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Lab Regerminating Nearly Extinct Plants

Lab Regerminating Nearly Extinct Plants

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Ed Yeates ReportingWhat if you could study the DNA weaknesses or strengths of a plant 200 to 300 years after it's become extinct, perhaps even regerminating the seeds again!

Plants, some rare, some nearing extinction, carefully dried and pressed into files as far as the eye can see. In this room alone, shelf after shelf after shelf 125,000 thousand specimens so far, and the number is still growing.

This is a revolutionary new kind of archives you won't find but in only two to three other museums in the country. Each species is now being re-evaluated and catalogued through ongoing DNA studies. For example, for the past 75 years two Utah plants were thought to be the same species. But with closer DNA analysis, they're actually two different species.

Among the 125,000 specimens there…

Michael Windham, Utah Museum of Natural History: “There are actually 300 species of plants, of vascular plants, that occur only in Utah.”

Researchers can not only use this collection to look at genetic changes through time, but also to regerminate plants now extinct or nearing extinction.

Michael Windham: “It does offer the potential to bring back genetic variance that is lost, to bring back species that are lost.”

Because the Herbarium preserves seeds without fumigating them, researchers here regerminated a specimen collected 67 years ago from the bottom of a canyon in San Juan County.

Michael Windham: “We haven’t tried anything back beyond that, so we don’t know what the ultimate limit is.”

The regermination record so far is 250 years old, but could easily go beyond that. Imagine re-growing a specimen that survives only in a very small area in St. George. Within 25 years, it will be no more!

Specimens in the Herbarium are not on open exhibit to the public, but anybody can see them by making an appointment through the museum.

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