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News Release 96-017

Research Group Cultivating Family Tree of Plant Life

Green plants-- and the biologists who study their evolution--are getting organized.

April 30, 1996

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

The push is coming from a group of plant biologists, sponsored by a tri-agency (NSF/DOE/USDA) joint program, who want to help clean up the welter of different systems that scientists use for classifying and naming plants. In the process they hope to make the entire study of plants a bit more efficient.

"Green plants represent some of the amazing diversities that evolution has produced," says Machi Dilworth, director of NSF's integrated plant biology program. "Life on earth as we know it could not exist without green plants."

The Green Plant Phylogeny Research Coordination Group (GPPRCG) is helping scientists determine the correct arrangement of hundreds of species of green plants according to evolutionary history--for example, connecting green algae with early land plants such as mosses, liverworts and hornworts.

In the process of discovering the plants' proper places, GPPRCG expects to link the laboratories and research efforts of scientists across the United States and abroad. In addition, GPPRCG is coordinating data-gathering activities, facilitating the use of data bases for morphologic and molecular information, exploring new approaches to green plant phylogeny analysis, and finding new mechanisms to disseminate data to researchers, teachers and students.

Benefits of the project include:

  • insights into the mysteries that still surround development of life on earth;

  • enhancements to pharmaceutical research, which often relies on finding close relatives to flora with known medicinal value;

  • improved clarity in the presentation of green plant taxonomy in textbooks;

  • more efficient ways for plant biologists to select research topics.

In the GPPRCG meetings held to date, plant biologists discussed how research topics should be chosen. So far, the consensus is clear: not the way they're chosen now.

"Very often, the selection of the plants to be studied is guided by the interests of the researcher and the local availability of samples. Thus, the best exemplar taxa are not always included in the study," says Dilworth.

The need to get organized and set priorities is made more pressing, Dilworth notes, by recent advances in gene sequencing and the resulting avalanche of new information.


Media Contacts
Cheryl L. Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

Program Contacts
Machi F. Dilworth, NSF, (703) 292-8470, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, its budget is $8.1 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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