It’s not news that humankind depends on plants. Food, fuel and medication are just some of the valuable resources provided by this precious green matter. Yet we give little thought to the reality of plants’ silent extinction. Often it is because conservationists themselves take their time before disclosing to the general public that a particular plant has completely disappeared. The reason for the delay? Hope! Hope that the specimen will be hidden within a bush or growing a few kilometers away underneath a rock, or that it will simply be able to flourish again due to an unknown resilience feature not previously studied. Well, in the broader perspective, the ultimate outcome is that different species are exiting our planet without us even getting a proper look at them. As diversity shrinks, the discovery of potential chemicals to treat modern diseases does, too. My research intends to protect the edible wild plant community from extinction, although at this time only on a local scale.

Algarve is a region in south Portugal with a dry and sunny microclimate known mostly for its beach paradises. It is home to hundreds of wild species, too, giving a stunning touch to the landscape. In my research, I am particularly engaged in studying neglected and underutilized edible plants, such as Helichrysum italicum subsp. picardii Franco or Thymus lotocephalus (G. López & R. Morales). Their yellow and purple flowers not only embellish the hills but are also source of phenolics, molecules that have a cool feature: antioxidant properties. After screening the plant candidates at a chemical level, we choose molecules that deserve a deeper look. These may have anti-cancer properties, for example, so we test them in vitro before speculating further. We are also studying the possibility of producing certain compounds from extracts in in vitro cultures. In the long run, the idea would be to produce high-value food products in large fermentation reactors.

My work is incorporated in an in-vogue research domain due to the increase in the demand for safe and natural products, which are often perceived as better than the synthetic ones. As an agronomist and laboratory researcher, the study of plants and the problem of species conservation has always interested me. Working in the area of plant biotechnology allows me to combine both interests, in addition to being able to discover new applications for underutilized and overlooked plant species!

The first global report on flora recently alerted the public that one in five of the world’s plant species is vulnerable to extinction. Pretty alarming news. On a more positive note, however, the document pointed out that 2,000 new species are discovered every year. The take home message is: Let’s keep the discoveries high and the threats low.

I am Sandra Gonçalves, and I am a post-doctoral researcher in Prof. Anabela Romano’s group at the Plant Biotechnology Laboratory in the University of Algarve. My work is funded by the Science and Technology Foundation of Portugal.


Digital art

Text by Fernanda Haffner

Illustration by Laurene Gattuso