In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Tarrant County newsmakers, Morgan Gostel digs into his efforts to document and preserve plant diversity worldwide as the director of the Global Genome Initiative for Gardens at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) in Fort Worth. The institute manages the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, located in the Cultural District.
Gostel is the co-author of a research article published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Green Plant Genomes: What We Know in an Era of Rapidly Expanding Opportunities.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Samsel: We can start with you telling me a little bit about how you came to the research institute. What drew you to this work and to take this job in 2018?
Gostel: Prior to joining BRIT, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. At the time, I was splitting my role as a postdoctoral researcher between two main projects, one focusing on plant diversity and evolution in the sunflower family, and the other half of my role was as program manager for this new program called the Global Genome Initiative for Gardens.
This GGI-Gardens program is something that had really never been attempted before. The idea was really the brainchild of my postdoctoral adviser, the late Dr. Vicki Funk. She had this idea that botanic gardens are highly underutilized for botanical research, despite being some of the most important sites of botanic diversity outside of plants’ natural habitat and providing researchers with a unique opportunity to utilize either living plant collections or have very easy access to fresh material. And this is increasingly important, as new sequencing technology has been developed that requires the use of plant tissue that has not become fragmented or degraded and can be used for the analysis of DNA.
Any time you remove part of a tissue from a living organism, you’re going to see a degradation take place. As soon as you remove tissue from something, if you pull a leaf off of a tree, the DNA is going to start degrading, it’s going to start fragmenting. Plants have very variable and complex genomes – in their genetic codes, we’ve recorded between about 65,000 base pairs all the way up to 150 billion base pairs. To overcome that challenge, researchers are attempting to sequence very long strands of DNA that have not fragmented, so it’s very important to have access to fresh material.
There are about 1.5 million specimens stored in the museum here. Coming out of my postdoc at the Smithsonian, the opportunity to join BRIT staff as a research botanist was really exciting to me, to have this opportunity to work at such a well esteemed organization with such an amazing collection for research purposes.
Samsel: I think people would have the question: What does your work look like on a day-to-day basis? What are the types of projects you’re working on during any given week?
Gostel: Every week, I have meetings with partners who work at botanic gardens all over the world, and they’re working with us to try to determine what parts of their collection are priorities for contributing to this larger genomic research effort. There are almost half a million species of plants on Earth, and so trying to figure out which one of those half a million species need to be collected from a particular botanic garden can get very complicated very quickly. One of the things that I’m often doing is scanning an inventory of what is growing in one of these botanic garden partner’s collections to determine whether or not it has ever been collected by another botanist or another researcher before for a genomics based research project.
I often joke with friends and family when they ask me for advice on their garden. “Why is my plant dying, and what can I do to help it?” And my answer is, well, I’m not the person you should be asking because my job is typically to go and either kill plants, or collect a plant and remove it from its living state in the natural environment to bring it back to a dead collection of plants.
Samsel: People have misconceptions about what it is that you do and don’t do.
Gostel: Absolutely … There is a lot of foundational work that is really required to understand how these plants might even be used for anything less abstract, which is what a lot of people ask me. “Oh, what does this mean for my life as a human? How does this relate to me?” That’s a difficult question to answer, especially when we don’t even know anything about a species of a plant, other than maybe its name. A lot of times, we don’t even know that.
A lot of my work day-to-day involves working in the laboratory, extracting DNA from plant tissues, analyzing plant DNA, sequencing it, so that we can decipher the genetic code and then compare that genetic code from different groups of plants to other different groups of plants to understand how they’re related to one another. This helps us understand what it might be that differs from one group of plants to another, how they’ve responded to their environment, or other features of their environment or habitat.
Sometimes this leads to breakthrough discoveries of who knows what: new medicines, new ways to pursue agricultural practices, to grow food. It helps with understanding how plants can adapt to their environment, so that we can maybe perform our essential functions as humans in society in a way that is in a healthier balance with ecosystem needs and services.
Samsel: You’ve talked about contributing to this mapping of the plant genome. Can you explain what the Earth BioGenome Project is and how you’re involved with it?
Gostel: This publication was part of a special feature in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which highlights the launch of this international partnership. It’s described as a “moonshot” because of the complexity and the amount of work that it’s going to take to accomplish. The Earth BioGenome Project’s mission is equivalent, if not even more difficult or ambitious, than it was to think about putting a person on the moon over 50 years ago.
I think the easiest way to describe it is to imagine trying to form a network of researchers that only focuses on the green plant tree of life. Another network might be focusing on insects and another network might be focusing on mammals, another network on fishes, and so on and so forth. In our network, what we’re trying to do is create a roadmap for how we can achieve this mission of the Earth BioGenome Project, to sequence all genomes from all species on this particular branch of the tree of life, the plant tree of life.
We live at a time where biological research is able to ask and answer questions that have the potential to completely change life as we know it in unforeseen and amazing ways by understanding the information that is in an organism’s genome.
Samsel: That’s not a short stack of goals y’all are trying to accomplish.
Gostel: I can give one quick example. Right now, we’ve been living under this shadow of a pandemic with COVID-19 for about two years. Our ability to understand how these viruses can change – how they mutate and how they evolve and spread – really comes down to using a similar structure of networks within networks that allow us to sequence their genomes, thousands and thousands of them every day, to understand how that virus is changing.
This is something that researchers all over the world have been doing for decades. It’s extremely similar to what we’re talking about doing with the genome project. The only difference is we’re talking about millions of species on Earth, and a considerable increase in the level of complexity because the genomes are much larger in the vast majority of these species of eukaryotes (all living organisms other than types of bacteria) compared with viruses.
Samsel: Given what you know about the roadmap for achieving this “moonshot” in the next 10 years, do you think the goal of sequencing all these genomes is possible?
Gostel: I do think it’s possible. Otherwise, why do it? It’s ambitious; there’s no pretending it’s not. It will take a lot of international collaboration. It will take a renewed investment in science and in research, something akin to a renaissance for science in a similar way to other renaissances that we have seen throughout human history. But it is necessary. It comes at a critical time for biodiversity and understanding global change and what is happening on our planet.
We know that we are losing species before we even know what they are, and to me that’s unforgivable and it’s the worst tragedy I can imagine for us as stewards of this planet. We’re living in the midst of what’s called a sixth mass extinction. We know that species are going extinct. It’s difficult to quantify, to put it in numbers, just how much is being lost on a daily basis, but we know it’s happening at an extraordinary pace.
The Earth BioGenome Project’s mission, once fulfilled, will be such a boon for humanity. If we’re the stewards of this planet, we need to understand what’s out there, and that really starts with this project. It’s exciting to lead one of the large efforts to make it possible.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.