Plant Science

What is plant science?

Plant science, or botany, is the study of plants, fungi and algae, and their structure, functions and processes. Plants are studied on a range of scales from individual plant cells and tissues within a plant, to whole plants, to populations and communities of plants. Plant science is broad and interdisciplinary, and covers a wide range of disciplines, including biology, chemistry, ecology, taxonomy, genetics and evolutionary biology.

What do we already know about plants?

We know that plants evolved over 100 million years ago, and there are now an estimated 380,000 known species of plants. Plants are the primary producers in most ecosystems and form the basis of most food webs in these ecosystems. They play a fundamental role in global cycles, including the cycling of water, air, carbon and nutrients.

Most plants share a basic structure of roots, stems and leaves. The roots draw water and nutrients from the soil into the plant, as well as supporting the plant and stabilising soils. The stems transport food and water, and also supports the plant. The leaves contain a pigment called chlorophyll that absorbs light energy, which is then used for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants obtain their energy by converting light energy, water and carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen. The glucose produced is then stored as starch. Plants also need nutrients, such as nitrogen, magnesium and potassium, for healthy growth. The speed of photosynthesis and hence plant growth is determined by environmental factors, such as temperature, light intensity, carbon dioxide, water and nutrients.

Why is it important to study plants?

Plants are the foundation of most of the world’s ecosystems and are a vital resource. They provide us with food and drink, oxygen, shelter, fuel, medicines and materials; help to regulate climate, clean the air and water, and stabilise soils; and are a key part of the world’s natural scenic beauty. About 20% of known plant species are threatened with extinction. Studying plants is an important part of environmental and resource management, conservation and sustainability, and helps to inform our understanding of the impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss and invasive species on ecosystem function.

What research is being done?

Research on plants encompasses studies on how many species exist, how they are distributed, the ecosystem services they provide, their growth, structure and function, their interaction with the environment and their response to changing environmental conditions, how they reproduce, their metabolism and chemical products, and their role in cycling nutrients, water, carbon dioxide, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and energy. Plant studies also include research on diseases, evolutionary relationships, genetics, biofuels, crop production, past climate, and more.

How are plants studied?

As in Darwin’s day, an important — perhaps still the most important — technique in plant research is the venturing into Earth’s diverse habitats to observe and collect specimens. Nowadays this is coupled with sophisticated techniques, such as optical and electron microscopy, DNA sequencing, molecular genetic analyses, chromatography, electrophoresis, spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography.

Where can I find out more?

Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

Garden Museum

Botanical Society of America

If you want to get involved with our plant research, or any other part of the HMS Beagle Project’s science programme, please contact us.