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Understanding Unintended Outcomes


October 07, 2021

GCA Scholar Studies Ex Situ Conservation

Science is saving at risk plants by propagating them outside of their natural habitat, or ex situ. But what about the “law of unintended consequences”?

Bing Li, recipient of The Garden Club of America’s (GCA) 2021 Catherine H. Beattie Fellowship in Plant Conservation, now in the Ph.D. program at University of Wisconsin, is on the case. Li’s M.S. research with the Plant Biology and Conservation Program, a joint program between Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden, studied Oenothera organensis, a species of evening primrose, at the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center using the Garden’s extensive collection.

About the fellowship, Li remarked that it gave her “confidence and encouragement, validating me as well as my research. I am so grateful and appreciated it. Once I received the GCA fellowship, I was able to then apply for funding for the rest of the project.” 

Li’s research studied how ex situ conservation, i.e., preserving and reproducing O. organensis, with naturally low genetic variation, outside of its natural habitat, changes its genetics and traits, while ostensibly attempting to protect species outside of their original habitats. 

She confirmed that the species has “limited genetic diversity at a species level… [and that] the program’s ex situ collection has reduced genetic diversity compared with the wild-derived population, [both of] which [are] consistent with our expectations.” 

Li posed the conundrum: “Clearly, ex situ cultivation has problems in maintaining the genetic composition and traits of plant species ex situ for multiple generations. Ex situ plant collections are often preserved for future reintroduction. Due to these potential problems of ex situ conservation, reintroduction might not be successful. In this case, how can we develop guidelines and strategies to cope with these problems of ex situ cultivation and determine what botanic gardens should do to better preserve their ex situ collections?”

In 2021, the GCA awarded more than $300,000 to sixty-one scholars. The GCA is now accepting applications for its twenty eight merit-based scholarships and fellowships in twelve areas related to conservation, ecology, horticulture, botany, pollinator research and more. For more information and application deadlines, please visit Follow @GCAScholarships on Twitter to connect to a larger world of horticulture, conservation and more through the GCA scholars. 


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