Project proposal details

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Project title
How many useful plant species are there on Earth?
Contact name
Samuel Pironon
Contact email
Project based at
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Imperial contact email
Project description
Plants are an essential component of nature’s contribution to people, as they provide a wide variety of material and non-material benefits. Of the ~390,000 vascular plant species known to science, around 40,000 have a documented use; however, this number is likely to be largely underestimated. Missing to know how many and which plant species are used by humans impedes a good understanding of the interaction between people and nature, and an effective preservation of plant resources.

This project aims to provide a first estimate of the total number of useful plant species found on Earth, and repeat the analyses for each of nine categories of uses (e.g. human food, animal food, medicine, material).

This will be achieved through the following activities:
1. Using information about plant uses and taxonomy from Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’s databases (World Checklist of Useful Plants, World Checklist of Vascular Plants), the student will build different asymptotic regression models and use multi-model averaging to predict the asymptotic number of useful taxa.
2. Another complementary approach will also be considered based on widely available phylogenetic data. The student will use recently developed predictive methods to estimate the number and identity of the currently unknown useful plant species from their evolutionary relationship with documented useful species.
3. Using in- and ex-situ conservation data from Kew, the student will finally assess how many potential useful plants are possibly under threat of extinction.
Additional requirements
This project requires the use and analysis of big data of different types (e.g. taxonomy, phylogeny, uses). Therefore, good basic knowledge of R programming and statistics is necessary.
Available support
The student will benefit from the supervision and guidance from several researchers from different institutions including Aoife Cantwell-Jones (Imperial College), Felix Forest (Kew), Julie Hawkins (University of Reading), among others. The project will be home- and computer-based. If the covid situation allows, meetings with supervisors will be organized at Kew. A desk could also be made available at the Gill lab, Imperial College.
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