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Parasitic plant research leads to article


CEASAR MARAGNI/THE SOUTHERN Southern Illinois University Carbondale Plant Biology Professor Daniel Nickrent hangs this life sized model of a Rafflesia plant, which grows deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia, back on the wall of his labratory .

CARBONDALE - The sheer size of it evokes bewilderment and slight terror. Its three-foot diameter is an overload to the human senses, and its bizarre blood red and white-speckled petals appear other-worldly compared to other flora.

What mutes these effects is the fact this particular Rafflesia arnoldii is a cardboard cutout of the real thing - a Halloween costume actually, says Southern Illinois University Carbondale plant biologist Daniel Nickrent, demonstrating its use by putting it over his head with a big grin.

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The real Rafflesia arnoldii, a parasitic flower native to southeastern Asia, can grow to become a 15-pound monstrosity, with a gaping maw at its center and capable of producing a scent somewhat like rotting flesh.

Nickrent has spent the last 16 years at SIUC studying parasitic plants such as Rafflesia, despite their odd quirks. Now, thanks to recently co-authoring an article with Harvard professor Charles Davis, Nickrent expects to see his research in print in the pages of Science magazine soon.

The article, Nickrent's first in Science, appeared Jan. 11 in the publication's online version. The selection of the article is prestigious, he said; he hopes it will be remembered by someone when it is time to submit grant proposals later this year.

"(Science) is extremely widely circulated and read," Nickrent said. "It's broad. I call it a magazine versus a journal because it tends to touch on a wide range of subjects of general interest. And, of course, they want to sell, so they can pick and choose what they want to feature."

The article points out a revelation in the world of plant science. It identifies that Rafflesia has common origins with the same group of plants that produce more common flowers, such as poinsettias and violets.

Nickrent said tracing Rafflesia's roots has always been difficult because it essentially lacks all of the key identifiers biologists use to classify flowers.

"The Rafflesia group has been one that's intrigued everybody; nobody knew quite where it belonged," Nickrent said.

The first cited discovery of Rafflesia came in 1818. The plant was named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffle, who was governor of Singapore at the time under British rule.

Rafflesia is only found in Southeast Asia, in the jungles of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, for instance. Even there, Nickrent, who has visited the area, said finding one of the flowers in full bloom doesn't happen that often.

"These are some of the rarer plants in the world. To find one in flower is a real treat," he said.

Southeast Asians believe the plant has medicinal value for postpartum women; hence some of the markets in the region are filled with crated Rafflesia buds. Nickrent said that trade could someday place the flower on an endangered list.

Nickrent plans to continue his research into Rafflesia, particularly into the genomes that make the plant the way it is. He is co-authoring a forthcoming book with Old Dominion University professor Lytton Musselman, "Parasitic Plants of the World."

In the meantime, Nickrent continues to chronicle his research on his Web site, "The Parasitic Plant Connection," accessible from the SIUC Web site.

Interim College of Science Dean Jim Tyrrell said the national recognition a published article in Science brings is a feather in the college's cap.

"That is a very positive step. Science is, without question, the leading publication of the specialized disciplines," Tyrrell said. "There are other people in the college who have published in Science � but this is not the usual run-of-the-mill science project; it is a bit distinctive."

Tyrrell said the College of Science has been doing well in recent years with external federal research funding. The college had a portfolio of $5.5 million in the 2001 fiscal year, and by last fiscal year the amount had risen to roughly $9 million.

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Published on: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 7:08 AM CST

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