Field Museum Hosts International Summit on Little Known Plant That Predates Dinosaurs and Has Possible Medical Uses
For Immediate Release
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CHICAGO - May 19, 2009 - In late May, Chicago's Field Museum will become the world's liverwort capital as botanists from 13 countries hold an historic summit meeting to sort out questions concerning a little-known but widespread group of plants that were the first to colonize land in the Earth's formative years.
The scientists hope to synthesize and organize what's known and what is yet to be discovered about liverworts, very small moss-like plants that grow in most parts of the world.
Such basic questions as how many species of the plant may exist are subject to hot debate with the answer ranging anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000, said Matt von Konrat, an adjunct curator and collections manager at The Field who specializes in liverworts.
As with many obscure plant families, liverwort research reports are scattered widely on the Internet, in a broad array of journals and in reports that are held publicly and privately, he said. By gathering 31 of the world's most knowledgeable liverwort experts in Chicago from May 26-29, the scientists hope to establish a central database for existing knowledge and to outline the next steps in furthering understanding.
Many students from the United States and other countries will also attend, as one goal of the meeting is to raise general liverwort awareness.
The Field Museum is a natural site for this first gathering of experts because its collection contains over 250,000 bryophyte specimens, one of the world's largest and most significant, said von Konrat. This will give visiting experts an opportunity to see examples of their favorite plants they've never encountered before, he said. Liverwort, named by ancient peoples who believed it was useful in treating liver ailments, is significant to scientists because of its prime role in evolution, said von Konrat. Fossil records suggest that some liverwort species have changed little since first establishing themselves on land, long before dinosaurs and other animals roamed the land.
The plants, which are so tiny a microscope is usually needed to study them, also may be useful in monitoring climate change and, perhaps, even for medicinal purposes, although probably not for liver disease.
"Liverworts are full of active chemicals," he said. "Some act against bacteria and others may be useful as cancer therapies. There is an international effort to investigate their medicinal value."
The liverwort meeting is part of an ambitious effort called the Encyclopedia of Life that aims to provide a Web page for every one of the planet's 1.8 million known species. The Encyclopedia will be available to the general public as well as scientists.
The effort is backed by The Field Museum, Harvard University, Biodiversity Heritage Library, Marine Biological Laboratory, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Smithsonian Institution as well as numerous other collaborators in the U.S. and abroad.
While liverworts are the focus of the first such botanist meeting at The Field, there will be others addressing different plant families, said Thorsten Lumbsch, associate curator and chair of the department of botany at The Field. In addition to the Encyclopedia of Life Biodiversity Center based at The Field, sponsors of the liverwort summit include the National Science Foundation and the Global Biological Information Facility based in Copenhagen.
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