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U. team fleshing out plant genus

They're writing about all 1,500 Solanum species

Lynn Bohs and three fellow scientists are using a $4 million National Science Foundation grant to document 1,500 species of the Solanum genus.
Lynn Bohs and three fellow scientists are using a $4 million National Science Foundation grant to document 1,500 species of the Solanum genus.
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

Lynn Bohs likes certain Solanum plants. You probably do, too.

If the world had produced no Solanum, Bohs notes, there would be "no French fries, no mashed potatoes, no tomato sauce, no pizzas."

Also, Earth would lack eggplants, nightshade, locoweed, some chilies, tobacco and a plethora of other species, beneficial and otherwise.

Solanum is an amazingly diverse and widespread genus, with an estimated 1,500 species. It's so big and so important to agriculture, medicine and other uses, that the National Science Foundation recently named a University of Utah associate professor and three of her fellow scientists as recipients of a $4.36 million grant to document Solanum in all its worldwide variety.

A glance around a sweltering greenhouse on the roof of the university's South Biology Building gives a hint of that diversity. You see wild potatoes. In the rows of green growing things, you see Solanum plants that are tall, stalky growths with nasty spines.

"This is called a tree tomato," she said, referring to one of the more benign plants.

"The tree tomato is used as a minor food crop in South America. Occasionally, we see it here in the grocery store in the specialty food section."

Bohs and colleagues will prepare scientific treatments — that is, write-ups — on all of the species in the world. Rare potatoes and nightshades will be the subjects of a thorough inventory listing names, relationships and characteristics. A plant's habitat will be shown, identification guide prepared and patterns noted. Digital photos will help round out descriptions.

All of it will be available on the Internet as part of the NSF Planetary Biodiversity Inventories.

Bohs' fellow principal investigators in the project are Sandra Knapp of the Natural History Museum, London; Michael Nee, New York Botanical Garden; and David M. Spooner, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Four other experts are involved, too.

About 20 to 30 additional collaborators are to work with the project, some in Argentina, Brazil and China. Funding is available for graduate student researchers and undergraduates to tackle aspects of the effort.

"I guess I have been interested in plants ever since I can remember," Bohs said. "And so I've always known I wanted to go into science and biology, into botany."

As a plant systematologist, she works on characterizing species, their evolutionary relationships, how to identify species, "and how they all fit together in the big picture," she said.

She teaches field botany, in which students troop around outdoors learning about common plants of the Wasatch Range. In a more technical class on plant systematics, she teaches about the evolution of plants and how to identify and classify them.

As a scientist, she has special duties. "Part of our responsibility is figuring whether new species exist out there, how we can identify them and how we can appropriately name and describe them," she said.

Speaking of naming, she was mulling over possible scientific names for a new species when the Deseret Morning News visited the greenhouse. She cradled a plant with odd leaves, one of 15 new species of Solanum that she and other experts discovered during a trip to Bolivia.

"For every one of those 15 species, each one of us has to be responsible for choosing appropriate names, doing the Latin, doing the description," she said. The project includes drawing the plant, too. The name must conform to proper scientific nomenclature rules.

Solanum is one of the five largest plant genera, in terms of number of species, she said. They all share certain distinctive features. On the inside of the flowers are the pollen-bearing organs, called anthers. At the tip of each anther is a tiny pore.

With most other flowering plants, the anthers open down the side, fold apart and expose the pollen. With Solanum plants, the pollen is released from the pore. Certain kinds of bees know how to extract the pollen.

How did this one genus spread from continent to continent?

"That's a good question," she said. "We don't know the answer to that. It is worldwide, but by far the greatest number of species occur in the New World tropics."

Solanum species are also native to Africa, Australia and temperate parts of Asia.

A spin-off from the basic project might be to map out the bio-geographic relationship, she said. "One idea is that group is really old and it spread around with drifting continents." That notion is somewhat old and may be revised.

Another idea has to do with dispersal by animals, like birds, that eat the fleshy fruit.

"But at this point we don't really have a good idea of how these plants got around," she said.

This groundbreaking project might lead to someone finding the answer.

According to a university press release, "several large-scale efforts are under way to study the genes" of the plants and to look into the plant's breeding, pollination and evolution of fruit types. "Yet there is no comprehensive database of the names and relationships of plants in Solanum," the release says.

That will change with the completion of the project by Bohs and her fellows. A searchable database should result from the five-year project, she said.

Tackling such a gigantic task is "very scary," she acknowledged. "It's got to be completed in 2008."

She obviously savors the products of certain Solanum plants, like those essential for pizza. But does she have a favorite member of the genus?

"To me," she said, "they're all interesting."


E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com