Globetrotter guides tropics to profits

June 26, 1998

RETIREMENT is generally seen as a time to wind down from work. But not by Janet Sprent, deputy principal of Dundee University and an internationally respected biological scientist.

Once she retires from Dundee in August, Professor Sprent is heading to Venezuela for a trip up the Orinoco to investigate the plants and trees in some of its flooded islands. This is the first of a number of post-retirement trips.

Professor Sprent wants to write a global reference guide to help developing countries identify which plants they should cultivate. Hundreds of plants with agricultural potential in the Third World are not being exploited as crops because of lack of knowledge of their properties. Professor Sprent and her team, who have trained more than 30 PhD students from eight countries, have earned a global reputation for work on the legume family, which includes peas, beans and clover and many important tropical trees. It was known in Roman times that rotating pea and bean crops would enrich the soil. It was later discovered that this was because of nodules on the plants' roots which were inhabited by bacteria, giving them the capacity to fix nitrogen from the air and produce protein-rich seeds.

But there are still problems in classifying the plants and associated bacteria. Diagnoses have been based on temperate rather than tropical climates.

"You can misidentify plants unless you have a local expert with you. The appearance of nodules can be quite different and you have to have the basic science, getting the bacteria out, before you can be certain about the plant's potential," says Professor Sprent.

Lack of information and misinformation can mean underdeveloped countries miss valuable opportunities to use native plants to their best advantage. Professor Sprent, backed by an emeritus research fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, aims to fill in the gaps and correct misleading data.

"There is about 40 per cent of the entire family for which we have no information, and quite a few for which we have conflicting information," Professor Sprent said.

She will draw on her 35 years of expertise, working with local scientists to view plants, examine soils, plants and root nodules containing the bacteria, and take back samples for molecular studies to understand the plants' potential.

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