Plant Bank Sown With Frozen Seeds : UCI Botanist’s Orchid Experiment Illustrates Survival Theory

Times Staff Writer

Delicate, exotic orchids billow like pastel clouds in the back room of Harold Koopowitz’s greenhouse, filling the shelves and dripping into the aisles with their pink, yellow, white, lavender and orange blossoms.

But the beautiful and abundant blooms are insignificant compared to another orchid, this one a mere clump of scruffy green leaves, that Koopowitz is also nurturing.

This orchid, which eventually will sprout vibrant orange flowers, had its start as a cryogenically preserved seed, planted in soil after several year in the bottom of a deep freezer.

The process is still in the research stages, but if his success with the frozen-seed Mexican orchid, insiclia , is any indication, cryogenic preservation could be a key to preventing thousands of species of endangered orchids from becoming extinct in the coming years, Koopowitz believes.


Koopowitz, director of UC Irvine’s Arboretum, is also keeper of the university’s gene bank, one of the world’s few preserves of frozen seed and pollen, designed to help protect the world against plant extinction.

Plant extinction is not a hypothetical concern. Ten years ago, when Koopowitz first began planning the gene bank, one or two plant species became extinct every week. Today, one or two plant species disappear every day, he said. Within 10 years, it is not unlikely that a species will become extinct every hour.

They are the victims of another species, Homo sapiens , who cut down the rain forests for firewood, farming, mining and development. There are few rain forests left in Mexico, Nicaragua and El Salvador, he said. During World War II, Thailand was 75% natural forest; today, almost none is left. Up to 20% of the Great Amazon forest is gone, and villages are rapidly replacing rain forests in East Africa, he said.

Aside from the aesthetic loss, plant extinction also robs mankind of valuable resources, including medicines yet to be discovered, according to Koopowitz, a professor of developmental and cell biology. But it is hard to generate people’s enthusiasm about saving plants; they have no furry faces and expressive eyes to tug at the public’s heartstrings, he observed.


“At the time we got into this, we were the only people who were talking about plant conservation. Everyone was talking about animals and no one was giving plants any press at all,” said Koopowitz, who wrote a book, “Plant Extinction: A Global Crisis,” three years ago with local writer Hilary Kaye. “When I started this in 1976, I was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. It’s taken a full 10 years of jumping up and down and screaming to really get things going.”

Still, gene banking has its critics. Faith Thompson Campbell, a senior research associate with the Natural Resources Defense Council of Washington, said that the main goal of conservation should be to keep endangered species thriving in the wild, “where they belong.”

Seed banks “can be useful as insurance,” to re-establish a species after it has been wiped out, she said. “But they are not a substitute.”

Besides, she said, even if a gene bank holds the seeds of an extinct species, “where are you going to plant them?” A plant grown from frozen seed is not part of and contributing to its natural ecosystem, and it is not evolving as it would have in the wild, she contended. “Having a particular species in a botanical garden or even a private home is better than not at all, but only marginally,” she said. Although Koopowitz’s recent stand on the issue appears to be softening, the UCI professor at one point appeared to favor gene banking as the only solution, to the exclusion of other methods, Campbell said.


Habitat Considerations

Koopowitz said he does recognize the need to conserve the endangered species in the wild. Preserves for endangered species are being set up, but they rarely are big enough and numerous enough to guarantee the species’ survival, he said. At the same time, there should be efforts to restrict trade and development so that species can thrive in their true natural environment, he added.

But since the rain forests are disappearing as the issue is being debated, gene banking is a necessity, he argues. “Unless we get these things into cultivation and gene banks, we aren’t going to have anything to conserve,” he said.

Koopowitz’s gene bank is hardly glamorous, just a used-looking, chest-style freezer jammed against an office wall at the arboretum, located along the San Diego Creek channel a mile outside the campus.


Currently, it holds tiny sealed capsules of about 900 species, mainly lilies and irises, which have seeds that can be dried, frozen for years and then planted.

And if future research proves the freezing technique successful, Koopowitz plans to expand the bank to include rare orchids from the diminishing tropical rain forests.

