Kew Patrons take tour of the Conservation Biotechnology Laboratory

Kew Patrons go behind the scenes for an exclusive tour of Kew’s innovative conservation laboratory and get a glimpse of some of the world’s most endangered plants.

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15 Sep 2011

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Kew Patrons in their lab coats for the tour

The Conservation Biotechnology Unit is a perfect showcase for Kew’s vital work: saving endangered plant species from extinction.

Conserving plants that are extinct in the wild

A group of Kew’s Patrons went on a behind the scenes tour of this specialised laboratory as head of the unit Dr Viswambharan Sarasan explained how it all works. Dr Sarasan talked the group through a range of plant specimens, each one unique and intriguing in its small glass jar. Within the small, unimposing laboratory are plants which are extinct in the wild, or very endangered, or scarcely known to science at all. Each one requires different treatment to germinate and different conditions to survive; micropropagation is not an easy process. The scientists in the unit must discover what can be done to preserve these precious plants – a mistake could lose a plant species forever.

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The Patrons examine some of the laboratory's rare specimens. 

Protecting plant life for our future

One technique Dr Sarasan describes involves taking the spores from a rare fern, drying them, and then freezing them in a tiny drop of liquid nitrogen. At -196 °C the spores are safe, perfectly preserved and ready to be cultivated whenever they are needed. Everyone on the tour was amazed to hold in their hands petri dishes with these tiny beads inside, some of them visibly starting to germinate and grow.

The species which are saved and propagated in the lab can then be sent around the world, reintroduced into the wild and grown in their natural habitats. You can read about some recent successes in Madagascar in the latest edition of Kew magazine from page 26, detailing the battle to defend the country’s unique flora against the threats of climate change, deforestation and soil erosion.

Seeing Kew's mission in action

The Patrons, who donned white lab coats to see this fascinating conservation work, all had a glimpse of Kew’s most vital mission in action. The mission to preserve plants for future generations is tangible there in the laboratory, sitting in rows of small jars under the glare of sterile lights. It is because of the support of Kew’s Patrons and our other donors and volunteers that this work is possible. It’s always wonderful to have donors and the scientists they support in the same room and there was a fantastic atmosphere as everyone discussed the need to continue this work and build on recent successes.

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Find out more about Kew Patrons

Kew Patrons provide invaluable support to Kew, funding our vital plant conservation, science and research work as well as helping maintain our cherished Gardens and iconic heritage buildings.

If you would like to learn more about joining the Kew Patrons programme please contact the Patrons Officer, Daniel Barker, for more information.

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