Restoration, the practice of assisting the recovery of degraded or destroyed ecosystems, begins with plants. Diversity is as important for ecosystems as it is for our society. Restoration genetics identifies how genetic diversity helps plant populations persist, and how these characteristics can be successfully incorporated into restoration efforts. For short-term success, the plants or seeds introduced must become established and grow, and therefore must be adapted to conditions at the site being restored. For long-term success, plants must be genetically diverse enough to survive changing conditions, including climate change, new diseases and other variables.
Researchers at the Chicago Botanic Garden work in a range of habitats, from the high deserts of Nevada and Utah to the prairies of Illinois and sand dunes of Lake Michigan. They determine the most appropriate sources of plants or seeds for a restoration site; how far seeds can be moved from their original site to restore another site; and how seeds can be collected and used most effectively to ensure genetic diversity in restored populations.
Working in the Garden’s genetics lab, we conduct DNA fingerprinting, determining genetic diversity found in healthy plant populations and how that diversity is distributed throughout a plant’s range. Our scientists grow plants from different areas in the same environment (common gardens), identifying important genetic differences in plant growth and performance that are not necessarily revealed by the use of DNA fingerprinting alone. Our scientists and researchers also conduct fieldwork. Many plant communities depend upon other plant and animal species to survive and reproduce. Bees are necessary for pollination, soil fungi help plants get nutrients, and more. We must understand this complex web to ensure successful restoration, and the best way to gain such knowledge is through fieldwork. We can help promote the successful restoration of healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems using such techniques as observing which pollinators visit the flowers of different species, or collecting soil samples to examine components of the mychorrhizal community.