The Library of Plants

Plants have developed new molecules to protect against diseases, sunburn, and other stresses, and humans can use those molecules in new medicines. However, those plants are in danger of being lost to development and changing climates. The NC Arboretum is racing to document and preserve those plants in a special repository before they are lost forever.

ASHEVILLE - Chances are, your family has a safe deposit box at a bank or a secure place in your house where you keep important papers and records about bank accounts, social security numbers and even medical information.

It turns out the state is working with the federal government to create a similar type of storage facility. But this will be used to keep a record... of plants.

It might sound a bit unusual, but think how North Carolina is changing. Development is changing the landscape - houses, shopping centers, industry and roads. Logging and farming is also altering the land. Scientists say combine those factors along with climate change and there is the very real danger that many native plants could be lost forever. So it’s important to preserve research-grade botanical samples of all native plants, especially medicinal plants, in the state.

“The primary mission for us is conservation; our primary goal is to preserve our native flora, specifically medicinal plants and rare plants,” says Dr. Joe-Ann McCoy, the Director of the Bent Creek Germplasm Repository at the North Carolina Arboretum. “Our goal is to get those plants in a long-term seed storage facility, vacuum sealed, tri-laminate packaging, stored correctly. And then once we get them stored in our site, and in a back up site, we’d like to use the crops for research for new products for our region."

Along one wall of the laboratory at the Repository are what appear to be giant metal storage closets. There is also a large white freezer. I asked if that was the storage facility. As Dr. McCoy replied, “Let me show you,” she opened the closet door. Row upon row upon row of dried, mounted plants greeted me. They were all in plastic, with identification numbers, GPS coordinates, slope, elevation, and directions printed on the side. Dr. McCoy pulled out a few.

“We have blood root here, with a long history of medicinal purposes in our region,” she said as she showed me a mounting. “This is black cohash, one of the top ten selling dietary supplements in the world.”

And the list goes on... Researchers want to preserve samples of about 2000 plant species deemed significant to the state. However, the challenge is that there is usually more than one population of each species. Roughly 1500 plant specimens are preserved at the repository so far. Scientists hope to collect and preserve about 2500 additional plant samples.

While the preservation is carefully done, following strict scientific preservation guidelines, there is also a sense of urgency. Dr. McCoy says the state is losing some critical habitats, such as the spruce fir zone at the tops of mountain peaks. What grows in those areas could soon be gone forever unless the plant’s seeds are preserved and it is reintroduced in another area of the state.

The repository protects those native plants in multiple ways. Besides the voucher specimen I saw earlier, if there are enough plants at a site, the seeds are collected and stored. That’s what is in the white freezer. Open it up and you find dozens of trays of foil pouches that are labeled. It looks like a feeding room for astronauts on the space station.

Researchers only collect about 15-20% of the plants in an area. If there is enough plant material to collect, samples are also ground up so a variety of extracts can be produced. That includes a powdered extract that is packaged and can be used for future research.

Material is also processed in a lab so a DNA sample can be recovered. 

“We need to have a practical application tied in with our project, so this is a perfect way to do conservation, which is our primary goal, but also to do research,” adds Dr. McCoy.

The lab advises Bent Creek Institute, a non-profit organization which is helping to grow the region’s natural products industry.

"You need to develop a reference library of extracts of natural chemistries, some of which are traditionally understood, but many are not known and you have to start somewhere,” says Greg Cumberford, the President of Bent Creek Institute.

And that includes what might be the most obscure part of the project. In addition to the genetic material of the plant itself, researchers also want to collect and preserve the endophydic fungi, or the beneficial microbes that live inside the plant and protect it from diseases and other environmental stresses. Scientists believe the promise of new medicines and natural products live inside those cells.

“I live in a constant state of wonder of how amazingly adaptive and evolved our natural medicinary is,” says Cumberford, as he surveys the institute and then the sculpted grounds of the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville, of which the Repository is part. “Consider how many wellness needs we have. In many cases, the plant kingdom has already created a solution. Our job is to understand how to bring them into our lives, safely and responsibly.”

George Briggs, Executive Director of the North Carolina Arboretum, says the repository is located in Asheville and at the Arboretum because of the area’s incredible biodiversity and its long history of using plants for natural remedies. That history dates back to the Native Americans, especially the Cherokee, that lived in the area.

“It just seemed to make sense to come to the mountains because of the riches that are here biodiversity wise, and because those riches have been protected by public lands and the lack development in the past century,” says Briggs. “So we want to make the economic side of this be a forerunner to conservation. The question is how can we make the plants of the region important economically, so people are motivated to protect them for an economic reason as well as a social and cultural reason.”

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