People use plants in countless ways, but perhaps it is as food and medicine that comes to mind first. For many cultures certain food plants are central to their identity. Numerous species of plants are consumed as food by people around the world, but relatively few have become widespread and are now used globally. Many others are not well known outside of their native distribution. In some cases, these food plants offer great potential to be of benefit to human populations more widely. Research at the Garden focuses on underutilized food plants to improve food security for people.
Through a cooperative agreement with Professor Djaja Djendoel Soejarto at University of Illinois at Chicago, we provide plant material left over from cleaning seeds for our seed bank, which is then screened for various medicinal compounds at UIC. In 2014, we provided dried plant material from 350 collections to be screened (Yates, Sollenberger, Vitt, and Havens-Young).
Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is a traditional staple crop in Oceania that has been introduced throughout the tropics. This project examines important living germplasm collections of breadfruit and its closest wild relatives and aims to 1) characterize genetic diversity, including identification of unknown and duplicate accessions; 2) evaluate genetic structure and hybridization within the breadfruit complex, and 3) compare utility of microsatellite markers to previously reported AFLP and isozyme markers in differentiating among cultivars.
Although nearly 7,000 plant species have been cultivated at some point in human history for food consumption, approximately 95 percent of human food needs worldwide are met by about 30 crops. Shockingly, more than 50 percent of human food needs are met by only three of those crops: corn, wheat, and rice. Plant genetic resources are the basis for food security, and the diversity they encompass will be the fodder for adaptation to climate change and the stresses that may come with it.
The genus Artocarpus contains numerous economically important species (grown for timber and fruit) native to Southeast Asia. Two species, jackfruit and breadfruit, are cultivated throughout the tropics, but several others are important on more regional scales. Work in 2014 focused on analyzing data from collections made during previous fieldwork in Malaysia and India. Graduate student Theresa Melhem analyzed jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) diversity throughout the Western Ghats of India, its reported area of origin.