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21 Jun 2018

Help save our rainforests

Rainforests provide a home to more than half of the world’s plant and animal species. They are the source of some of our favourite foods – like macadamias, bananas and avocados – and some of the world’s most important staple crops. They produce a large proportion of the oxygen we breathe, absorb the carbon we produce, and hold one fifth of the fresh water we depend on. Though rainforests cover a very small proportion of the earth’s surface, they are vital to our survival. And yet these habitats are under threat of extinction. Half the world’s rainforests are already gone. If current rates of deforestation continue, it’s been estimated the remainder could disappear within 100 years.

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Castanospermum australe photographed by Karen Sommerville

Australian conservation efforts

In Australia, the area covered by rainforest has been reduced by around a third over the past 200 years due to logging, clearing for agriculture and on-going stress from exotic weeds, pests, disease and changes in climate. At PlantBank, we’re trying to combat the continuing loss of diversity by researching ways to conserve the seeds of rainforest plants.

The work is really challenging – many rainforest seeds don’t respond well to the drying required for standard seedbanking and others may tolerate drying but don’t tolerate storage in a freezer (at -20°C). We often have to conduct multiple experiments on each species to determine the optimum storage environment and sometimes, after many months, we discover the species can’t be stored at all.

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 Davidsonia pruriens photographed by Karen Sommerville 

Using the differential scanning calorimeter

Our current research methods are too time-consuming to address the 3500+ seed producing plants native to Australian rainforests. We really need to speed the process up, but we’re hampered by the difficulty of collecting enough seeds to work with, the length of time it can take for those seeds to germinate and in some cases the difficulty of getting them to germinate at all! One way we might be able to get around these problems is by using a machine called a differential scanning calorimeter.

I was lucky enough to learn to use one of these while training in Colorado 2 years ago. The DSC gives you the ability to ‘look inside’ the seeds and quickly identify the temperatures at which oils and moisture inside the seed are freezing and thawing. This has the potential to speed up our research significantly. And time is of the essence when you need to research thousands of rainforest species that you sometimes worry might go extinct before you get to them.

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Mixed fruit specimens

How you can get involved

With rainforest plants so vulnerable, the Foundation & Friends has engaged with us to launch an appeal to fundraise for the Rainforest Conservation Project, so we can purchase our own differential scanning calorimeter. This will enable us to research and bank more species, and more easily identify species that can’t be banked so that we can direct energy into other ways of conserving them. The fancy new machine will be complemented by new, engaging education material at Plantbank so visitors can learn more about what we are doing to protect our amazing rainforest species.

To find out more information about the Rainforest Conservation Project.

Category: Science
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