Jerry Pullman and Undergraduate Students Help to Save Endangered Plant Species in the Southeast

Jul 31, 2012 | Atlanta, GA

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  • Jerry Pullman

IPST faculty member Jerry Pullman, Ph.D., a Georgia Tech Biology professor, has partnered with the Atlanta Botanical Garden to help save some of the South’s rarest plants. Jerry uses the knowledge and skills he has gained over decades of developing cloning technology for high-value pines and Douglas fir to help multiply and preserve Georgia’s rare and critically endangered species. In the process, he has created some life-changing experiences for his students.

Over one-fifth of the world’s plants are becoming rare and endangered due to loss of habitat, over-collection, diseases, competition from exotic and invasive species, and global warming. Jerry strives to help save these species for the future by preserving them in seed banks, at safekeeping sites like botanical gardens, and by multiplying the rarest plants using plant tissue culture techniques.

One of his projects involves an ancient evergreen tree—Torreya taxifolia—of which fewer than 1,000 are known to remain. Jerry and his staff have worked out methods of somatic  embryogenesis to keep natural multiplication processes going in culture, resulting in multiple plant copies. The multiplying embryos can often be stored for the long term at ultra-low temperatures in liquid nitrogen (cryogenic storage) and retrieved when needed.

Several years ago, during a construction project at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Conservatory Director Ron Determann arranged to store some rare seeds at normal freezer temperatures in a federal government installation at Fort Collins, CO. When the seeds were retrieved about six years later, 98% of them were no longer viable. Jerry’s work with the Atlanta Botanical Garden and his students at Georgia Tech has developed improved, species-specific methods of propagation and long-term storage to address this problem.

In vitro germination and micropropagation experiments with the threatened Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum) produced methods to store and retrieve seeds after cryopreservation and 300 viable plants that were recently installed at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. With ongoing interest in Georgia’s natural heritage, there is talk of the threatened aster replacing the Cherokee rose as the Georgia state flower.

This work captures the imagination of many undergraduate students. One student, who wanted to culture a seaweed, explored a Fijian Sea alga with cancer-fighting properties. Another student, who was interested in shark biology, was put to work cloning the carnivorous pitcher plant (Sarracenia oreophila) and returning the plants to the field. Some of the students come back after graduating to help complete the research. Several students have wound up as authors on publications. One student even continued her education in forest policy and is now employed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Georgia Tech and members of the botanical community have created a stronger bond through these research projects saving plants. Those interested in supporting the work can contact Jerry at jerry.pullman@ipst.gatech.edu. References to some recent papers on the work are found at this link http://www.biology.gatech.edu/people/jerry-pullman.

“I am proud to work with undergraduate students teaching them how to conduct research while at the same time helping to save endangered plants,” says Jerry. “And this is my way of making the world a little better place.”

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