Hawaii university program keeping plants from extinction

HONOLULU — Researchers from the Hawaiian Rare Plant Program have established small operations that could hold enormous benefits by helping to save many of the state’s plant species from extinction.

The scientists store and maintain hundreds of threatened and endangered native species at the University of Hawaii Manoa’s Lyon Arboretum, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Monday.

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The two small cottages housing the Seed Conservation Laboratory and the Micropropagation Laboratory are making significant contributions toward Hawaii plant conservation.

The Seed Conservation Laboratory is a bank that holds about 27 million seeds. Cooled or frozen in the lab’s handful of refrigerators, the seeds represent 600 plant groups, or 40% of flora native to Hawaii.

Alvin Yoshinaga, a retired university researcher who founded the seed bank, tested the theory beginning in the 1990s that seeds from tropical plants cannot handle being dried, cooled and stored like seeds from more temperate environments.

“We were very surprised to find that they stored — at least some of them — much longer when they were refrigerated or stored desiccated,” Yoshinaga said.

But not all species can be stored in seed banks because some are sensitive to drying, while others are so rare in the wild that collectors can only recover leaves, stems or immature seeds.

The Micropropagation Laboratory grows plant tissue cultures under controlled conditions. A tissue culture in a test tube can be kept alive by planting a piece into a new tube.

“We can overlap in our conservation efforts. So, what they (the seed bank) cannot store and propagate, we can do it, and vice versa,” said Nellie Sugii, manager of the rare plant program.

The lab houses more than 30,000 plants representing more than 200 native plant groups, with 150 listed as threatened and endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Micropropagation can be used to save extremely rare species such as the haha, a shrub in the bellflower family endemic to parts of Oahu and Molokai.

“This one is a real success story because the only remaining plants were germinated seedlings that were in this lab,” Sugii said. “Now they have plants that are growing and flowering and seeding again.”

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