Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

Vital study leads to the discovery of 11 new liverwort species

Scientists based at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, are at the forefront of documenting Australia’s plant biodiversity, NSW Environment Minister Robyn Parker said today.

'The discovery of 11 new species of liverworts plus two species new to Australia marks the beginning of efforts to better document Australia’s biodiversity of these small moss like plants which constitute the second largest group of land plants after flowering plants,' Ms Parker said

Exploring remote Australian coastal and rainforest areas in search of liverworts, scientist Dr Matt Renner who is otherwise based at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney said it is vitally important to know what plants there are in the world before we can think about how they can be used.

'Liverworts have many important ecological qualities and there is potential for pharmaceutical application,' Dr Renner said.

'Along with mosses they contribute to nutrient cycles, provide seed beds for larger plants and are vitally important characteristic components of cloud forests.

'Liverworts are also packed full of organic compounds that show promising biological activity, including antifungal, antimicrobial and muscle relaxing properties, as well as cytotoxicity against some human tumor cells, and antiviral properties including against HIV. The active chemical compounds occur within 'oil-bodies" an unusual cellular structure unique to liverworts.'

There are around 9000 species of Liverworts globally. Most liverworts are ‘leafy’ and people, including most botanists, mistake these for mosses. They are flowerless, spore-producing plants and are typically found in areas receiving more than 1000 mm average rainfall.

Dr Matt Renner said it has taken him three years to study 31 species of liverworts in the Jungermanniopsida group of leafy liverwort in the genus Radula.  

'It can take months to identify a species and then describe them because they can show complex variations. In this first study, I discarded over 10 species that were not actually from Australia, another 11 were new to science and two were new to Australia. I also reinstated four species that were previously thought to have been the same as something else.'

Dr Renner can now continue his liverwort research after receiving a $297,000 grant over three years from the highly competitive Australian Biological Research Study (ABRS) scheme which will result in better documentation of Australia’s biodiversity.

'Many areas of Australia are undercollected and my next field trips will be to the Wet Tropics Bioregion of north-east Queensland (permit permitting) and north-east New South Wales,' he said.

'I will also be undertaking fieldwork throughout eastern Australia, from south-west Tasmania to Cape York, targeting any and all wet habitats, from cool-temperate to tropical rainforests and coastal to alpine scrub.'

Dr Matt Renner said his liverwort research forms part of an international study in conjunction with researchers in New Zealand and Chicago. 

Liverworts were first described and named back in the 15th century, when herbalists believed the plant resembled a liver and therefore it could cure diseases of the liver. In Old English, the word liverwort means liver plant. 


Muscle relaxing properties of Marchantin A and related cyclic bis-bizenzyls are discussed by Taira et al. (1994) and Asakawa (2008). They are structurally similar to bis-bibenzyl-isoquinoline alkaloids such as d-tubocuranine which are pharmacologically important muscle relaxant active drugs (Asakawa 2008).  


  • Asakawa Y (2008) Liverworts - potential source of medicinal compounds. Current Pharmaceutical Design 14: 3067-3088.
  • Taira Z, Takei M, Endo K, Hashimoto T, Sakiya Y, Asakawa Y (1994) Marchantin-A trimethyl ether - its molecular structure and tubocurarine-like skeletal-muscle relaxation activity. Chemical & Pharmaceutical Bulletin 42: 52-56.