Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

It’s not a jungle out there: rocking the ecological boat

If you were a pharmaceutical company searching for a natural plant compound to use as the basis for a new line of drugs, where would you begin?

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Until recently, this question was a no-brainer. Everyone knows that tropical forests contain the widest diversity of species, all fighting for survival and defending themselves physically and chemically against being invaded or eaten. So the tropics should naturally provide the greatest selection of biologically active compounds.

“No,” says Angela Moles, a pioneering young ecologist from the University of New South Wales, who is transforming our understanding of the plant world and overturning some of the dogmas of ecology.

“Up in the Arctic tundra are 100-year-old willow trees that are just a few centimetres tall. They get to grow just a few leaves each year and they can’t afford to lose them. So, as you get closer to the poles the chemical warfare intensifies.”

Angela doesn’t just look at one or two plants or ecosystems. By searching the world’s scientific databases she can study thousands of species at the same time. But she’s not tied to the computer. In one study, she visited 75 different ecosystems, from African and Central American jungles to the tundras of Patagonia and Greenland. With an army of global collaborators she measures everything and then, back in Sydney, she crunches numbers and changes paradigms.

She has investigated issues such as why plant seeds vary from the size of a coconut to a speck of dust; how introduced plants...

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