Project Baseline: Plant Seeds’ Journey Through Time

Change is a vital part of life that is (often) unavoidable. It is no surprise, then, that we sometimes try to make the unpredictable, more predictable. How is that possible, and why would we want to do so?

One of the upcoming year’s Manresa Program professors, Dr. Steven Franks, is currently conducting ground-breaking research on plant evolution. His fall 2015 Manresa seminar course is “The Finch, the Seed, and the Storm: Adventures in Contemporary Evolution.”

Dr. Franks and his team are researching the ways in which a variety of plant species from all over the country change over time, to make it easier to predict future changes and to better understand evolutionary processes. Interestingly, he points out that evolution in plants can take as little as five to ten years. Depending on its environment, a plant species can change greatly within 50 years. This is where his project, known as Project Baseline, comes in.

Close-up of the involucre of a sunflower (Helianthus). By 3268zauber (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

For this project, Dr. Franks and this team are collecting millions of seeds from a vast variety of plant species from locations across the country in order to freeze them and bring them back to life anywhere from 5-50 years in the future. By preserving plant species in their current state, they will be able to thaw the seeds, plant them in warm soil, and bring them back to life later on. By doing so, they will be able to compare and analyze how the plants in the future are different from our plants in 2015. They will account for the changes in climate, environment, and human activity in order to understand the effect that these factors have on the evolution of the plant species. They aim to get closer to predicting how our plant world might change in the future.

With all of the advanced scientific technology at our disposal today and our scientific community working so intently to find the answers to our most complex ecological questions, it is fascinating to see what dedicated researchers with the right ambition and tools are able to do. The Manresa Program is excited to have a scholar like Dr. Franks join our team this year. For those of you who want to learn more about Dr. Franks’ project, check out this article from Atlas Obscura.

Nicole Benevento, FCRH 2017
Manresa Program Student Intern, 2014-2015 and 2015-2016


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