Pond covered in large circular leaves and bordered by orange and yellow flowers.

Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden

credit: Wikimedia/Colin W CC-BY-SA 3.0)

From medicines, food, fuel and emotional support, plants play important roles in our lives. However, up to 50% of flowering plants and trees could disappear if we don’t act.

Richard Corlett from the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in China has a plan to stop all future plant extinctions. Here are his solutions.

Tackling “plant blindness”

So far, scientists have identified upwards of 382,000 flowering plant species, but researchers think that there are about 10-25% that are still unknown to us. This is a big problem: how can we rescue plants if we don’t know about their existence?

Identifying new plant species is no easy feat. It takes many years of training to become an eagle-eyed botanist who can name lots of species. Right now, there are many more unknown plants than experts, but Richard thinks AI can help.

By training AI programs to learn about different plant traits, Richard says this could speed up plant-ID processes. If this is combined with photos taken by citizen scientists, the future of AI-powered plant rescue is bright.

A “super herbarium” could also be created if experts around the world compiled their knowledge online. This way everyone gets access to plant-astic information.

Saving genes

You may have heard of seed banks, where plant seeds can be dried, frozen and stored for a long time. This ensures that valuable plant genes are kept safe. But this method doesn’t work well for tropical plant seeds, which don’t do well with being dried out.

Ultra-cold liquid nitrogen could be the solution, where living plant parts can be frozen instead. Genetic technology can also be used to save special plant genes and regenerate them in the future. This includes carefully selecting plants with certain genes that can adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Combining all these techniques can also help save plants in the wild, as well as help bring them back to areas where they have disappeared.

“There are many problems, but also potential solutions to most of them.” says Richard.

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