Reproductive Biology Laboratory

Intervention is Critical When Plants Can’t Reproduce

Successful reproduction is essential for a species to survive. However, it’s not happening for many plants. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Reproductive Biology Laboratory is like a fertility clinic for plants. Scientists learn why some plants are not reproducing, and help identify ways to lessen or solve the problems that threaten plant survival. They also study seed germination and verify the viability of seeds being stored in the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

How Reproductive Biology Benefits You—and the World

PHOTO: Plants of ConcernWhen a species disappears, its potential benefits to all life on earth are lost forever. Scientists can learn much by studying plant reproductive biology, including pollination biology, seed viability, and germination, which can allow them to develop methods to intercede when reproductive failure threatens a plant’s existence.

In the Garden’s Reproductive Biology Laboratory, scientists and graduate students study the reproductive biology, seed germination, and quantity of seeds produced by different species. Seeds germinated, grown, and analyzed in the lab reveal genetic differences as well as viability. As Garden scientists work to understand and stabilize plant populations, their actions translate into management advice that can be used to ensure species' persistence and proliferation in the future.

Additionally, samples of seeds stored in the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank are tested in this lab to determine how their viability—or ability to grow—holds up over time. After seeds are collected and quarantined in the Seed Quarantine Room in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Plant Conservation Science Center, they are brought to the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Preparation Laboratory. Once healthy seeds are processed, about 25 of them are selected and sent to the Reproductive Biology Laboratory, where they are germinated to ensure that they are viable.

Case Studies

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Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., working with Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., and Rebecca Tonietto, M.A., is investigating the relationship between pollinator communities and flower display. In the mountainous areas of the western United States, plant communities range from arid basins to mesic mountaintops. These habitats support very different insect communities. One important difference is that there are fewer large bees in the drier areas. As a consequence of this, some Penstemon populations have modified their flower shape to accommodate these different bee communities.

Kayri Havens, Ph.D., director of conservation science at the Garden, and other Garden scientists have found that too much inbreeding reduces plant vigor in lobelia species (specifically, Lobelia cardinalis and Lobelia siphilitica) at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Dr. Havens has also conducted research on the federally threatened Eastern prairie white fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea). This showy orchid's reproductive cycle is a virtual mystery, partly due to the small, almost dustlike size of the seeds that require specific conditions for germination. Garden scientists, with other collaborators, have extracted DNA from 150 such plants found throughout northern Illinois. They are now creating a genetic "fingerprint" for each plant as part of an effort to preserve the plant.

PHOTO: Evening primrose being pollinatedKrissa Skogen, Ph.D., has been studying the pollinators of the Colorado Springs evening primrose (Oenothera harringtonii), endemic to southeastern Colorado. Dr. Skogen and her students have been studying pollinators and reproductive success in wild populations for the last three years and have conducted germination and seed viability studies in the Reproductive Biology Laboratory. The flowers of O. harringtonii open soon after sunset and are pollinated primarily by two hawkmoth species, Manduca quinquemaculata and Hyles lineata, and secondarily by a number of bee species. This species is found in an increasingly fragmented landscape; however, little is known of the impacts that fragmentation may have on O. harringtonii and on the community of pollinators upon which it relies for reproduction and long-term population persistence.

PHOTO: Stuart Wagenius, Ph.D., has discovered that lack of fire threatens reproduction in the narrow-leaved purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) in rural western Minnesota. He also investigates how the loss of genetic diversity causes reproductive failure in small populations of the narrow-leaved purple coneflower.

take action:
What can you do?

PHOTO: milkweed

Change your actions:
Encourage pollinators by gardening with plants that produce nectar and pollen. Limit pesticide use. Never collect wild, native plants—many have such specific requirements that they’ll die if removed from their habitat.

To support pollinators in your yard, plant native perennials in an array of colors to attract different kinds of pollinators. Choose plants that bloom over a range of seasons. (Visit Illinois’ Best Plants to find plants suited to your needs.) And don’t forget to grow plants in clusters to create a pollinator oasis.

Change your community:
Consider becoming a citizen scientist on plant conservation projects, and promote conservation-friendly development in your region.

In the Laboratory

Under what conditions do seeds germinate? How long can they be stored and remain viable? The 700-foot Reproductive Biology Laboratory is where scientists and graduate students discover the answers to these questions. In addition to learning more about the reproductive process, they can replace seeds displaying diminished viability with new collections. Alternatively, existing seeds may be removed from the seed bank to grow new plants, from which seeds may be harvested for the collection.

Staff Scientists

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

Kayri Havens, Ph.D.
Medard and Elizabeth Welch Director, Plant Science and Conservation

Krissa Skogen, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist

Pati Vitt, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist, Plant Demography
Manager, Seeds of Success

Stuart Wagenius, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist