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Plants will survive anything | Interview with prof. Adam Rostański

28.10.2022 - 09:27 update 03.11.2022 - 12:09
Editors: wcyg
Tags: biological sciences

Prof. dr hab. Adam Rostański trzymający roślinę na polanie

Prof. Adam Rostański | private archive

| Weronika Cygan |

Every day we walk past hundreds of species, many of us keep a few at home, but we rarely pay greater attention to them. However, it is worth considering how much we owe to plants and how incredibly interesting they can be. 2022 has been declared the Year of Botany, and therefore, it is a good time to look a little more closely at the greenery around us. Prof. Adam Rostański from the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Silesia, the president of the Polish Botanical Society in 2013–2019.

WERONIKA CYGAN: The Year of Botany is closely related to the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Polish Botanical Society, of which you are an active member and a former president. How has the nature of the Society changed over these 100 years and what projects are currently being implemented?

PROF. ADAM ROSTAŃSKI: After Poland regained independence, a scientific and university movement, including representatives of botany, began to organise in the country. The goal of the society was recreating botanical knowledge in the new country, supporting young researchers, popularising science and developing botany as a scientific field. Since then, the organisation still exists and is doing well. At the moment, it has nearly 1000 members and brings together mainly professional botanists. The Year of Botany aims to draw people’s attention to the role of plants in nature and our lives. Botany is a fairly wide field due to the fact that it covers an important part of the living world – plants. Of course, botany is composed of different levels of research: from research at the molecular level, through species identification and description, to research involving plant assemblages in (as we would say in the pre-war style) “plant societies”. Since January we have been running a series of webinars available on our website until the end of this year. They cover various topics: plants living in extreme conditions of the Arctic or Antarctic, plant allergens, the use of plants in remediation of pollutants, aspects of nature protection or the impact of invasive species on changes in flora. There is one lecture held each month.

WERONIKA CYGAN: People like nature – they go for walks in parks, they go to the seaside or to the mountains, where there are plenty of plants, but many of them assume: “Nice plant, but do I really need to know what it’s called and what role it plays in the ecosystem?” Why is botanical knowledge important?

PROF. ADAM ROSTAŃSKI: In the past, ordinary people knew much more about plants than they do today. However, more and more often there are people interested in whether “something” from their own neighborhood, or from a pot on their balcony, is edible. It is a trend that has been fashionable in recent years, so the knowledge on how to recognise plants cannot be ignored here. We know that not only meat or other animal products, but also the plant-based ones, are the main food source and should constitute a major part of our menu. Cereals are an important pillar of our modern diet, but knowledge about them and other food plants has been built up over thousands of years. As far as human history goes, humans have dealt with these plants. There are also many plants, even with medicinal or poisonous properties, which have often played the role of a political weapon, or their value has been compared to the value of gold. Today, we also use this knowledge in phytotherapy, pharmaceuticals and the production of many medicines. Looking more broadly, the role of plants in the global ecosystem is intensively researched. It turns out that even small organisms can be of great importance in its functioning – they are a link in the food chain or energy flow. We still know little about how all species are related, but more and more relationships, even the most astonishing ones, are discovered all the time. It would seem that one plant has nothing to do with another, and yet some plants are able to support each other in difficult living conditions. In addition, there are fungi and other microorganisms that complement this global ecosystem and play a huge role in it. The mechanisms taking place here are extremely important and interesting.

WERONIKA CYGAN: In July this year, James Lovelock, the co-creator of the Gaia hypothesis, passed away. According to the hypothesis, even harmful human activities are not able to endanger life on Earth, because the planet “cares” for optimal conditions for us. How flexible are plants? Can we really be assured of their fate?

