Endangered Plants and the Earth's Future
Cal State East Bay's Green Biome Institute is sequencing the genomes of the mysterious and disappearing plants that could benefit humans
California native plants are disappearing.
More than 10 years ago, scientists predicted that over half of California's 2,300-plus endemic plants would be significantly reduced. Just last year, the Department of Fish and Wildlife reported 136 endangered, 22 threatened and 64 rare state-listed species in California, with 122 listed as endangered or threatened at both the state and federal level.
Little is known about these plants, particularly at the molecular level, despite many of them being used by Indigenous peoples of California for thousands of years to treat and prevent illness.
Cal State East Bay's Green Biome Institute is aiming to change that.
"A genome is what defines us and gives us our individual characteristics, our eye color, our hair color," said Melis Akman, staff scientist with GBI. "In plants, that can mean their tolerance to drought or whether they're going to be successful in a particular environment. So having this information is helpful in ensuring we are increasing and conserving the highest genetic diversity possible."
Founded in 2019, the Green Biome Institute, the first of its kind in the California State University system, aims to preserve the genetic diversity of plants in California and contribute to the discovery of new or useful biological processes that can improve human lives. Researchers ask: What if an endangered plant could help cure cancer? Or survive poor soil? Or provide insight into why some plants have a higher tolerance for drought?
One such plant: Manzanita.
The shrub or small tree-like plant found throughout the Western United States and Mexico is the common name for many species of the genus “Arctostaphylos.” Known for their smooth orange-red bark and stiff and twisted branches, manzanita can survive with very little water and poor soil.
And for Indigenous people in what is now Northern California, manzanita leaves and berries have been used for generations to treat everything from mild urinary tract infections to stomach ailments, skin sores and headaches. This means they may hold information scientists can use to treat any number of infections, rapidly growing resistant to common medications and antibiotics.
"Various species of manzanita have been used by indigenous people of California for centuries, so we are taking what we know from those widely used species and comparing it to the species we know very little about," said Ana Almeida, assistant professor of biological sciences. "There is one manzanita that is already commercialized for use in treating urinary tract infections and in the cosmetic industry for lightening creams."
It's a phenomenon that has long fascinated Almeida, who has a background in biology and medicine, and her students. One of those students comes from a line of Mexican women who have long used native plants to treat a variety of illnesses and woes.
Alejandra Moreno, a student-researcher funded by the College of Science Student Research Assistant program and Cal State East Bay's Center for Student Research, has long known she wanted to be a doctor. The first-generation Mexican-American grew up watching family who didn't have access to healthcare in the United States travel back to Mexico for care or find their own ways to treat ailments at home.
"My family and generations before me have used herbal medicine," Moreno said. "It's so common, and I grew up hearing my grandma say 'go outside to your garden, find this plant, make a tea and drink it.'"
Now, with a goal of working as a doctor at the intersection of preventative medicine and underserved communities, Moreno is exploring the science behind native knowledge.
In the coming weeks, she and Almeida will be working on a process known as Kirby-Bauer antimicrobial disc diffusion - streaking plates with bacteria found in UTIs and then placing paper disks coated in plant samples to measure susceptibility to the antibiotics naturally occurring in the manzanita.
"When I first saw that manzanita could be used to treat UTIs, I was like 'no way,'” Moreno said, adding she’d hear many common infections have become increasingly antibiotic-resistant in recent years, leading researchers to find a new way to treat them. "Antibiotic resistance is becoming an emerging public health issue, not just for UTIs, but other infections and diseases like tuberculosis have become not only antibiotic-resistant, but multidrug resistant, which means the search for new, medicinal treatments is imperative."
Plus, Moreno said in a way, her research honors not only her roots but those native to what is now California.
"I'm not the first person to do medicinal plant research, it's already been done for years, but we are expanding on that knowledge and giving homage to the indigenous communities, acknowledging and honoring them and that knowledge," Moreno said.
Since its inception, partnerships with private donors, botanical gardens and industry leaders have been at the heart of GBI.
The institute, which will be housed in the forthcoming $30 million Applied Sciences Center, was seed-funded through a gift from alumnus and Cal State East Bay Educational Foundation member Randy Davis (BS '02 Biological Sciences; MS '06, Biological Sciences) and his wife Pat as part of the university's first comprehensive capital campaign.
Earlier this year, the institute was awarded a $50,000 grant from California-based Illumina Corporate Foundation, a private nonprofit whose mission is to accelerate access to genomics and inspire a passion for science by investing in genomic literacy through STEM education programs.
The funding will provide training for 10 high school, 60 undergraduate and two graduate students for a project that will ultimately create a GBI Germplasm Bank, a collection of live plant materials. Dubbed the “GBI-Illumina for Conservation Program,” the one-year effort will focus on student-researchers using Illumina sequencing systems to establish protocols for the creation of genome-level data on several endangered, threatened or rare California plants.
The eventual GBI Germplasm Bank will house plant materials that scientists can use for years to come.
"In a futuristic sense, the germplasm bank could help us resurrect some of these plants … it might be years, but we might be able to look at the genome and say 'let's put these genes in a sister species and see if we can get the sister species to act like the extinct one," Akman said. "It's amazing to think about what we could learn in the next decades; it gives me the goosebumps."
In addition to corporate partners, GBI is working with several botanical gardens throughout the state as well as the California Native Plant Society, groups who are working to propagate native California plants, but may not have the resources or skills to genetically sequence them.
"It's beneficial to us because we wouldn't have the specimens we need if we didn't partner with them, but it's also beneficial to them as this information can be useful for their conservation and management programs," Akman said.
For California’s future
The partnerships also mean students working as researchers with GBI are involved in hands-on opportunities to develop skills with cutting-edge technology used daily in the industry. Faculty say this increases their students’ competitiveness in the job market, particularly within the biotech field, which is expected to grow exponentially in the next 10 years.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, California is projected to have nearly 10 percent of the nation's STEM jobs by 2022. Labor trends predict job growth in health, biomedical and environmental industries by an average of 33 percent over a 10-year span.
By engaging high school, undergraduate and graduate students in hands-on research using industry technology, GBI not only prepares students for those jobs, but faculty also say it contributes to the creation of a diverse regional workforce for biotech and related industries.
"It means we can potentially have students with a more direct pipeline to industry jobs and post-graduation work and also create a connection to Cal State East Bay," Almeida said. "The grant also means students are able to work with technology [such as that developed by Illumina] without having to go to outside companies or having to have additional jobs to support themselves while they work on their research."
And the research they're doing now is what students are likely to encounter once they graduate.
"In the Bay Area, especially in the biotech industry, there's a lot of potential for this research, especially around native plants," Almeida said. "In our lab, we are using highly technical molecular techniques, all of which are widely used in industry, which is helping them become more competitive."
Not to mention, the faculty and students involved in GBI know they're contributing to the future of California and the state's ability to handle an ever-longer fire season, drought and other natural disasters.
"As the climate changes, as fires rage through the state more frequently, we're looking toward a not very bright future," Almeida said. "If we can contribute to the research around that and show the potential of students and what we can do, we have an incredible opportunity."
"We are doing this for California," she said.