The Roundup: The life of plants

Somewhere near the North Pole, deep within a frozen sandstone mountain, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The vault has some doomsday overtones: It’s intended to house a wide variety of plant seeds for use in the event of a global crisis.

That vault may seem like the lair of some James Bond supervillain. But it the wake of disaster, it may just save Earth’s biodiversity. The site is part of a broader conservation strategy known as “ex situ conservation,” or “off-site conservation.”

Students in Dr. Jeremie Fant and Dr. Stuart Wagenius’ Conservation Genetics course at Northwestern University expanded that article as it relates to plants. Together, the class outlined a few forms of ex situ conservation.

Such forms include freezing seeds in liquid nitrogen (cryopreservation), or allowing seeds to bloom and propagate in a restricted environment.

Preserving seeds in this way creates a kind of living library, and so it serves as an appropriate metaphor for Wikipedia. Students in plant biology and botany courses have developed a wealth of knowledge for current and future generations.

For example, the world has a better understanding of how plants gravitate toward sunlight, or at least, away from shade. That’s thanks to students at the University of Washington, Seattle’s Plant Behavior course, led by Dr. Liz Van Volkenburgh.

Student editors expanded the article’s coverage to better explain how plants sense shade. It includes the fascinating tidbit that plants can tell the difference between a shadow cast by an inanimate object and the shade of other plants. The spectrum of a plant’s shadow reveals this information, which helps make plants aware of local competitors.

Finally, students helped understand the use of seeds when they aren’t being locked up in a frozen tundra. One group created the article on Peri-urban agriculture, that is, growing food on the fringes of cities. They outlined the benefits and challenges of the practice. For example: It can help capture carbon in the air around cities and provide much-needed green space. On the other hand, not all agriculture is pleasant for neighbors, and resources need to be carefully allocated. In any event, the world now has a well-rounded understanding of the practice thanks to students in Dr. Cecelia Musselman’s “Advanced Writing for Environmental Science” course at Northeastern University.

The possibilities for expanding and improving information about plants, agriculture, and botany on Wikipedia are clear. And our Year of Science initiative is a great way to get involved. If you’d like to find out how your class can get started editing Wikipedia articles on similar topics, reach out! Send a message to

Photo: Global Seed Vault, by MiksuOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0


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