Visit to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
4 February 2002
Lord McColl of Dulwich
Baroness Walmsley (Chairman)
Professor Peter Crane, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, welcomed the Sub-Committee.
Also: Professor Simon Owens, Keeper of the Herbarium and the Assistant Keepers, Dr Phillip Cribb, Dr Mike Lock and Dr Alan Paton.
1. Tour of Herbarium
1.(a) Introduction to the Collections - Dr Phillip Cribb
The herbarium was founded in 1852 and now consists of around 7,500,000 specimens. It has a world-wide remit, with specimens from all over the globe. Some 250,000 of the specimens are type specimens. Many collections made by famous naturalists have been bequeathed to or purchased by Kew, including those from Darwin's and Livingstone's expeditions.
The vast majority of the specimens are plants and fungi stored in the dried form, mounted on stiff paper or stored in packets. Other specimens are kept in preserving spirit; bulky fruit and seeds are stored in drawers. The herbarium also houses collections of slides and illustrations.
The information stored together with each specimen has changed over time. Nowadays, in addition to the description of the plant and the date of collection, it is common to have an exact location (from a global positioning satellite (GPS) system) of where the sample was taken, and a detailed description of the habitat.
Kew has a unique role in naming plants world-wide. The herbarium is sent samples from collectors for naming; Kew identifies the specimens and often describes any new species included among them, and in return is allowed to keep one sample for the herbarium collection.
A new plant information building is planned to improve public access to the herbarium collections and library, with the particular aim of making clear to visitors what happens in the herbarium and what the collections are used for.
An ongoing task is putting parts of the collection on electronic databases. This is done on a project-by-project basis, with the specimens of particular interest to research teams at Kew and abroad being databased as they are studied so that the overall quality of the collections is improved as part of the databasing process and the data available in electronic form is of the highest possible quality.
1.(b) Inventory and Conservation Work in Cameroon - Dr Martin Cheek
One of Kew's many long-term overseas collaborations is located in West Cameroon - the part of tropical Africa with the highest density of species and numerous narrow range endemics, many of which are under threat from forest clearance and agriculture. Kew's work in this area has been funded via a number of different mechanisms (DfID, Global Environment Facility, and now DEFRA's Darwin Initiative with additional sponsorship from EarthWatch Europe). However, Darwin Initiative funding is rarely repeated for the same project and the future of the work is far from secure.
The continuity of activity in the region has allowed the development of conservation checklists for species in protected areas. Other outputs included capacity building amongst local scientists and those from other African countries, and conservation posters which proved very popular with local people since they showed the species of plants that occurred in their area and nowhere else.
1.(c) Use of specimen data in Geographical Information Systems - Mr Justin Moat
Field workers can use geographical information systems to build up maps of the incidence of different species over a defined geographical area. Such data sets can be compared with other electronic data - for example maps of soil type or weather records - to look for correlations that would inform ecological and conservation studies. GIS is increasingly being used to aid in the generation of conservation status assessments for individual species.
1.(d) Floristic Studies in Madagascar, New Guinea and the world - Dr John Dransfield and Dr Bill Baker
Kew has been involved in overseas work in cataloguing the flora of Madagascar. The island's forests, which contain highly diverse flora and a high proportion of endemic species, are under threat. Scientists from Kew have participated in studies of the island's palms (with a grant from McDonald's UK), legumes and orchids.
The main outputs from such work are monographs. These have tended to be glossy and far too expensive for local use. There is a high demand among, for example, amateur palm-lovers, for such publications, and production is costed in such a way as to allow Kew to distribute a large number of free copies to relevant institutes and scientists in Madagascar. Electronic products are also planned, both as CD ROMs and as web-based guides. Training people from Madagascar, New Guinea and elsewhere is another significant output, although it was noted that in many developing countries, students who qualify to PhD level are drawn into public administration rather than science. Only when a critical mass of trained scientists exists in a developing country can one be sure that newly trained staff will have a high probability of continuing their scientific biodiversity work in their own country. However, those drawn into public administration should not be seen as a lost investment since their training will inform their decision-making in their new role and should mean that biodiversity considerations are at the fore in policy development.
1.(e) Mycology at Kew and in the UK - Dr Peter Roberts
Despite the importance of fungi in human pathology, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, bioremediation, biotechnology, food and soil science, only an estimated 5 % of species have been described - a new species of fungi was found in the grounds of Kew itself only recently.
The lack of understanding can hinder conservation and restoration projects, since the types of plants which grow in an area are often dependent on the fungi present in the soil. The number of posts for expert mycologists in the UK is decreasing, a situation which contrasts with the USA where the PEET initiative has helped to boost the subject.
The groups of fungi which needed identification and classification are too large to be studied in the time scale of a typical PhD or research grant (3 years). Institutions like Kew were essential to support large, long-term work, but even Kew felt under pressure to tackle smaller projects and adopt more of a piecemeal approach since short-term projects are more fundable.
