Botanist returns after liaison year at Kew Gardens

Published 23 October 2008

jeremybruhl.jpgA botanist from the University of New England has returned from London after completing a year-long appointment as Australian Botanical Liaison Officer (ABLO), based at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Associate Professor Jeremy Bruhl (pictured here) is the first person from a university to have been appointed by the Australian Government to the position of ABLO – the representative at Kew of the Australian and New Zealand botanical communities.

Dr Bruhl found the role of ABLO “a great experience”. “It takes you to wonderful places and circumstances,” he said. “There’s the location itself: Kew Gardens has one of the largest and most important herbaria in the world, with more than seven million dried and pressed plant specimens – including 350,000 “type” specimens (i.e., the actual specimens referred to in the original descriptions of the species).

“Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory is a leading centre for the study of plant anatomy and development and molecular systematics. It has a strong team of world-class botanists, and its library provides fantastic access to botanical literature – from medieval herbals to electronic research journals. Kew also has very rich and diverse art, archives, and economic botany collections, and the Gardens themselves have a larger collection of living plants than any other botanic garden in the world. All this makes Kew an international hub for students and researchers, welcoming many visitors every week.”

“As ABLO, you get a broad range of inquiries,” Dr Bruhl explained. “One botanist asked me to check the length of a part of a plant collected hundreds of years ago and kept in Linnaeus’ herbarium. I got requests for literature not held in any Australian library – requests that took me to obscure journals and fascinating old monographs. Several tasks were to help find specimens for use in ABC and BBC films and television programs. I also had to track down the earliest collections of some species made in Australia – for use in court cases hinging on whether a particular plant was ‘native’ or ‘naturalised’.

“The ABLO is the facilitator of research visits to Kew by Australian and New Zealand botanists, historians, and botanical artists, who may need – along the way – to handle plant specimens collected by Banks and Solander at Botany Bay in 1770, or specimens collected by Robert Brown in the early 1800s or Darwin in the 1830s.”

The work of dealing with botanical inquiries from Australia and New  Zealand takes up half of the ABLO’s time; the other half is devoted to the pursuit of their own research, using all the resources that Kew has to offer.

Working in a Jodrell molecular laboratory, and collaborating as team leader with scientists at Kew and the NSW Herbarium, and in Western Australia, South  Africa and Hawai’i, Dr Bruhl was able to take his career-long study of evolutionary relationships within the sedge family (Cyperaceae) to a new level. “We showed quite clearly the taxonomic limits of a major Southern Hemisphere tribe (Schoeneae) of the sedge family,” he said, “and that many of its larger genera are in need of reclassification.”

He achieved this result through a process of extracting DNA from ground-up plant samples that he and his colleagues have collected from around the world, sequencing several gene regions and using these data to estimate evolutionary relationships. “It’s the first broad-ranging analysis of the Schoeneae using this approach,” he said.

In another study, conducted with the help of a scanning electron microscope and in collaboration with colleagues at the Jodrell Laboratory, Florida International University and the Botanic Gardens Trust Sydney, he investigated the flowers of a species of sedge that have always puzzled botanists. “We were able to get a picture of the plant’s floral development, and to hypothesise that the structures that look like flowers are really clusters of flowers,” he said. He presented the results of both these studies at the 4th International Monocot Conference, in Copenhagen, in August this year, before returning to Australia with his family.

As well as having constant access to the Kew herbarium, Dr Bruhl had the opportunity to visit significant herbaria throughout Europe. These included the herbaria at the Natural History Museum and the Linnaean Society in London, the herbarium of Cambridge University, and herbaria in Edinburgh, Paris, Prague, Barcelona, Zurich, Florence, Leiden, Lund, and Copenhagen. He also went on a week-long trip to Brazil with a colleague from Kew to present a talk at the Brazilian Botanical Congress at San Paulo and join a small international group of Cyperaceae colleagues on a few days of fieldwork on the Brazilian Shield, near Diamontina.

“The ABLO position, which is maintained and co-funded by the Australian Biological Resources Study of the Commonwealth Government, provides a highly useful resource for Australian and New Zealand botanists,” Dr Bruhl said, “and, of course, is a fantastic opportunity for professional development for the individual. It’s a tribute to UNE that it was the first university to support a staff member on the year-long sabbatical to Kew. I am particularly grateful to my colleagues in UNE Botany, the Botanic Gardens Trust Sydney and the Australian Museum for dealing with my teaching during my absence.”

Dr Bruhl is the Director of the N.C.W. Beadle Herbarium (NE) at UNE. During his year as ABLO, he was able to see how some of the great European herbaria approach the organisation of their collections. “I’ve been reflecting on that experience, and its possible application to what I do here,” he said. “There are lessons to be learnt, but our smaller size – about 80,000 herbarium specimens – has given us more chance to develop NE into a model herbarium.”

“At Kew and the other institutions,” he said, “it was wonderful being with so many taxonomic botanists who understand the importance to society of our work in the scientific discovery of species and the study of their relationships. I guess the challenge that remains is to convey to the public and politicians that the job is far from done, and that the maintenance of natural and agricultural systems depends on that knowledge.”

Jeremy Bruhl will present a talk about his experiences as Australian Botanical Liaison Officer tomorrow (Friday 24 October) at 12 noon in the Paul Barratt Lecture Theatre.

THE PHOTOGRAPH of Associate Professor Jeremy Bruhl displayed here expands to show him in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (Photo by Barbara Makinder.)