What’s up with the Earth’s plants?

LEAF OF ABSENCE: They’re the foundation of life on Earth, but more than a fifth of all plant species now face the threat of extinction, according to a new study by the U.K.’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London. The study marks the most comprehensive health checkup yet for the roughly 380,000 known plant species, and finds that 22 percent of them should be classified as “threatened,” while another 33 percent are too poorly understood to be assessed. The greatest danger to plants by far is humans, the researchers report: Human activities such as agriculture, logging and livestock rearing account for 81 percent of the vanishing plants, according to the study, while natural threats are to blame for 19 percent. Habitat loss is the overarching problem in all ecosystems, but especially in tropical rain forests like those in Indonesia or Brazil, where the die-offs are happening fastest. The “Sampled Red List Index for Plants” aims to be the most accurate look at plant health ever conducted by examining thousands of species from all five major plant groups, whereas previous attempts have focused only on the most threatened plants or on certain regions. One often overlooked issue in losing plants is that they provide the blueprints for many modern medicines, and botanists worry that valuable medicinal information could be lost. Humans have also come to depend on a surprisingly small range of crop plants in recent centuries: 80 percent of calories eaten worldwide come from just 12 different species, the report estimates. But the scale of the problem leads the study’s authors to worry even about sustaining plants as the cornerstone of life. “We cannot sit back and watch plant species disappear – plants are the basis of all life on Earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel,” says Kew director Stephen Hopper. “Every breath we take involves interacting with plants. They’re what we all depend on.” (Sources: CNN, BBC News, Nature News, Kew)

unedited re-post from MNN Daily Brief, e-news September 29, 2010

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