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An archive of life

The Botanical Garden is an attractive showcase for Kiel University and at the same time indispensable for science, says Professor Dietrich Ober. The director of the Botanical Institute and the Botanical Garden heads the Biochemical Ecology and Molecular Evolution working group.

Dietrich Ober
© Martin Geist

Dietrich Ober is the head of the Botanical Garden in Kiel.

On closer inspection, the Botanical Garden fulfils many functions. Which one is the most important for you?

Science is still my clear focus. Our garden provides support in an amazingly wide variety of areas and is very active in providing materials. It’s not all just about biology as we get a lot of inquiries from other institutes as well. Geography, for example, uses areas for measurements because we have a large, car-free space. Geobotany asks for material for experiments, we are strongly related to the agricultural sciences anyway and there is even contact with physics and other disciplines that you wouldn’t think of right away.

And what about teaching? Do we still need real plants nowadays when everything is going in the direction of molecular biology?

This question is indeed asked very frequently, but it constructs an artificial contrast. Let's take Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as wall cress or thale cress. It is a wonderful model organism for genetics and is something like the fruit fly of botany because it is easy to sequence. However, we can do a lot of sequencing and still learn nothing about the biological system itself. We need entire plants in their natural environment to understand, for example, how they protect themselves from predators, how they attract pollinating insects or which strategies they develop to cope with too much sun. The plant as we see it today is the result of all these interactions over millions of years of evolution!

In any case, scientific techniques have improved enormously. Today, basically any material can be sequenced quite easily, so we are able to do much more. The Botanical Garden is important for teaching in every phase. It provides space and material for bachelor's and master's programmes, covering the needs of everything from basic to advanced courses. In the summer semester our garden provides material for several courses with up to 220 students each. And many courses are not held in seminar rooms, but directly in our Botanical Garden.

Is it true that young people hardly know anything about plants any more?

When it comes to identifying species, it sometimes looks really bleak. On the other hand, the students are very enthusiastic when you teach them how amazing plants are. There is, for example, a tobacco plant that can not only defend itself against caterpillars, but can even recognise what kind of caterpillar it is dealing with. When you see things like that it is not hard to get passionate about botany. We also notice this in people who visit the garden. In 2018 some 3,000 people took advantage of a guided tour.

If you like, a botanical garden is also a kind of zoo, just with plants instead of animals.

If you take a closer look, you’ll see that animals are also part of it. Many insect species can be found in the Botanical Garden along with birds like kingfishers, herons or owls as well as smaller mammals. But it is true that plants are our main focus. Currently there are about 350,000 known plant species and about a third of them are cultivated in the botanical gardens of the world. Of course, each garden is primarily concerned with plants that are suitable for its location, so that the botanical gardens as a whole play in important role in preservation. We have an enormously high extinction rate on earth and there are hardly any places that are not used or affected in any way by humans. 

Botanical gardens can help preserve many plant species, even though they certainly cannot replace the diversity of natural habitats. For this reason, natural spaces are also needed as islands where nature can develop undisturbed. Evolution as continued development in nature only works if there is a diversity of characteristics. By the way, it is in our very own interest to preserve this diversity.

Half of all medicines are of natural origin or use nature as a blueprint. Aspirin, for example, has its origin in a compound that was originally obtained from willow bark. If we do nothing and accept the loss of more and more species, we are ultimately doing harm to ourselves. The same goes for agriculture. 

Last summer set off alarm bells for a lot of people. And justifiably so. Through cultivation, crops have lost many genes that are crucial for survival because the main focus was on quantity and quality. How a plant copes with a lack of water was hardly of interest. That is why it is important for wild varieties to grow in botanical gardens from which plants can be produced that are adapted to changing climatic conditions. The botanical gardens maintain very close contacts with each other worldwide and support each other with material. In this way, they actually represent an archive of life. 

The interview was conducted by Martin Geist