Astellas Economic Botany Laboratory

Where Real Benefits Emerge from Assessed Potential

Scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden are studying plants for potential benefits to humankind and exploring their cultural uses. This research, being conducted in the Astellas Economic Botany Laboratory, helps preserve traditional knowledge and may also result in conservation of crop genetic diversity, and disease-resistant food plants.

PHOTO: potatoesHow Economic Botany Benefits You—and the World

The decline of biodiversity is of grave concern, and Garden scientists are actively researching how to minimize species loss and promote revitalization. By studying the origins of crops, assessing their horticultural properties, and conserving their genetic diversity, humans receive the benefit of their work as new cultivars or disease-resistant food plants.

As part of this effort, economic botanists at the Garden are documenting the origin of specific uses of plants to aid in plant breeding programs and to develop strategies for the sustainable use of plant resources.

case studies

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In 1787, the H.M.S. Bounty sailed to the South Pacific to obtain breadfruit, a starchy food crop, and introduce it to the New World. While sailing to the Caribbean with a large load of breadfruit, Captain Bligh rationed water to keep thirsty breadfruit trees alive, a factor in the crew’s mutiny. More than 200 years later, Garden scientist Nyree Zerega, Ph.D., DNA fingerprinted breadfruit varieties and wild relatives. Her work ultimately revealed how people spread breadfruit throughout the Pacific, enhancing the understanding of how to conserve the diversity of this important tropical crop.

PHOTO: green youth farmOne strategy for the sustainable use of plant resources is to study and promote urban agricultural practices. The Garden’s Green Youth Farm and Windy City Harvest programs bring farming to Chicago’s North Lawndale and West Side neighborhoods. These vegetable gardens give young adults hands-on experience and unique jobs training in sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture.

The Economic Botany Laboratory is a gift of the Astellas USA Foundation.

Taking action:
What can you do?

Change your actions:
Encourage the use of a wider range of plants by including heirloom varieties in your garden (but avoid invasive plants). To inform your choices, try to learn more about the plant products you use, such as where and how they were grown.

Change your community:
Add locally grown produce to your dinner table. Buy plant products such as foods, woods, and fibers that are grown in a way that doesn’t harm ecosystem health.

In the Laboratory

The Astellas Economic Botany Laboratory and the Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory together are 2,000 square feet; the genetics lab contains specialized equipment, such as a DNA sequencer, for scientists incorporating molecular biology techniques into their research. Using this equipment, scientists in the Astellas Economic Botany Laboratory can screen genetic diversity of plants and conduct collaborative research with major centers at universities, or with private or federal laboratories to investigate possible medicinal properties.

Staff Scientists

Jeremie Fant, Ph.D.
Manager, Plant Biology and Seed Labs

Nyree J. C. Zerega, Ph.D.
Director, Graduate Program in Plant Biology and Conservation