Jul 18

Rare NSW orchid sent to the Netherlands for genetic testing

The Eastern Underground Orchid Photo: Supplied The Eastern Underground Orchid Photo: Supplied

The Eastern Underground Orchid Photo: Supplied

The Eastern Underground Orchid Photo: Supplied

Is a plant really a plant if it has no leaves, no roots and grows underground?

Samples of a rare breed of orchid found in only a handful of locations in NSW have been sent to the Netherlands for genetic testing to determine the plant’s uniqueness.

The eastern underground orchid is one of a very small number of plants found around the world that cannot photosynthesis.

“The vulnerable NSW orchid does not get its energy from the sun, lacks roots and leaves, and instead relies on fungus to act as its substitute root system and to provide it with food,” said Greg Steenbeeke, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage senior threatened species officer.

Sequencing the plant’s genetic blueprint will help botanists compare it with other non-photosynthesising plants to understand how they evolved and moved across the world, Mr Steenbeeke said.

It may also reveal what type of habitat is preferred by the enigmatic orchid, which flowers from September to November, he said.

Once sequenced, the plant’s genetic code would be included in a global database, called Genbank, where sequences from other eastern underground orchids may be added in the future and used to map the variation between individual plants.

That plant species maintain the genetic differences they already have is necessary for their survival as the globe warms.

Plant evolutionary biologist Angela Moles said there were two ways plants could adapt to climate change, they could migrate to stay within their preferred climate zone at the moment, or they can adapt to their new environment.

“From paleo records, it looks like adapting in situ is the main thing species do, [which means] maintaining genetic variation is essential to have that ability to adapt,” said Professor Moles, from the University of NSW.

Genetic research helps unlock the natural genetic diversity of plants and identify the populations best able to cope with changing climate conditions.

A principal research scientist at the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, Maurizio Rossetto, said people were starting to understand the potential of genetics in plant conservation.

Advances in technology, including next generation sequencing, had made this research faster and cheaper than previously thought possible, said Dr Rossetto.

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