Tech receives $3-million biodiversity grant
First modern tree changed the world 360 million years ago

Tech receives $3-million biodiversity grant

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has recently awarded Virginia Tech a 5-year cooperative grant to support drug discovery and biodiversity conservation in Madagascar and Suriname.

TaxolTM is the world's best selling anti-cancer drug; morphine is an important pain reliever for severe pain; and quinine is an anti-malarial drug. All were refined from plants. Drug researchers have found Taxol and other new natural product drugs after testing thousands of plants for biological activity and isolating the active agents.

The problem with this approach, according to chemistry professor David Kingston, is that it requires access to thousands of plants, and most of the world's plant biodiversity is contained in its fast-disappearing tropical rain forests. What is needed is a way to develop new drugs from the rain forest while contributing to the economic health of the country in which the forest is located. This is the idea behind the work at Virginia Tech that has just received renewed support from the NIH.

The International Cooperative Biodiversity Group, which is doing the work, is directed by Kingston and includes six additional collaborators on three continents. In addition to the drug-discovery aspects of the work, Virginia Tech and two other collaborators will provide research training to Surinamese and Madagascan nationals; Conservation International also will carry out small-scale economic-development projects. Back to Contents

First modern tree changed the world 360 million years agopicture of leaf

Do we owe our lives to a tree? The work of Stephen Scheckler, professor of biology and geological sciences at Virginia Tech, suggests that we might.

Scheckler is among three scientists to report in the April 22 issue of Nature that the extinct tree, Archaeopteris, is the earliest-known example of a modern tree. With Brigitte Meyer-Berthaud of the Laboratoire de Paleobotanique Universite Montpellier (in France) and Jobst Wendt of the Geologish-Palaontologisches Institut (in Germany), Scheckler studied more than 150 of Archaeopteris fossils from the Morocco Sahara and found evidence of trunk branching, big roots, and lateral buds on the tree. The existence of these modern-tree features on Archaeopteris had previously been a matter of conjecture.

About 360 million years ago, says Scheckler, plant life was causing a dramatic change in the earth's atmosphere--increasing the amount of oxygen from about 5 percent to 20 percent over a 50-million-year span in the late Devonian period. Archaeopteris made up 90 percent of the forests during the last 15 million years when these changes accelerated.

The forest floors became rich with the tree's litter, which fed the streams and spurred the evolution of freshwater fishes and other marine ecosystems. The newly oxygen-rich atmosphere and the changes in soil chemistry that resulted from the tree's extensive root system--unique among plants of that times--also influenced the development of ecosystems worldwide.

"Archaeopteris made the world almost a modern world in terms of ecosystems that surround us now," says Scheckler. Since Archaeopteris reproduced by releasing spores rather than producing seeds, however, the tree is thought to be more like an ancient aunt than a direct ancestor of extant trees.

Scheckler is helping to organize a symposium on Archaeopteris for the International Botanical Congress, which will meet in St. Louis in August 1999. Back to Contents

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