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Brenau program saving endangered species
'Our ultimate goal is to get plants back out in the habitat'
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Brenau University is expanding its undergraduate research opportunities by allowing students to find endangered species of ferns, such as this sample of marl spleenwort, and replenish their population.

There are a lot of little green things growing in Jessi Shrout and Heather Gladfelter's lab at Brenau University.

It's not mold or fungi. It's not even everyday, run-of-the-mill ornamental plants.

This lab is growing endangered species.

"We started thinking about what we could do with this wonderful space (in the science building) ... Because of (Gladfelter's) background we decided to go with plants," said Gale Starich, dean of the College of Health and Science at Brenau. "Part of the university's mission is around sustainability."

Gladfelter, a lab manager in the math and science department whose previous work is in biotechnology, said she wanted "to do something that mattered," and endangered plants seemed a good starting point for the lab.

Gladfelter contacted the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to determine what plants would be best to use in the lab and was given the name of the fern Asplenium heteroresiliens, otherwise known as the marl spleenwort.

"I'd already considered a fern because they're commercially easy to propagate," Gladfelter said.

"It's critically in peril in the U.S. There's only five populations in the state of Georgia."

Gladfelter and Shrout went to one of the populations and were allowed to take one plant back to start the program at Brenau.

They grew the plant since September 2010, collected spores from it and now have more than 100 "endangered little ferns," Gladfelter said.

"Our ultimate goal is to get plants back out in the habitat," said Jessica Mitchell, 23, a sophomore from Gainesville, who works with marl spleenwort in the lab.

Ferns, unlike a lot of plants, grow from spores, which might help this asexual species survive.

"It's a fern's version of a seed, but you don't have to bury it," Mitchell said. "It needs humidity whereas seeds just need to be wet and in the dark."

Eventually team members, which also use resources from DNR, Master Gardeners and the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, want to use biotechnology methods to grow new plants. But for now they're sticking to natural means.

"We really started with this funny little fern, but we're actually branching out now to some other species," Starich said.

The other species are Gentianopsis crinite, Oxypolis canbyi and Draba aprica, commonly known as the fringed getian, Canby's dropwort and the sun-loving draba. Each of the five undergraduates who work in the lab act as team leaders of sorts for their assigned species. The species are endangered for numerous reasons — habitat destruction, nonnative plant invasion and drought — but all of them are caused by humans, Shrout said.

Rebecca Jones, 20, a junior from Valdosta, referred to Canby's dropwort as "very elusive" because it's difficult to grow.

"I'm interested in medicine but you have to realize plants are a big part of medicine, and you have to appreciate that," Jones said. "Even if it's little, it might be the cure for something."

The plants are collected during field excursions.

"We've been all the way up to the mountains in the north corner of Georgia and all the way south where we got lost in Florida," said Shrout, laboratory director and assistant professor in the math and science department. "We bring them back to the lab environment and mimic their natural habitat as much as possible," Shrout said.

For example, the fringed gentian is grown in a container with high humidity.

Darnisha Coverson, a 21-year-old senior from College Park, is in charge of the fringed gentian.

"Basically it's this iridescent blue flower that only grows in soils high in magnesium," she said.

"It can be used to increase the act of salivation."

Coverson's plants were collected from one of its limited populations in Blairsville, where the community knows it well.

"I think it's fun and exciting because we get to actually go out in the field instead of just sitting in a lab and looking in books," Coverson said. "This really gives me a strong foundation (for graduate school)."

The exact latitude and longitude location of the plant populations is controlled by DNR to keep the plants safe from tourists and collectors.

Shrout said Georgia Tech has a similar lab, but it's not common for small liberal arts schools such as Brenau to have a plant lab like this one.

And though it's only a year old, the program is already expanding.

Art and Pam Bilyew donated a greenhouse to Brenau in the memory of one of their children. Construction on the greenhouse, which is going to be called the biosciences field station, will begin this fall near the university's bamboo forest, Starich said. There, the plants grown in the lab will be acclimated to an outdoor environment.

"The ferns have been here since the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are extinct but the ferns are still living. They're the foundation for all life," Coverson said. "It's important because right now, a lot of different schools and campuses are going sustainable. What better way to sustain our environment than to save endangered plants?"

 

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