‘They All Need Protection’

“I see the orchids as a symbol for the rain forests themselves,” he said. “There are other groups in the tropics that also need saving, everything from the trees and the small herbs and the palms and the ferns. They all need protection.”


A striking, delicately striped maroon-and-gold orchid in the shape of a lady slipper is one such plant, Koopowitz points out. Koopowitz’s orchid was bred from a plant brought in from the island of Borneo, where it grows in a preserve.

Before nurseries produced them, each plant would fetch $5,000 to $10,000, he said. Even in the “man-made” form, the orchid is prized and sold by the inch--its price based on its measurement across the leaves, multiplied by $10.

“All these are going to be extinct in the wild in 30 or 40 years . . . . The smugglers are going in (the preserves) and pulling them out,” Koopowitz said.

Of all the endangered plants, Koopowitz chose to concentrate on orchids, although there is some question whether the seeds in general can be used after freezing. In 1980, a group of researchers at Kew Gardens, located in Wakehurst, England, planted several orchid seed samples that had been frozen for about a decade, “and the samples were found to be dead. We don’t know what happened to the seed. Obviously, we’re quite concerned.”


‘Orchids Are Like Jewels’

It’s not known whether orchids cannot be cryogenically preserved, or whether the English researchers erred in their method of freezing or thawing, the two processes during which the seed is most likely to be damaged, Koopowitz said. Once a seed is in the frozen state, it should be fine, he said.

Why did Koopowitz choose orchids?

“Orchids are like jewels in the crown,” Koopowitz declared. “They are the most highly evolved of the flowering plants. They are the most exotic,” he said, and their beauty and mysticism may help garner public support for his project.


Besides aesthetics, though, plants have medical, sometimes life-saving, uses, he said.

Nearly 50% of the chemicals and drugs people use are derived from plants, which evolve and produce these chemicals for self-preservation, Koopowitz said. For example, birth control pills originally were derived from a yam-like plant, dioscorea , that produced a chemical which mimicked progesterone, he said. If animals ate the plant, it would “really mess up their reproductive cycle,” and there would be fewer offspring to feed on that plant, he said. “It’s really a scruffy little plant, too,” but if it had become extinct 50 years ago, mankind would have suffered, he said.

Plant May Be Extinct

When people discovered that sweeteners such as saccharin and cyclamates were possibly carcinogenic, researchers began to look for other non-sugar sweeteners, he said. They found one in a Mexican plant, stevia , which had leaves that were “excessively sweet.


“The problem is that the specimen they found the sweetness in was a dried plant that they collected in Mexico in 1889. And we think that’s extinct now,” he added.

During World War II, a synthetic drug, Atabrine, was made to combat malaria, replacing quinine, which is made from the bark of a tree that grows in Central America, he said. The synthetic drug was used heavily for many years, but the malaria parasite now has grown immune to the synthetic drug, Koopowitz said. So now people have gone back into the Peruvian forests to collect and breed the tree, cinchona, for better yields of quinine.

“We’d have been in a real fix if that tree had gone extinct,” he said.

“You can’t foresee when you’re going to need a plant . . . . The way discoveries tend to work is that you find things by chance,” he said.


Orchids, the most highly evolved of the flowering plants, “must also contain many of these kinds of chemicals that could be used as medicines. If they ever go extinct, we potentially are impoverishing ourselves,” Koopowitz contends.

Must Raise the Money

Expanding the gene bank for orchids will be a $1.5-million project, involving the purchase of a walk-in freezer, funding for research and establishing an endowment for the bank’s perpetual maintenance, he said. The university administration has given its approval--provided that Koopowitz raises the money himself.

But thousands of plant species will die before then, he predicted, adding:


“Within about 15 years’ time or so, people are going to look at the devastation happening in the natural world, and they’ll look at the few gene banks that there will be, and they’re going to recognize these as very precious resources.

“My guess is that after a period of time, (the gene bank) is going to be seen like a collection of paintings. They’re not going to throw them away. It’s going to be hard to put a price on an endangered species,” Koopowitz said. “What is the intrinsic value of a plant that no longer exists in the world at all?”