PROF. ADAM ROSTAŃSKI: I think we can. Plants have many survival mechanisms. Humans and more “developed” animals are so advanced in evolution that they have to put a lot of effort into protecting their lifestyle, because any other specimen or factor may cause their threat and death. Humans break out of this pattern a bit, because they also use their mind, and they are able to use various elements of the environment to their advantage. Plants, on the other hand, have a number of mechanisms, perhaps much simpler, but adapting them to life in extreme conditions. They can survive several years of complete drought, abandon saxual reproduction in favour of vegetative, asexual reproduction, and thus slow down the evolutionary development, and at the same time keep their offspring and their genotype alive. They can even reconstruct their organisms from small fragments. I think that plants have a lot of resistance that can indeed be weakened and destroyed, but only in extreme conditions. If the temperature rises above 60-80 degrees Celsius, this will cause a situation in which hardly any organism will be able to survive, except for thermophiles or extreme thermophiles. Nature is a great book that proclaims: “One comes, one goes”. Plants possess a lot of potential to survive the worst.

WERONIKA CYGAN: Seals, pandas, meerkats, capybaras – cute animals seem to be an ace in the sleeve of zoologists who can effectively attract attention with them and interest the public in the topic of nature protection with their help. Do botanists have such an attraction? Isn’t it more difficult to turn a plant into a symbol of caring for nature?

PROF. ADAM ROSTAŃSKI: Our job is more difficult. Animals affect humans in such a way that they are immediately better perceived, especially by children. It’s not necessarily their fluffy fur that arouses our interest. They can be terrible or awful for some people, such as spiders or various insects. Plants do not actually strike fear that would cause more interest. However, they have certain elements that can also be used in science popularisation, for example, the organs of reproduction of flowering plants, i.e. the flowers themselves. People like them because they are usually beautiful and smell nice. We are able to indicate such icons, even among rare plants, that can be part of our care for the environment. For example, the golden-headed lily that can be found in our forests – a rare and protected species, or tile gladiolus – similar to those that we can buy in flower shops, but growing wild in meadows. There are also beautiful irises. Such plants are called “charismatic species” – plants that draw people’s attention. At the same time, they can act as “umbrellas”: if we protect these specimens, we also protect their entire environment and a number of other organisms.

Rzodkiewnik Hallera (Arabidopsis halleri)

Arabidopsis halleri | photo: Hermann Schachner, public source

WERONIKA CYGAN: Among the numerous threats to terrestrial ecosystems, invasive species that enter new areas as a result of climate change or human activity are often indicated. Anyway, are they really unwanted? Maybe they should be viewed as winners whom evolution has provided the best tools?

PROF. ADAM ROSTAŃSKI: It is a difficult question – even for me. On one hand, people always want to take care of what they saw and what they remember – for example their native landscapes. New alien species also have mechanisms that enable them to reproduce as efficiently as possible, and occupy as large an area as possible. Then, a question appears – is it good or bad? We can view them as a threat, the cause of elimination of other species, expansion of the acreage at the expense of other organisms. On the other hand, we may wonder why they are doing so well. Hasn’t evolution equipped them at this very moment to spread when they have the opportunity? Perhaps worse is the fact that humans often foster the spread of these species – their movement from place to place can accelerate the entire process by 150-200 years or even by several thousand. Plants migration would normally be hampered by the by geographic and climatic conditions, but people have broken all these barriers. We transmit fragments of environments with us, and spread species that, in the new conditions, often do not have natural enemies, and at the same time they can multiply quickly, taking over a larger area. This is wehere the threat comes from. On the scale of evolution, it’s about a few centuries – just a tiny slice of time actually. Meanwhile, the transformation of the world’s plant cover has been taking place on land in a very dynamic way for millions of years, but people have significantly accelerated these processes.

WERONIKA CYGAN: In Upper Silesia, people left a strong mark in the form of heavy industry, mines and steel mills. Does history make our region biologically unique?

