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10 Apr 2019

Seed science, serendipity and nature play

An unlikely collaboration developed between a 5-year-old at a nature playgroup and a PhD student, resulting in a nice haul of Bunya Pine seeds to contribute to vital experiments at the Australian PlantBank.

Extending the life-span of seeds with cryopreservation

Lyndle Hardstaff is a Curtin University PhD student working on an Australian Research Council project at the Australian PlantBank located at the Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan.

Her research aims to conserve Australian rainforest species using cryopreservation, a potential insurance policy against the extinction of native plants in the wild. Cryopreservation involves putting plant material in liquid nitrogen as a long-term storage method for conservation. 

Species in the family Araucariaceae, including Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii) and the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis), are perfect candidates for cryopreservation. If their seeds are dried in the usual seedbanking process, they will die or have a shortened lifespan. 

Collaboration between Lyndle and staff at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, the Australian Botanic Garden, the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, and Centennial Parklands has led to collection of more than 100 massive Bunya Pine cones.

However, viable seed from the cones so far has been minimal (0-5 per cone), perhaps due to prolonged dry conditions in the previous spring. A lack of viable seed thwarts the effort to collect the embryo within the seed that Lyndle intends to store experimentally using cryopreservation.

Bunya Pine cone scale and seeds

Playtime leads to discovery 

5-year-old Reuben meanwhile, was busily engaged in the type of nature play beloved by pre-schoolers, this time in a southern Sydney park with a few like-minded families.

The ‘big kids’ were off at school and parents, including Reuben's mother Amelia Yenson who is a seed scientist at the Australian PlantBank, gathered to show the children the huge Bunya Pine cones that had recently fallen.

Some seeds had been removed from the pine cone scales and Reuben carried three seeds down to the shallow water to “test floating and sinking”. He noticed that the seed sank straight away and Amelia made a mental note that the Bunya Pine seeds were probably filled, viable seeds.

She took a few photos of the seeds and massive cones and shared her pictures on Instagram, where Principal Research Scientist Cathy Offord from the Australian PlantBank suggested that she chat to Lyndle about her Bunya Pine seed collection efforts.

 Reuben and the Bunya Pine cone

From x-ray to experiments

Lyndle was excited about the prospect of assessing seed from another location, especially given the 3/3 record of Reuben’s sinking seeds! Amelia then returned and collected two huge bags of pine cone scales and Lyndle assessed seed fill by manually separating seeds from the cone scales and conducting an x-ray.

Eureka! The Bunya Pines at the site of Reuben’s experiment yielded four tubs of 173 viable seed in total for further experiments on cryopreservation. This gave Lyndle the opportunity to further refine the process of conserving one of Australia’s iconic rainforest species.

The nature play will also continue, with empty seeds and cone scales being used by the education team for games and ephemeral art projects.

 Lyndle Hardstaff conducting an x-ray to check if the Bunya Pine seeds are healthy.

Want to know more about seedbanking?

The Araucariaceae experiments are part of the wider Rainforest Seed Conservation Project at the Australian PlantBank. Two of the PlantBank staff, Dr Cathy Offord and Dr Karen Sommerville, have recently co-authored a paper describing the need for cryopreservation as a technique in the toolbox of conservation seedbanks.

You can also listen to our Branch Out podcast episode below to get an insight into the science of seedbanking.

For tips on incorporating nature play in everyday life, see our recent story how to raise nature-connected kids.
Category: Science
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