A fascinating conservation problem and a failure of my imagination

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Smart science papers and cold alpine springs,
These are a few of my favourite things.

Photo Kyrgyz Flowers. (cc) Martin Talbot.

The January 2011 Annals of Botany is out and I had hoped to put together a press release for one of the papers. Seeds of alpine plants are short lived: implications for long-term conservation by Mondoni et al is one of those papers that states the obvious, but does so in a way that makes you realise that some simple solutions aren’t going to work.

The problem is based around seed banks. These are banks where seeds are stored in cool conditions to prevent them from germinating. The one that grabs a lot of the headlines is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, but there are others. I can follow that keeping the seeds cool prevents germination and allows storage. Svalbard is naturally very cold anyway, so it seems like a good location for a “Doomsday Seedbank”.* What I hadn’t thought through is that that it’s not just the Arctic that’s cold. The Alps, for example also get cold.

This is what Modoni’s team discuss. Keeping the seeds of Alpine plants isn’t that clever an idea. The seeds are cold anyway. Seeds in warmer conditions need some resistance to the environment they’re in. Modoni et al argue that Alpine plants haven’t adapted for heat, because it’s never been a problem for them. With climate change, this will become an issue very quickly, and it’s likely the plants will not have time to adapt. They’ll driven up to higher and higher slopes as lower altitudes become warmer until they run out of mountain. At this point a seed bank would be a really helpful thing, to store the endangered seeds, but that’s not an option if a cool seed bank isn’t going to prevent germination and decay of seeds.

What I like about this paper is partly the seriousness and difficulty of the problem. These plants are at the base of a food chain for so many animals. If they go, they could take many animal species with them. I think there’s something here with wide appeal and relevance so it should make a perfect story for a press release.

My difficulty is I’ve really struggled to find an accessible start point. It’s a paper about Alpine plants. Which plants? Thistles, plaintains, basically what lowlanders would consider weeds. A story that weeds face extinction is not likely to tug at the heart strings of many readers. The animals that live off them? Insects, gnats, midges. The kind of creature that summer walkers in mountains could happily live without. More animals live off these creatures but the higher up the food chain we go, the further we move from the Botany.

Another way around the problem is to talk about the technique. This is also clever. One way to assess the seeds viability for long-term storage is to store them for a long period of time. That’s great if you have the time and funding to experiment. Modoni’s team took a short-cut. They accelerated the processes by raising the temperature and lightly baking the seeds. I can see why chemically and biologically this works. Heat is the driving force for these processes – so long as it’s not too high. That means more heat is like a fast-forward switch on the experiment. My difficulty is that if I wrote up a press release saying that Alpine plants will germinate in cold temperatures, because experiments with an oven showed they deteriorated at high temperatures, that will simply look insane. It would make sense with an extensive explanation of the method, but the size of a good press-release is one side of A4 and it would be doing well to get 200 words into a paper as a story.

David Frost sensibly suggested seeing if there could be a Sound of Music angle. Alas, Edelweiss was not one of the flowers and we don’t mangle the papers for the sake of making a story. In fact we run the press releases by the authors before putting them out to ensure they’re not horrified by what I’ve written.

So I’ve spent a few frustrating hours with this paper. I can’t shake the feeling there’s some way of writing up a press release that would have worked, but I still can’t see what it was. If you have any ideas feel free to tell me below. It’s too late for this paper, but I might be able to use the comments as inspiration for a future release.

*I’ll skip the problem that if it really is Doomsday, Svalbard will be an amazingly difficult place to access.


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