Going International, Part II – What caught my eye at two recent botany meetings

Here are just a few of the many highlights from the two international botany conferences I recently attended: Botany 2012 (Columbus, OH, USA) and  Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology 2012 (German Botanical Society 21st International Symposium, Mainz, Germany).

  • Plant identification goes visual, interactive and mobile

Plant identification keys are useful when you want to identify an unknown plant specimen to a species. Traditionally, keys have been found in books or other printed media, and have used written, verbal descriptions as choices that user must make (see an example here for Plantago from the 1961 New Zealand Flora). When using a conventional key, a user must proceed down the key and finally “key out” or identify the plant specimen of interest.

But keys are becoming increasingly interactive, making use of specialised computer software and including photos and drawings to aid identification (see for example Key to the Flowering Plant Genera of New Zealand). Keys are also becoming exteremely mobile, with the development of smart phone applications for plant identification (such as Leafsnap for the USA). I saw one talk by Alexander Krings about the development of these great apps for the Flora of North Carolina. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have such mobile plant identification apps for the New Zealand flora?

I also attended a hands-on workshop about so-called “visual keys“, which rely exclusively on photos and other visual aids. At the workshop, which was run by Bruce Kirchoff from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, we were divided into groups whose task was to create our own visual key for oak tree leaves using only a set of images. Then other workshop participants tested our group’s visual key by keying out leaves from another set of images. The workshop was fun and challenging, would be a great exercise for high school or university biology courses, and got me thinking about different ways I might create plant ID keys, especially for the forget-me-nots I am currently working on.

  • DNA Sequencing: The Next Generation

Use of so-called “Next Generation Sequencing” in (NGS) evolutionary biology research was a dominant theme at both conferences I attended. (And even though this might sound more like something from a certain television programme from the 1980s and 90s, I can assure you I was attending botany conferences, not sci-fi conventions!) The relatively new technology of NGS allows sequencing of large portions of the genome quickly, giving us orders of magnitude more DNA data from the organisms we study and allowing researchers to understand them better and answer more interesting questions about them.

In fact I have come to Oldenburg, Germany to learn and perform NGS methods to study the evolution of certain polyploid New Zealand and European Veroncica species (more on that later). By the way, on the conference field trip to “Mainzer Sand”, I saw my first European Veronica species in its native habitat, check it out (with thanks to Aaron Liston for the photos):

Heidi Meudt on the botanical field trip to the "Mainzer Sand", at the “Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology" meeting, the 21st International Symposium of the German Botanical Society (DBG) , Sept. 2012. I am kneeling just behind the European plant species Veronica spicata. Photo by Aaron Liston.

Heidi Meudt on the botanical field trip to the “Mainzer Sand”, at the “Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology” meeting, the 21st International Symposium of the German Botanical Society (DBG) , Sept. 2012. I am kneeling just behind the European plant species Veronica spicata. Photo by Aaron Liston.

Veronica spicata flowers from the "Mainzer Sand", Mainz, Germany. Sept. 2012. Photo by Aaron Liston.

Veronica spicata flowers from the “Mainzer Sand”, Mainz, Germany. Sept. 2012. Photo by Aaron Liston.

Veronica spicata fruits from the "Mainzer Sand", Mainz, Germany. Sept. 2012. Photo by Aaron Liston.

Veronica spicata fruits from the “Mainzer Sand”, Mainz, Germany. Sept. 2012. Photo by Aaron Liston.

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