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10 Aug 2022

The women tackling big conservation issues with weeds and seeds

From activating sleepy seeds to discovering new ways to tackle one of the country's most problematic weeds, Australian Institute of Botanical Science researchers are paving the way tackling key conservation issues.

They are among a wealth of female scientists within the Institute, working on plant species found at all three of its gardens – as well as across the country and overseas.

Among them are Dr Patricia Lu-Irving, from the Institute’s Research Centre for Ecosystem Resilience and Dr Ganesha Liyanage and Dr Zoe-Joy Newby, from the Australian PlantBank. Each are separately working to solve some of Australia's biggest conservation problems.

Problematic weeds

Dr Lu-Irving is trying to find ways to improve biocontrol of lantana by studying the genomics of the weed. Lantana is a weed of national significance that Australia has been trying to control over the last 100 years.

“Thirty biocontrol agents have been imported into Australia to try to control lantana over the last 100 years,” explains Dr Lu-Irving.

Dr Lu-Irving is genotyping thousands of specimens of lantana from Australia’s east coast, Hawaii, South Africa and the Americas to trace the origins of the weed so it can be better understood and controlled.

Most people think about the cane toad when they think about biocontrol and think why would they ever do that again? Lantana is one of oldest biocontrol programs in Australia and it hasn’t been super successful yet. Part of the reason is we don’t understand what weedy lantana is
Dr Patricia Lu-Irving

Sleepy seeds

Dr Liyanage looks at ways to germinate seeds that are sometimes dormant for years, so rainforest conservation scientists can continue work preserving species. She has worked on about 20 different species in her time at the Institute since 2018, finding ways to germinate their seeds.

“When seeds are dormant, we can’t do anything which is difficult when species have such problems we need to solve,” she said. “Sometimes rainforest species can take something like two years to break dormancy.

If we know what type of dormancy they have and how to break it, we can figure out different techniques to germinate them without waiting for them to overcome dormancy by themselves. If we can get a good germination, then we can do the rest of the tests.
Dr Ganesha Liyanage

Challenging orchids

A large proportion of Australian native terrestrial orchids are endangered or threatened in New South Wales which is why they are a focus for the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program.

With funding from the program, Dr Newby has been studying eight rare species over the last three years to try and germinate the orchids in a laboratory at the award-winning Australian PlantBank facility, located at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan.

“One particular genus, as far as we’re aware, no one has ever been able to germinate from seed,” explains Newby.

“There’s obviously something quite challenging in its biology that no one has been able to grow them. On the opposite end of that, for one species we have over 2000 seedlings in tissue culture.”

Do your bit for conservation

Not just a place where you can experience the wonder of plants, the Gardens are also the nation’s premier botanical research organisation, playing an essential role in species conservation.

With the support of people like you, our scientists have been able to bank seeds from more than 70 per cent of NSW threatened plant species! You can help support this vital work by donating here.

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