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A Turn in Dr Sibbald’s Garden

Illustration of scientist holding wheat

30 January 2017

Luigi Guarino | Director of Science and Programs

Robert Sibbald is an immensely impressive figure of the late 17th century. He was, for example, the first person to venture a scientific description of the blue whale, originally known as Sibbald’s rorqual. But his interests did not stop at the subaqueous, ranging to the subterranean (he wrote on mining in Scotland) and even the subcutaneous.

He trained and worked as a doctor, and set up Scotland’s first physic garden, a collection of plants specifically intended to provide physicians with information about plant-based medicines. That, in turn, became the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the second oldest in Britain.

Apart from the whale, his name is also attached to a pretty little member of the rose family, and also to Sibbaldia, the Journal of Botanic Garden Horticulture, which is published by the garden he founded. I’m ashamed to say I don’t scan it all that often, which is my loss, because it’s got some really good stuff. I discovered that recently when an interesting-sounding paper popped up in my Google Scholar alert, and I took the opportunity of also going through some back issues.

The paper that initially caught my attention was “Building a global system for the conservation of all plant diversity: a vision for botanic gardens and Botanic Gardens Conservation International,” which came out late last year. It’s a guest essay by Dr Paul Smith, who used to run the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) at the Royal Botanic Garden Kew, which is the oldest in Britain, if you were wondering, before moving on to his current post as Secretary General of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). There’s a nice potted biography of Paul at the head of his paper, although that doesn’t mention that he was instrumental in getting the collaboration between the MSB and the Crop Trust on the conservation of crop wild relatives off the ground.

Although one can probably trace the DNA of genebanks back to botanical gardens, I think Paul would agree that the two genomes have diverged significantly since Sibbald’s day. Genebanks that specialize in agricultural species occupy quite a different world to that of most botanical gardens. I’m pretty sure few people working in gardens know much about the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the Global Plan of Action on PGRFA, the State of the World’s PGRFA or Genesys. Then again, how many genebank people are conversant with the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation, BGCI, GardenSearch and PlantSearch?

But Paul’s intention in the paper is not really to highlight this divergence, but rather to reveal the lingering structural similarities between the two genomes. It’s not so much that the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation is so different from the State of the World’s PGRFA, but that both are much-needed review processes that are important components of rational, effective, efficient global systems for ex situ conservation.

Similarly, looking at databases, BGCI’s PlantSearch does for the plants in botanical gardens much what Genesys does for the accessions in crop genebanks. And its GardenSearch is the botanical garden parallel of the World Information and Early Warning System on PGRFA (WIEWS), which FAO is currently overhauling.

There is one thing, however, that finds no equivalent that I know of on the crop side, although the livestock genetic resources people do have something along these lines, and that’s the newly-launched ThreatSearch:

BGCI’s ThreatSearch database is the most comprehensive database of conservation assessments of plants. ThreatSearch lists global, regional and national red list assessments for plants. It lists conservation assessments from a variety of sources. The aim is for ThreatSearch to be a one-stop shop to find conservation assessments for plants. Together with our two main collaborators - the National Red List and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - we have assembled currently available conservation assessments into a single list of conservation assessments for plants. We are continuing to add new conservation assessments, as well as adding older non-digital sources.

I suppose WIEWS was originally supposed to play this kind of role for PGRFA – hence its name – but it hasn’t really worked out that way. But that’s ok. We in the PGRFA world now have a single place to go to get information on the threat status of many crop wild relatives, if nothing else; maybe we can learn from that.

Which leads me to my final observation. I don’t think that the DNA of these two entities has diverged so much that a hybrid between the two global systems would be unviable. And I think Dr Sibbald the polymath would rather approve of that.

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