Why it took nearly 50 years for scientists to name this mysterious tropical plant

Why it took nearly 50 years for scientists to name this mysterious tropical plant

Posted: Oct 6, 2021 9:11 AM
Updated: Oct 6, 2021 9:11 AM

After nearly half a century, the mystery of Manu is finally solved.

In 1973, scientist Robin Foster discovered a plant with bright orange fruit shaped like paper lanterns inside Peru's Manu National Park.

It's now been classified as Aenigmanu alvareziae, or Mystery of Manu, according to a paper authored by Foster and published Wednesday in the journal Taxon.

Foster collected samples of the colorful tree on his trip to show to other researchers, and no one could identify the specimen.

The plant's characteristics could place it into multiple families, one of the classification levels of plants, said Foster, a retired curator at Chicago's Field Museum and a researcher with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

"Usually, I can tell the family by a quick glance, but damned if I could place this one," Foster said in a statement.

It took decades of research to classify the tropical plant because it couldn't be delivered to the correct specialist -- because scientists didn't know which family it belonged to, said study author Nancy Hensold, a tropical plant scientist at Chicago's Field Museum.

A research team at the Field Museum attempted to analyze the plant's DNA, but the dried specimen made it impossible to do so, Hensold said. DNA testing doesn't work on some dried material, she noted.

"It has to do with the peculiar chemistry of each species whether the DNA is well-preserved enough, or breaks down too quickly," she said.

Fortunately, Patricia Álvarez-Loayza, a scientist at Manu National Park, collected fresh samples in 2015 for the team to analyze at the Field Museum.

They discovered the plant was a part of the Picramniaceae family, which is a small family of plants from the Western hemisphere tropics and subtropics, Hensold said.

The length of time it took for this plant to be classified is unusual, said Martin Cheek, senior research leader in the accelerated taxonomy department at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London. He was not involved in the study.

It typically takes five to 15 years for a plant to be classified, but it can take anywhere from six months to 200 years, he said.

Until a plant is classified, it does not exist, at least not scientifically, Cheek said. Once it's classified, scientists can assess the species' extinction risk and take steps to protect it if necessary, he explained.

In the case of Aenigmanu alvareziae, additional research can also be done on the plant's properties.

"Now it is classified in Picramniaceae, we know to look for secondary compounds of potential use as anti-cancer drugs, which are a feature of this family," he said.

Although the plant has cute orange fruit growing on its branches, it likely won't become a food source for humans, Hensold said. The plant's seeds are quite large, so there isn't enough flesh for it to be an important food source, she noted.t

While Hensold said she hasn't tasted the fruit, she heard from Álvarez-Loayza that it tastes "sweet and creamy."

Now that the plant is visible to the larger scientific community, researchers may find out it is more common than originally believed, Hensold said. She found one specimen from the Rio Jurua basin in Brazil.

"Hopefully other botanists from South America will recognize this plant among their own unidentified specimens and let us know," she said.

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 512632

Reported Deaths: 10262
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34853555
DeSoto33162432
Hinds32556641
Jackson24830389
Rankin22442402
Lee16238242
Madison14874283
Jones14086247
Forrest13741259
Lauderdale12249324
Lowndes11286193
Lamar10644140
Pearl River9707244
Lafayette8827143
Hancock7835132
Washington7550169
Oktibbeha7204138
Monroe6989179
Pontotoc6970109
Warren6849178
Panola6746134
Neshoba6726210
Marshall6653141
Bolivar6440151
Union633897
Pike5924156
Alcorn5862107
Lincoln5525136
George510180
Prentiss500884
Tippah490282
Itawamba4829107
Scott477499
Adams4766125
Tate4748116
Leflore4723144
Copiah455895
Yazoo455591
Simpson4543117
Wayne442772
Covington432895
Sunflower4299106
Marion4265112
Coahoma4227109
Leake413790
Newton395581
Tishomingo381793
Grenada3775109
Stone365666
Jasper340166
Attala337790
Winston317792
Chickasaw313367
Clay311878
Clarke301195
Calhoun284449
Holmes271289
Smith268952
Yalobusha243747
Tallahatchie231453
Greene224749
Walthall221366
Lawrence217840
Perry213356
Amite209557
Webster205148
Noxubee188642
Montgomery181557
Carroll174441
Jefferson Davis173643
Tunica163239
Benton152639
Kemper144941
Choctaw136527
Claiborne134238
Humphreys131139
Franklin124929
Quitman107528
Wilkinson105939
Jefferson96834
Sharkey65121
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 844594

Reported Deaths: 16115
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1160612006
Mobile741651379
Madison53255732
Shelby38313368
Baldwin38061589
Tuscaloosa35996641
Montgomery34473781
Lee25541263
Calhoun22582518
Morgan22441406
Etowah20009517
Marshall18771316
Houston17723425
St. Clair16863358
Limestone16123218
Cullman16032303
Elmore15902294
Lauderdale14945306
Talladega14186299
DeKalb12957269
Walker12011380
Blount10700192
Autauga10512157
Jackson10151194
Coffee9412192
Colbert9325208
Dale9013191
Tallapoosa7248201
Russell707465
Chilton7015170
Escambia6951143
Covington6926195
Franklin6337108
Chambers5778142
Marion5400130
Dallas5283209
Pike5114109
Clarke484986
Lawrence4826129
Winston4777110
Geneva4640136
Bibb434094
Barbour369180
Butler3433100
Marengo342393
Monroe336666
Randolph334067
Pickens333188
Fayette329885
Henry320566
Hale317989
Cherokee316963
Crenshaw260477
Washington256952
Cleburne254360
Lamar251253
Clay250869
Macon244764
Conecuh192762
Coosa184647
Lowndes178168
Wilcox177438
Bullock152545
Perry141840
Sumter139041
Greene130245
Choctaw93228
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
60° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 29°
Feels Like: 60°
Columbus
Clear
59° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 28°
Feels Like: 59°
Oxford
Clear
55° wxIcon
Hi: 56° Lo: 28°
Feels Like: 55°
Starkville
Clear
59° wxIcon
Hi: 62° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 59°
High pressure will continue to dominate our weather forecast for our Saturday. This will keep us filled with plenty of sunshine in our weather forecast for our Saturday.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather