The diverse world of Trinity’s botany research

Posted on: 25 October 2019

The beautiful, inspiring tropical forest mural now adorning the walls of Trinity’s Botany building celebrates the process of science and the beauty of diversity.

It also serves to underline the important role Trinity’s botanists have in conducting high-impact research that can make a huge societal impact for current and future generations.

Research being led by Trinity’s experts from the Department includes:

Professor John Parnell’s recent work discusses two major plant families of great ecological importance in Thai topical forests – the Calophyllaceae, which has over 475 species worldwide, and the Hypericaceae, which has around 700.

Collecting, observing, naming and organising the Thai species which occur within both of these families is just the tip of the iceberg. Globally, botanists aim to describe every species in every known plant family, and estimates state there are over 350,000 species of flowering plants alone.

A Cambridge University book published in 2019 by Professor Trevor Hodkinson and colleagues demonstrated the value of ‘endophytes’ to plant growth and to more sustainable crop and forestry production. Endophytes are micro-organisms that dwell and survive inside plants.

We are discovering that there is a huge unexplored diversity of these microscopic organisms living in everything from cows to plants to us – and their role in the functioning of their hosts is just beginning to be unveiled by researchers like Hodkinson and his team.

Professor Hodkinson said:

Beneficial microbes will undoubtedly help reduce the impact of intensive agriculture on climate change and the environment. There is a huge variety of such organisms remaining to be discovered and tested.

Professor Fraser Mitchell’s recent research suggests the capacity of peatlands to take up carbon from the atmosphere declines towards the equator, which could mean  we are in more trouble than originally thought, because it suggests that peatlands may lose their great capacity to lock-up carbon as global temperatures warm further.

In a worst-case scenario tropical peatlands may become sources – rather than repositories – of carbon.

Professor Mitchell said:

The vegetation covering our planet helps to maintain life as we know it. Vegetation changes in response to climate and human interactions but the time-course and consequences of these changes are difficult to predict.

Investigation of the dynamics of vegetation over the past millennia provides vital windows into long-term vegetation change that can be used to predict the future.

Professor Jane Stout’s ongoing work on bee biology, pollination and honey production, with collaborators from DCU chemistry, showed that honey produced from heather – the most iconic plant of Irish boglands – has a similar overall presence of phenolic compounds (powerful antioxidants) as Manuka honey.

These antioxidant compounds help to prevent damage occurring in the cells of the body and are important for health and well-being.

Professor Stout said:

Plants are the base of the food chain on which all life on earth, including us, depends. Understanding how plants interact with other elements of ecosystems is fundamental to sustainable food chains, our health and well-being, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and all the other benefits we derive from nature.

Professors Steve Waldren and Matthew Saunders’ research into Irish saltmarsh ecosystems and agricultural systems in sub-saharan Africa underlines independently that we cannot conserve what we do not understand and we cannot manage if we don’t measure.

Professor Waldren’s research has identified the likely winners and losers in the saltmarshes if our waterways continue to be loaded with nitrates.

Professor Saunders’ research group is developing the concept of a global Earth observatory using satellite data to aid our understanding of the processes that drive global environmental change to provide a more informed approach to conservation. These tools can be applied to peatbogs in the midlands or wetlands and agricultural landscapes in Africa.

Professor Jennifer McElwain’s research focuses on palaeobotany, or plant fossils. She has provided insights on historical rates and magnitudes of plant extinction and atmospheric change over geological time. Such research provides essential information to define what is “normal” in the context of atmospheric change and biodiversity loss.

Her work serves to highlight that current rates of change in both are, sadly, far from normal.

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