Scientists from the University of Dundee and the James Hutton Institute will this week unveil a series of living displays explaining the role of genes and genetics at the University’s Botanic Garden.
Funding for the Genetics Garden came from an Excellence with Impact Prize awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Colleagues from James Hutton Institute and the Division of Plant Sciences at the University’s College of Life Sciences (CLS) created the garden to educate visitors about the role plants play in understanding genetics and, in turn, how genetics are crucial to understanding variation in organisms.
It will be opened to the public on Thursday, 27th June by the esteemed plant biologist Richard Flavell, Chief Scientific Officer at Ceres Inc, California. Professor Flavell is visiting Dundee to deliver the annual Distinguished Lecture at CLS on Friday.
The garden’s development was led by Dr Gordon Simpson and Dr Sarah McKim. Dr Simpson said, “Variation in the sequence of DNA underpins variation in the appearance of plants. People domesticated different wild grasses in prehistoric times by selecting plants with favourable traits and the result is cereals like wheat, rice, barley and maize on which much of the world’s food supply depends today.
“We have sown ancient landrace varieties such as bere barley, which was probably grown in Scotland before the Vikings arrived, alongside modern crop varieties, to illustrate this variation. As the summer progresses the consequences resulting from different selections of these grasses will become clear.”
The garden encompasses three beds, each measuring approximately 10m x 4m, situated within the Botanic’s Evolutionary Garden. As such they fit with both the scientific significance of genetics and the aesthetics of the Botanic Garden.
The first of the beds is the Chromosome Walk, a series of barley plants arranged in the shape of a chromosome with each having a single defective gene causing them to look different in some way. Examining such differences helps scientists work out what individual genes do and where to find them on a chromosome.
The History of Genetics bed features plants that have been at the forefront of genetic research. The theory of genes and heredity was pioneered by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel in his studies of pea plants, and some of the lines used by Mendel are also growing, along with the maize that is associated with Barbara McClintock’s Nobel Prize-winning work and other specimens.
The third bed, which shows variation in cereals from landraces like ancient bere barley to modern cultivated varieties, was sown with the help of members of the public and pupils from Blackness Primary School.
Botanic Garden Curator Alasdair Hood said, “We hear a great deal about genes, genetics, genome sequencing and the impacts they have on disease or our health. These terms are part and parcel of modern life, but we don’t necessarily know all about them.
“It has been a wonderful collaborative effort between the different parts of the University and scientists at the James Hutton Institute. It’s great to see the scientists in the Botanic Garden explaining what they do and sharing their knowledge in this way.”
Although plants are being used to demonstrate the point, the same process explains how individual genes guide the growth and development of all living things, including humans.
A key feature of the Genetics Garden is sustainability, and it will be re-planted and adapted in coming years as a hub around which other public engagement activities can be arranged.
Image note: Members of the public helped plant the Genetics Garden in May 2013.