PROF. ADAM ROSTAŃSKI: Yes and no. On the one hand, this type of industrial impact is visible in various parts of the world. In the 19th century, Silesia was the biggest zinc and lead producer in the world – and this is what distinguishes us. There are many keepsakes from this period. We can evaluate them in different ways. Some of them, such as coal waste, are problematic in terms of weight and footprint, but not as problematic when it comes to their harmfulness to the environment. Of course, some of these areas are saline, but over time the salts are washed away and end up in the surface waters. Rocks extracted from the depth break up on the surface of the earth and slowly penetrate our landscape, enriching the ecosystem and covering with greenery. After a dozen years, such places may become unrecongisable. However, the effects that eliminate living organisms are worse. They are caused by the high concentration of certain toxic substances in quantities that normally do not occur in nature, or occur only in certain places. We know some areas in the world where the concentration of toxic elements is high – and plants live there too, but they are quite special. In such places we usually find endemic species that have adapted to life in these extremely difficult conditions for hundreds of thousands of years.

WERONIKA CYGAN: Have such specific, well-adapted plants also appeared in Poland?

PROF. ADAM ROSTAŃSKI: Of course. In Silesia we have lots of places and plants that I find extremely interesting. And by the way, they can look good! For example, calamine grasslands with many heavy metals in the ground. A sparse (although not always) plant community, composed of species adapted to high concentrations of toxic substances, such as heavy metals, can grow in such areas. They are mostly the leftovers of what has been once excavated from the ground, processed and left together with the highly toxic waste. It’s good if harmful substances do not penetrate the substrate and poison the groundwater. These areas have been dominated by plants with quite interesting biology, usually rare, which also guarantee local phytostabilisation – they maintain this substrate, and also hinder the spread of toxins by the wind. They live quietly, peacefully and lead their difficult, arduous everyday life. Two years ago, my colleagues and I managed to describe the subspecies of the Wójcicki Biscutella laevigata – in honor of Prof. Zygmunt Wójcicki, founder of the Polish Botanical Society. The plant grows in the vicinity of Olkusz and Bolesław and is adapted to life in difficult conditions in the presence of heavy metals. In the past, it was believed to come from a population from the higher parts of the mountains, as this species grows in the Tatras, the Alps and the Pyrenees. However, in Silesia it grows at lower altitudes. It has probably been isolated for several thousand years, and it is possible that it did not even come to us from the mountains. It is also possible that it comes from the times when the glacier changed the landscape of Europe. Anyway, the remains of this species are found in postglacial sediments from several thousand years ago. We can think that it is a separate subspecies that has evolved here – genetic studies have confirmed this. The result of this research was published in 2020, with the Year of Botany in mind: and that is why the plant is one of the symbols of our celebration of this event.

WERONIKA CYGAN: At the end, I would like to ask you a personal question: what is your favourite plant?

PROF. ADAM ROSTAŃSKI: There are some plants that I have a personal relationship with. The first plant that comes to my mind is the one that my father took care of – Evening Primrose. Although I don’t like the Polish name “wiesiołek dwuletni” very much. I prefer the Latin name “Oenothera biennis” or the English – “Evening Primrose” or the German – “Gemeine Nachtker”, meaning ‘night candle’ – because the plant blooms in the evening and attracts insects with a beautiful scent at night. Evening primroses are practically everywhere in our country and Europe, although most of them came from America, so they are “aliens”. The second is the buckler-mustard – biscutella laevigata that we have already talked about. Its biology and history of occurrence opened up new horizons for thinking about how plants could exploit their potential and escape from the environment transformed by man to post-industrial areas, where they found their place. The third spiecies I can think of is Arabidopsis halleri – a metallophyte. It is a professional flaw! This plant is usually found in Poland in the mountains, but is also often found on a substrate rich in zinc or with a high concentration of other heavy metals. We can say that the plant acts as an indicator of the occurrence of heavy metals. We still conduct research on the species. Interestingly, it is a mountain plant that occurs in Poland in lowlands, only in the Silesian Upland and usually where we have a lot of zinc, lead and cadmium.

WERONIKA CYGAN: Thank you for the interview.

The article “Plants will survive anything” has been published in the October issue of “Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ” (University of Silesia Magazine) 1(301).

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