Unlocking the power of plants

Nestled in a London suburb, Kew Gardens is a world-famous botanical garden home to the biggest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world. It is run by the governmental body, Kew, that also manages the Millenium Seed Bank, a seed repository at the service of research scientists around the world. Professor Monique Simmonds is one of the leading figures in this organisation, as Deputy Director of Science under Professor Kathy Willis. DiscovHER takes a look at this inspiring researcher’s passion for plants.

Professor Simmonds has been striving to unlock the secrets of plants and fungi for decades. Her research explores how plants and fungi have been used in traditional medicine, and their potential uses in cosmetics, food, pharmaceutical and agrochemical products. She and the other scientists at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, believe that a better understanding of plant and fungal properties can help overcome many of the challenges facing the world today. Conversely, plant varieties must be protected against environmental and man-made threats.

In the “State of the World’s Plants” study carried out by Kew this year, Professor Simmonds and her colleagues describe a worrying phenomenon. More and more plants are getting closer to extinction, about a fifth of all known species to be precise. This loss in biodiversity also represents a loss for humankind, as many of these plants have powerful medicinal properties or are used in agriculture.

There is particularly bad news for coffee lovers: one of the threatened plants identified in the study is the coffee bean. The effects of climate change and intensive farming mean that up to two-thirds of the land used to grow coffee could be unviable by the turn of the century. "If we hadn't had the effect of environmental factors, including climate change and drought, then we would likely still be able to grow the varieties of coffee we're currently growing at the moment," explained Professor Simonds in The Independent. This research can help decision-makers develop strategies to fight against climate change and loss of biodiversity.

Professor Simmonds also researches the potential uses of plants in medicine. Whilst plant-based medicine is sometimes portrayed as old-fashioned or ineffective, Professor Simmonds believes that plants have a key role to play in providing therapeutic treatments. In an editorial she wrote for The Guardian, she describes how certain varieties of sage could be of use in fighting Alzheimer’s disease, and advises people to “maximise the use of culinary herbs that not only make food taste good but also do you good.” It is also important to be able to distinguish between different species, however, as the beneficial (and negative) properties often vary between different varieties of the same plant.

Do you think the conservation of plant varieties should be a key priority? Let us know @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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