DNA tests reveal plant species thought to be extinct

By Brooks Hays  |  Jan. 8, 2018 at 4:07 PM
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Jan. 8 (UPI) -- With the help of DNA testing, researchers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis have rediscovered a plant species thought to be extinct.

Dracaena umbraculifera was initially described in 1797. It was believed to be native to Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean, 1,200 miles from the coast of southern Africa. After multiple attempts to locate the species on Mauritius, botanists declared the species extinct.

Despite the declaration, D. umbraculifera continued to be cultivated at botanical gardens around the world.

Researchers at the Missouri Botanical Garden set out to determine where the species truly originated and whether the species really was extinct in the wild. Scientists began by sequencing the species genome and comparing it to its closest relatives. Their analysis showed D. umbraculifera is more closely related to Dracaena reflexa, a plant species found in Madagascar, than similar species from Mauritius.

The new genetic data inspired a renewed search for the species on Madagascar, another African island in the Indian Ocean, west of Mauritius. Botanists there located five wild populations of the species.

Researchers say their work -- published this week in the journal Oryx -- highlights the importance of documenting the plant and animal species of Madagascar and other islands of the western Indian Ocean.

Almost 90 percent of the plant species found on Madagascar are endemic, meaning they're found nowhere else. But many are endangered as a result of deforestation.

Scientists hope additional research will inspire more vigorous conservation efforts on the island.

"This project is a great example of how DNA analysis can be used to both bring new value to botanical garden collections and to make new discoveries," Christine Edwards, a researcher at the Missouri Botanical Garden, said in a news release. "It is particularly exciting because it is rare to have the opportunity to rediscover a species that hasn't been seen in the wild for 200 years."

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