions of dollars to send missions to Mars while failing to come up with the few hundred million that would acquire necessary knowledge about the biology and genetics of plants -- "the very foundation of life on Earth."

"These are misplaced priorities," Raven said.

Scientific solutions

Scientists at the meeting talked of many possible solutions. These were a mixture of scientific questions that could be answered and conservation steps that should be taken.

Roger Beachy, an eminent plant researcher, outlined research that shows potential for understanding plants and how to tap them to feed the world.

Beachy is the new director of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, for which ground was broken in Creve Coeur last week.

He called for a new emphasis on interdisciplinary research in which scientists from different specialties collaborate to solve problems.

Such problems range from learning how plant cells respond to viral attacks and the way protein molecules fold while they're built by cellular machinery, to how a plant moves around nutrients such as calcium.

New opportunities for applying such seemingly esoteric information to crops is "coming into reality," Beachy said. "The challenge is to think outside the box."

Larry Smarr, a pioneer in using powerful computers and networks to conduct science, spoke of a future "global botanical information system."

Smarr, a graduate of the University of Missouri, now directs the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illino is in Urbana-Champaign.

He is an astrophysicist by training, but in a speech to the full botanical congress, he fondly recalled how his great-grandfather led the Kansas horticulture exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

Plant scientists of the 1990s took advantage of the power of supercomputers to study the growth of corn, the way leaves harness energy from the sun and the interactions of caterpillars and plants.

The power of supercomputers and networks is advancing so rapidly that it will "enable science that can't be done today," Smarr said.

For instance, plant scientists can now visualize their data in three-dimensional color images on room-size television screens. In doing so, they are aided by special data-processing spectacles attached to head gear.

Improvements in this "cyber environment" will soon allow scientists standing at the universities of Maryland, Wisconsin and Illinois to "suit up as 'info-nauts' and enter the data infrastructure" while at the same time talking to each other about the details of what they see. By data infrastructure, Smarr meant a "cave" of room-size video screens where data are displayed in colorful moving pictures.

Smarr envisioned "electronic communities" forming around plant science problems of common interest.

"Time is against us, and we're going to have to be very adaptive," he told the scientists.

Conservation solutions

Other scientists recommended steps to boost botanical conservation while their colleagues try to better understand and use plants.

Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, a Swedish cancer specialist, said humans must develop a "taking-care-of-the-planet culture."

Along those lines, Robert and others have developed a science-based environmental movement known as The Natural Step. This program to sustain both profit and the natural world has increasingly been adopted by businesses and governments, including some in the United States.

The World Conservation Union, the largest scientific conservation body anywhere, proposed a global rescue effort for endangered plants. The $12 million Species Survival Commission Plant Program would mimic a program to save the giant panda, lowland gorilla and other endangered animals.

The plant program would take dramatic steps to save animals threatened with extinction, although leaders are having a tough time coming up with a warm and cuddly "panda bear" of a plant to stimulate public sympathy.

Raven himself called for an action plan. Among the steps:

* Establish a United Nations-sponsored coordinating body to "monitor the status of plants throughout the world, detect those in most danger and take steps to conserve them."

* Secure more research money for plant study at museums and other institutions to "build capacity to deal with plants in every country of the world."

* Devote "special consideration" to conserving medicinal plants.

"By taking concrete steps in the near future, we could prevent the extinction of the great majority of these plant species," said Raven.

The science foundation's Colwell appealed to scientists to engage more fully in public debate, challenging "charlatans" and helping to inform the general public and political leaders about scientific issues.

"Increasingly, we must be part of the rough and tumble process of governments, business, politics and consumers," Colwell said.

Highlights from last week's International Botanical Congress

More than 4,000 botanists from around the globe met in St. Louis last week for the event, which is held once every six years. Their discussions were wide-ranging, but here are some of the main points:

1. A wake-up call about the environmental dangers leads to a call for action.

Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, a Swedish cancer specialist, sets the tone for the rest of the week with his plea for scientists to help save the Earth from environmental destruction. Robert, who helped lead a science-based environmental movement in Sweden, says science must lead the way because - through technology and industry - it also has caused many of the world's problems.

Oregon State University biologist Jane Lubchenco warns that ecological destruction of the world's oceans is occurring even more rapidly than destruction of its lands. She details 50 life-suffocating "dead zones" that have been created in the past 50 years - including a New Jersey-sized zone in the Gulf of Mexico resulting from fertilizer flowing out of the Mississippi River.

NEXT: To help address the issue, Lubchenco calls for $1 billion in new funding over the next five years for ocean research and public awareness programs.

Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, tells the congress that unless decisive action is taken soon, one-third of the plant species on Earth could disappear in the next 50 years and two-thirds in 100 years.

NEXT: Raven outlines a plan of action to prevent plant extinctions that include the formation of a United Nations-type agency to monitor the status of plants around the world.

A team of plant-conservation experts unveil their plans for an international program to conserve the world's plants and trees. The World Conservation Union promises to heighten the public's awareness of threats to plants and to immediately focus on the areas in the most danger of species extinction.

NEXT: After a summit in the Ozarks this week to identify the plants most at risk, the group also is planning to pursue $12 million for an endangered-plant rescue plan.

2. Biotechnology seeks to develop foods and medicine of the future.

National and local official gather in Creve Coeur for a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, which hopes to become a premier plant research center. Most of the $146 million in start-up funding for the center - a joint industry and academic effort - comes from Monsanto Co., the Monsanto Fund and the Danforth Foundation.

NEXT: The center is expected to open in 2001.

Swiss Scientist Ingo Potrykus announces his team has found a way to add key nutrients to rice through genetic engineering. If further work succeeds, the development could help fight a malnutrition problem that afflicts nearly one-third of the world's population. It also could prove to be the most frantic use yet of biotechnology to improve human health through food.

NEXT: If the technology can pass test on humans and the environment and get regulatory approval, experts say it could be available in three to five years.

Nigerian scientist Maurice Iwu reports that a chemical from a jungle plant used by West African tribal healers shows promise in fighting the deadly Ebola virus. The Ebola virus - made famous in the novel "The Hot Zone" and the movie "Outbreak" - is one of the most lethal ever known.

NEXT: Iwu must do further test-tube and animal testing before the compound can be used to fight disease in humans.

3. Plant science tries to help us understand our past.

A study by a team of 200 scientists from 12 countries on the evolution of plants may force a rewrite of textbooks. Among its surprises: The traditional plant kingdom, is more accurately characterized as four separate kingdoms: green plants now alive descended from primitive freshwater plants, not sea plants; and fungi kingdom is more closely related to animals than plants.

A team of scientists led by Israeli botany professor Avinoam Danin says their analysis of pollen and plant images on the Shroud of Turin place is origin in Jerusalem "before the 8th century" - suggesting the possibility it may have existed as early as the time of Jesus. That bolsters the position of those who believe the shroud really could be the burial cloth of Jesus and contradicts recent carbon-dating studies that suggested the shroud originated much later in Europe between 1260 and 1390.

NEXT: The study is sure to bring more controversy over whether the shroud is authentic. Danin's group says it would like to see further carbon dating and other tests.