Science at Kew

Over the last decade Kew has undergone major changes, both in how it relates to the world and in how it is managed.

Many readers will be aware of the more obvious physical changes; e.g., the new Evolution House, the Princess of Wales Conservatory, new facilities for Mycology, extensions to the Jodrell Laboratory and the Herbarium (spirit collection, quadrangle development), and the upgraded Seed Bank. Public facilities at Kew and Wakehurst Place have also been substantially upgraded to provide a better service to our million plus visitors per year. Less obvious perhaps is the shift in culture from being an introverted and departmentally-focused organisation to one that is more collaborative, corporate, and outward-looking.

The changes underlying science in the new Kew have involved not only new lines of research but new ways of working. Among these initiatives are research on molecular systematics, higher level systematics, molecular cytogenetics, ethical bioprospecting, geographical information systems, economic botany, cryopreservation, and conservation genetics. We are developing new approaches to genetic resource policy, networking, information dissemination, and integrated sustainable development.

Greater emphasis is being placed on inter-departmental and cross-disciplinary collaboration within Kew, innovation, health and safety, accessibility and safety of our collections, dissemination of our research results, intellectual property, strategic planning, career development, empowerment of staff, integration of the postgraduate programme, and forging of strategic alliances. Such is the scope of Kew's changing culture.

The recent appointments of Dr Simon Owens (Keeper of the Herbarium) and Nigel Taylor (Curator of the Living Collections Department) reflect this broad approach and will greatly strengthen the Science and Horticulture Senior Management team (Mike Bennett, Simon Owens, Gren Lucas, Charles Stirton, Nigel Taylor) in ensuring Kew continues to develop an exciting and relevant science programme through a mixture of 'blue skies' and applied research.

Dr Charles Stirton
Director of Science and Horticulture

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Kew Collections

Kew's collections have traditionally formed the basis for its scientific research but increasingly, in the 'new Kew', they support our frontline conservation activities and are developing into an educational and information resource in their own right.

Evolution House - Reconstructing the past

Prince Charles with the Director entering the Carboniferous zone of the Evolution House

Kew's newest display house, the Evolution House, was opened by HRH the Prince of Wales on 6 July 1995. It shows aspects of plant evolution by displaying living plants and reconstructed fossil taxa in dramatic settings using the technique of 'landscape immersion' to create the feeling of real and believable environments. It is the first thematic display of Kew's living collections to incorporate an integrated interpretation scheme, and it was made possible by sponsorship from Enterprise Oil.

The Carboniferous zone of the Evolution House which features reconstructions of Lepidodendron

Leading authorities on plant evolution, including Prof. W. Chaloner (RBG Kew Trustee) and Dr Marie Kurmann, advised on the project to ensure its scientific accuracy. The display concentrates on three key periods in plant evolutionary history: 400 million years ago (m.y.a.) at the end of the Silurian when vascular plants invaded the land, 300 m.y.a. in the Carboniferous when giant lycopsids dominated, and 100 m.y.a. at the beginning of the Cretaceous when angiosperms appeared. To set these periods in context, there are also areas showing a Pre-Cambrian landscape and Devonian and Jurassic floras. Living plants in the display have both taxonomic relationships and physical similarities to the extinct taxa they represent; fossil plants with no extant 'doubles' are reconstructed using convincing models - those of Lepidodendron being the most dramatic.

Palaeobotany has a distinguished history at Kew. Sir Joseph Hooker, the second Director, supported Darwin's work and Dr D.H. Scott, first Keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory, studied coal measure plants in the 1890s. The Evolution House continues this interest and provides a valuable education resource for schools, students of botany, and the public.

Contact: John Lonsdale (0181-332 5543)

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New Collections

Artifacts made by Amazonian Indians collected by William Milliken

Kew's expeditions are once again adding to the Economic Botany Collections. Recently Dr Phil Cribb brought back medicinal potions from Madagascar, William Milliken collected items made by the Yanomami of Amazonia, and Steve Davis and James Morley returned with various domestic products from Kenya. Items from the Collections have been on display for the opening of the Evolution House and others are currently in an exhibition about rubber in the Deutschen Hygiene-Museums, Dresden, and will transfer to the Museum für Verkehr und Technik, Berlin.

Contact: David Field (0181-332 5734)

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Policy on Collections

The words and spirit of the 1992 'Earth Summit' in Rio loom ever larger in the workings of all biological institutes. They also call for legal and policy expertise. Thus Kew has commissioned Kerry ten Kate from Environmental Strategies to investigate the acquisition, management and distribution of its botanical and fungal collections. The six-month contract was completed in June 1995 and highlights from her report will be published, as they will prove of value outside as well as inside Kew.

Contact: Dr Hew Prendergast (0181-332 5706)

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Seed Collecting in the Next Millenium

Stephanie Miles in the present Seed Bank

To address the critical need to conserve plant genetic diversity, Kew has applied for £33 million from the Millennium Commission (which administers some of the income from the UK National Lottery) to substantially increase its seed collection and conservation activities in collaboration with its many partners overseas. The application has passed the first two stages of consideration and proposes building a Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place, by the year 2000, capable of storing seed collected from 10% of the world's flowering plant species, including almost all those native to the UK. The Bank would provide a centre for research, education and training in seed conservation, and the level of funding being sought would ensure that the seed collection is maintained throughout the next millennium.

The Global Environment Facility, which provides funds to developing countries for environmental projects, has stated its support for the proposal and the United Nations Environment Programme is particularly enthusiastic about the intention to transfer seed conservation technology to these countries. In the UK, the project has been greeted enthusiastically by English Nature and other environmental organisations who may help to organise the volunteers needed to collect from the UK flora. The project is the biggest and most imaginative in Kew's history and, if funded, would provide a focus for the ex situ conservation of the world's wild plant genetic resources.

Contact: Roger Smith (0181-332 5080)

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New Keeper and Curator

Dr. Simon Owens (left) and Nigel Taylor

On 1 August 1995 Dr Simon Owens was appointed as Keeper of the Herbarium and Nigel Taylor as Curator of the Living Collections Department, taking over from Prof. Gren Lucas (Keeper for 11 years, now heading the new Information Services Department) and John Simmons (Curator for 23 years). Simon Owens was previously a Principal Scientific Officer (PSO) in the Jodrell Laboratory where he specialised in plant breeding systems; Nigel Taylor was a PSO in the Herbarium where he was an authority on cacti and had previously been the Herbarium's first horticultural taxonomist.

The retiring Keeper and Curator managed an increasing scientific use of the collections. Prof. Lucas is justly proud of the Herbarium's publication record while John Simmons developed the Gardens as a collection of fully-documented, natural source plants and masterminded the construction of new glasshouses and display features. Both were instrumental in developing Kew's conservation ethic. The new Keeper aims to raise public understanding of systematics and to use information technology to make available data from the Herbarium collections, whilst the new Curator sees the importance of the living collections in public education and wishes to encourage research activities amongst horticultural staff.

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