This month, Erica wrote about the growing presence of science in the public domain, and how this can only be a good thing. However, although chemistry and physics – traditionally considered ‘geeky’ subjects – have grown in popularity, the plant sciences are lagging behind.

Personally I think plants are fantastic and I could talk about them all day. It’s a real shame that school often puts students off taking the plant sciences further, and more needs to be done to convey just how important this area of science really is.

I’ve tried to condense why plants are so great into five short points below. Apologies if my enthusiasm has got the better of me at any point!

1 Photosynthesis

Photosynthesis often seems to be what puts students off studying plants in the first place.  However, I’ve put it at the top of my list, because when you really think about it, the process is just amazing and the foundation for all life as we know it!

Photosynthesis enables plants to take carbon dioxide and water, both readily available in the atmosphere, react this with sunlight, and produce glucose, which they use for energy. I mean, can you imagine if we could do that! You’re hungry? Just go and sit out in the sun for a bit!

In fact, this sea slug has made this a reality. It is able to incorporate chlorophyll from the algae it eats into its cells and photosynthesise on its own.

Another quite useful by-product of this process is of course, oxygen, without which life on earth would be very different.

2 Food

Because green plants have this amazing ability to synthesise their own food, they are the basis of most food chains on earth. This means that almost everything we eat ultimately comes from plants.

We’re currently experiencing a period of rapid change globally. The population is projected to rise to 9 billion by 2050, and at the same time the climate is changing. The question of how we can produce more food, on less land, under changing conditions, is high on the agenda and not an easy one to answer.

Around the globe, including here at the John Innes Centre, scientists are tackling this issue through a diverse range of approaches such as increasing yields of major food crops and developing methods of sustainable agriculture. This is a problem that is not going away, and may only get worse. We need to be developing plant scientists of the future to take over this problem after us!

3 Medicine

Madagascar periwinkle.

Compounds from the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) are used to treat leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Photo: ctrlaltdileep/Flickr.

Around 25% of the medicines we use contain compounds that originated in a plant, and this could increase as further research is done in the future. Only 20% of known plant species have been investigated for medicinal compounds, and there are many species of plants we have yet to discover that could contain life-saving medicines.

We are destroying natural environments at such a high rate that some species containing medicines could be extinct before we even know they exist. Another issue is that most plants containing medicinal compounds are harvested from the wild. High demand and over-harvesting can lead to these species becoming endangered.

One option to over-come this could be to synthesise the medicinal compounds synthetically. For example, Asprin, a cheap widely available pain killer, was first discovered in the bark of a willow tree. However, the Asprin we take now is a copy of the compound from willow, but synthesised in a lab.

4 Materials

Perhaps this goes without saying, but a large portion of the natural materials we use come from plants. Packaging, clothing and building materials all come from our green friends. Recent concerns around sustainability and resource management have only meant that the emphasis on using natural, biodegradable materials has increased.

A recent project by engineers at Bath University has seen the construction of seven homes in Bristol made out of straw bales. This not only makes use of the 3 million tonnes of straw that go to waste annually, but can dramatically reduce household energy bills. This project has generated a lot of excitement around helping solve the housing crisis, resource use, and energy costs, and hopefully we will see more like it in the near future.

5 Habitat

Plants make up the fundamental habitat for many biomes on earth, and the survival of many animal, bird and insect species depends on the plants that make up their habitat. If we destroy habitat and fail to conserve plant species globally, we could lose other species that depend on those for food and shelter.  Climate change is exacerbating this problem, as many plant species will no longer be able to survive in their current location.

Projects such as the Millenium Seed bank are working towards conserving species for future generations. They are collecting and saving seeds from the most plants under threat, as well as those of most use for future generations. They aim to have a bank of seeds from 25% of the world’s plants by 2020, which should go some way to conserving plant life for the future.

Amelia is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre. She tweets as @AmeliaFrizell.

Featured image: Big green leaf by Niels Kliim/Flickr.


2 thoughts on “Five answers to the question ‘why plants?’

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