Research projects could provide insights into plant responses to climate change and the spread of invasive ornamentals

One research project that has just received a Marsden Fund Standard Grant will improve our understanding of how land plants adapt to environmental stress and could provide insight into how plants respond to climate change.

Another will focus on finding new methods for managing potentially invasive plant species, investigating why some non-native ornamental plants become environmental weeds and aiming to help forecast and prevent future biological invasion

Dr Kevin Davies, from Plant & Food Research, has been talking about the first of those two projects, to investigate hornwort plants, which are rare for their lack of ability to produce the red flavonoid pigment that is thought to help plants cope with environmental challenges.

“We think hornworts are unique,” he says. 

“If they lack flavonoids – the red pigments found in flowers and leaves that plants seem to need to protect themselves against environmental stresses like UV-B radiation, cold, drought, nutrient deprivation and disease – then we want to know how this affects their ability to cope with environmental changes.”

As Principal Investigator, Dr Davies will lead a multidisciplinary team of Principal and Associate Investigators – including chemists, genomic specialists and world-leading plant physiologists – from Plant & Food Research, Monash University (Australia) and the University of Pisa (Italy). Using genetic and genomic studies and samples from New Zealand, Australia and the USA, the project will advance our understanding of stress-induced red pigmentation in land plants.

“If hornworts aren’t disadvantaged by lacking flavonoids then why are these pigments so prevalent in other plants? Perhaps hornworts have evolved alternative ways to cope with environmental stress that have yet to be described,” says Dr Davies.

The second projects is headed by Lincoln University Plant Biosecurity Distinguished Professor Philip Hulme and will focus on finding new methods for managing potentially invasive plant species.

The study investigates why some non-native ornamental plants become environmental weeds and aims to help forecast and prevent future biological invasions.

The project has received a $798,000 boost from a Marsden Fund grant to be distributed over the next three years.

Professor Hulme and his team will look at whether the prices of non-native ornamental plants, as well as their popularity with gardeners, contribute to them becoming invasive.

“Ornamental plants are the primary source of environmental weeds worldwide,” said Professor Hulme.

“These weeds pose serious threats to the natural environment and environmentally-based economic sectors. It’s not well understood why some non-native species escape from cultivation to become invasive weeds when others don’t.

“This research will test the hypothesis that non-native ornamental plant species become invasive as a result of factors that affect demand for garden plants: gardener preferences for particular biological attributes, as well as plant prices.”

Professor Hulme said the research would integrate economics, biology and human behaviour to forecast future biological invasions by non-native ornamental plants.

“We’ll use an extensive collection of historical nursery catalogues to assess how the risk of plant invasions is shaped by the price, prevalence and popularity of non-native plants in terms of their biological attributes.”

A clearer understanding of the behavioural and economic drivers of ornamental plant invasions will underpin the development of more successful methods to manage potentially invasive plant species.

“The current approaches are based on sales and import bans but a broader plan is needed,” he said.

Distinguished Professor Hulme won the Hutton Medal from the Royal Society Te Aparangi in 2019 for his “outstanding contributions to knowledge about plant invasions in New Zealand”.

He currently leads the Biosecurity Theme in the Bio-Protection Research Centre, a Centre of Research Excellence hosted by Lincoln University. The centre was established in 2003 to drive innovation in sustainable approaches to pests, pathogens and weed control.

The centre has seven partner institutes: Lincoln University, AgResearch, Massey University, Plant & Food Research, Scion, the University of Canterbury, and the University of Otago, with members throughout New Zealand.

Sources:  Plants and Food Research and Lincoln University

Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog

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