Dr Alex Papadopulos explains DNA sequencing to President Santos of Columbia and HRH Prince Charles (RBG Kew)
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Kew–Colombia partnership set to help identify, protect and promote plant biodiversity

The Colombian Government’s scientific body, Colciencias, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have signed a Statement of Intent that will forge close links between Kew and this richly biodiverse country.

The partnership is part of the Colombian Government’s ambitious biodiversity programme, Colombia Bio, which will engage Kew’s scientists and advanced scientific technologies in efforts to identify, protect, and sustainably manage and utilise the incredible plant biodiversity in Colombia. The official signing took place at an event hosted by the UK Government at the Natural History Museum this week, attended by the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos and HRH Prince Charles.

Welcoming the agreement, Kew’s Director of Science, Prof. Kathy Willis, said:

“This is a critical time for partnerships between scientists and governments in protecting areas of dwindling global biodiversity. It is a great honour to be entering into a new phase of collaboration with Colombia. The Colombia Bio programme offers a unique opportunity for Kew to lead and support excellent research in one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, in line with the institutional vision and strategic outputs of both Kew and Colombia. We look forward to an era of mutual support to inform the urgent regulation on illegal plant trade as well as conservation policy.”

The collaboration centres on a number of activities including biodiversity research and the discovery, identification and naming of plants and fungi. In particular, it explores how Kew can map vegetation in Colombia and assess it against climate resilience data, to find out which areas and plant traits show more, or less resilience to climate change.

This research is expected to help the Colombian Government to prioritise different conservation objectives, such as identifying the most important areas and species to conserve, and where to support ex situ conservation in seed banks – something of which Kew has significant experience through its world-leading Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex. 

Kew scientists at the event also demonstrated technological advances, including the MinION pocket sized DNA sequencer, which is expected to revolutionise fieldwork for taxonomists and ecologists. This tool enables the rapid sequencing of plant genomes in the wild and the easy identification of plants, allowing a whole suite of new research questions to be addressed.

Kew is also developing the Useful Plants and Fungi Portal, an online global data infrastructure that will provide information on the economic, traditional, and potential uses of plants and fungi. In collaboration with Colombian partners, Kew will be able to include information on Colombian plants and fungi, helping to guide research, conservation and sustainable use of essential species for human wellbeing.

The event also featured the first public demonstration of Kew’s new Plants of the World Online Portal (POWOP). POWOP enables the dissemination of key botanical data (Floras, digitised herbarium specimens etc.) and images, which will help to facilitate the identification, protection and sustainable management of the vast plant biodiversity of Colombia, and will allow the data to be shared internationally, to help the fight against illegal plant trade.