2. Visit to the Library
2.(a) Monographic Research at Kew - Dr Mike Lock
Compiling monographs on large genera represents a very long project. Even some smaller monographs take five years to produce. However, once published they remain valuable for 50 to 100 years; the mean half-life for bibliometric citations of Kew's papers in general was over 10 years.
2.(b) Index Kewensis and the International Plant Names Index - Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha, Mrs Christine Barker
The Index Kewensis has its origins in a legacy from Charles Darwin for the compilation of a complete listing of all known plants. The original version listed 400,000 plant names but was out-of-date by the time it was published since new species are constantly being published. Supplements were produced every five years, and the Index now contains over 1 million entries.
In the late 1980s the Index became one of the first information resources at Kew to be converted into an electronic database (using optical character recognition). The Oxford University Press produced a CD-ROM version of the Index which was available outside Kew, but at a cost of £1000, prohibitive for most potential users in developing countries.
In 1997 the International Plant Names Index (IPNI) was created from a combination of the Index Kewensis, Harvard's Gray Herbarium Index (New World plants only) and the Australian Plant Names Index (Australian names only). In 1999 a web-based version was launched with free access; this now has 4,000 queries each day.
2.(c) Kew's Electronic Plant Information Centre (ePIC) - Mrs Alison Prior
ePIC is a software project to improve access to data and to promote information integration, particularly in developing search facilities which link across different databases. ePIC began in July 2001 with money from the Government's Capital Modernisation Fund, and will eventually provide the capability to disseminate images relating to plants as well as text. A large amount of the plant information at Kew and elsewhere is tied up in various physical formats (specimens, books, photographs and paintings) and it is proving difficult to find money to support the digitisation process that would allow such information to be more widely shared.
2.(d) Data sharing between Kew and Brazil - Dr Daniela Zappi
Kew initiated a Darwin Initiative-funded project to database and image the NE Brazilian specimens in its collection (of which there are many thousands). Brazilian scientists are involved both in the work at Kew and in making use of the data in conservation projects in Brazil. Funding has been secured from a commercial sponsor to continue these activities.
2.(e) Data sharing between Kew and UK Territories Overseas - Dr Clare Hankamer
Capacity building in biodiversity conservation and monitoring was vital for many UK overseas territories, and Kew was involved in lobbying government via the FCO, DfID and DEFRA to get support for training. The UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum and the recent White Paper on Overseas Territories provided a focus and some ammunition for the lobbying work.
3. Lunch at the Director's House
3.(a) Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - Ms Madeleine Groves
Kew provides expert identification and support for customs officers and other agencies and institutions in enforcing CITES as well as running training courses for their staff.
3.(b) Convention on Biological Diversity - Ms Kerry Ten Kate
Kew had taken the innovative step of employing a full-time legal expert to provide advice on the implications of the Convention on Biological Diversity on Kew's work - in terms of priorities, obligations and funding opportunities.
Despite the breadth of the Convention on Biological Diversity, it affects Kew's and the UK's 'business bottom line', because new laws are under development in 100 countries - those with most of the biodiversity - and these affect how we can collect materials and how we collaborate with partners.
The United Kingdom is in the lead in pushing for the CBD to develop a strategy - to prioritise the work programme.
One of the global plant conservation strategy targets refers to doubling the capacity of plant scientists worldwide. While much of this increased capacity needs to be in developing countries, more is needed in the UK and in Kew. For instance, we face many more demands upon us for assistance. Partners are looking for training, technology, information and above all to be involved in setting the scientific priorities.
3.(c) Botanic Gardens Conservation International - Dr Peter Wyse Jackson, Secretary General of Botanic Gardens Conservation International
Kew works closely with BGCI in initiatives such as the Global Plant Conservation Strategy which is being proposed as the first set of agreed quantitative targets for adoption by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
4. Tour of the Jodrell Laboratory
Plant Anatomy, Conservation Genetics, Molecular Systematics, Biological Interactions - Professor Mark Chase, Dr Mike Fay, Professor Monique Simmonds
The tour provided an opportunity to see the scientific facilities used to support Kew's work in molecular systematics and to discuss some of the preliminary results. A different scheme for classifying plant families had emerged by adding molecular information to traditional analyses. However, purely molecular approaches to identifying samples and studying evolutionary relationships were a distant prospect, and it was difficult to foresee a future form of systematics that could abandon morphological studies entirely. A complete reference collection of DNA samples for the c.400 families of flowering plants is nearing completion, and the current target was to expand representation at genus level (c. 13,000 genera). However, the complete species-level representation which would be required to allow reliable identifications based on purely molecular approaches were unlikely to be achieved for decades to come.
Levels of interest by pharmaceutical companies in screening plant extracts for biologically active compounds was lower than in the past, since many companies now directed their attention towards artificially synthesised drugs or even gene therapy. However, the potential for new drugs from plants was still enormous - in every case where a British native plant species had been studied in detail by the Biological Interactions team a new compound or a new form of activity in a known compound had been documented. Little known and as yet undiscovered species from the tropics could offer even greater potential.