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Parasitic plant research leads to article
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.
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
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
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.
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.
said tracing Rafflesia's roots has always been difficult because it
essentially lacks all of the key identifiers biologists use to classify
"The Rafflesia group has been one that's intrigued everybody; nobody knew quite where it belonged," Nickrent said.
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.
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."
the meantime, Nickrent continues to chronicle his research on his Web
site, "The Parasitic Plant Connection," accessible from the SIUC Web
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 ï¿½ 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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