William L. Brown Center

"To study, characterize and conserve useful plants and associated traditional knowledge for a sustainable future."

Plants provide humankind with our most basic resources – food, medicines, fiber and an array of other useful products. Relatives of wild crops and traditional varieties – the repository of genetic diversity within and among food plants – have been the foundation of crop domestication, plant breeding and the modern agriculture that feeds Earth’s six billion people. Plants provide the molecular basis of many pharmaceuticals, as direct compounds or molecular blueprints. Modern science begins to confirm that the distinction between nutrition and medicine is blurred.

With economic development empowering a greater percentage of the world’s people, urban areas continuing to expand and human populations projected to double in the next 50 years, it seems certain that natural resources will face increasing threat. Habitat loss, unsustainable extraction of plants, spread of invasive species, climate change and other human activities will have tremendous impact. Plant species will be lost, genetic diversity of surviving species will be diminished and traditional knowledge associated with plant use will be eroded. Perhaps never before in human history has there been a more pressing need to discover, understand, conserve and sustainably use the plant resources that are essential for the benefit of humanity.

More than a third of medicines in the United States contain a plant-derived ingredient, and many synthetic pharmaceuticals are modeled on chemical structures derived from plants. The number of visits to providers of traditional medicine now exceeds by far the number of visits to all primary care physicians in the U.S. Expenditures for traditional medicine are growing exponentially in many parts of the world. The 1997 out-of-pocket traditional medicine expenditure was estimated at $2.7 billion in the U.S. The world market for herbal medicines based on traditional knowledge is now estimated at $60 billion. Roughly four out of five people in developing countries rely on plants for their primary health care, but traditional knowledge about their use is rapidly eroding and many of the plant species are threatened with extinction. Humans consume thousands of species of plants to meet their basic nutritional needs but only a handful has received significant study through international agricultural centers. Many remain poorly understood and largely undeveloped, and their wild relatives are threatened with extinction and in need of conservation attention. Stewardship of these valuable plant resources will require rigorous science combined with an approach that respects and values traditional knowledge systems; supports intellectual property mechanisms that equitably compensate all parties; and includes local participatory methods to ensure culturally sensitive solutions.

The William L. Brown Center (WLBC) is uniquely positioned to respond to these issues and to play a leading role in addressing the problems outlined above. The Center is located in one of the largest herbaria in the world, making a wealth of plant data available from collections. Access to advanced scientific methodologies allows more rapid characterization of useful species, chemicals or genes that lead to new nutritional and pharmaceutical products. The Center has access to improved information technologies that facilitate the rapid communication of data and allow repatriation of data to the countries where it is needed to make intelligent decisions about the use of natural resources.

Appropriate partnerships between the Center and collaborators in developing countries enable capacity building to ensure that countries have the infrastructure to make sound development and conservation plans. Finally, partnerships between the Center and both national institutions and local communities permit the implementation of integrated conservation and sustainable development programs.

With the William L. Brown Center, the Missouri Botanical Garden is a global leader in discovering, explaining, and disseminating information about the diverse and dynamic relationships between people and plants throughout the world. The Center’s website provides information about its activities and useful plants: www.wlbcenter.org.

Origin of the William L. Brown Center

Beginning in 1986 and continuing into the 1990s, the Research Division of the Missouri Botanical Garden initiated several natural products discovery partnerships that aimed to discover new anti-cancer or other drugs. The Applied Research Department was created in 1995 to accommodate these programs, which shared a common research theme and presented a related series of legal and ethical issues that had been brought to public attention when the Convention on Biological Diversity entered into force in 1993.

In subsequent years, the scope of the department’s activities expanded significantly. Research projects with medicinal plants were initiated, including a February 2000 NIH-funded partnership with the University of Missouri, Columbia that brought Dr. Wendy Applequist to the Garden, and a 2003 FDA-sponsored partnership with the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi. In July 2000, Dr. Jan Salick joined the staff, adding significant expertise in ethnobotany. Over time, these programs expanded into other related research areas and came to constitute the Garden’s programs in the study of useful plants.

The William L. Brown Center is named in honor of plant breeder and geneticist William L. Brown. As part of his efforts to promote conservation of the genetic diversity of crops and their wild relatives, Dr. Brown helped found DIVERSITY, a news journal covering events of importance to the plant genetics community. In 2001, the assets of Genetic Resources Communications Systems (GRCS) were transferred to the Missouri Botanical Garden, augmented by a generous contribution from Dr. Suri Sehgal, and matched with funds from the Garden’s ongoing capital campaign to create an endowment. In 2003 the endowment established a Center at the Garden with three specific goals: 1) to present the William L. Brown Award for Plant Genetic Resource Conservation every other year; 2) to endow a curatorial position; and 3) to support a fellowship for a graduate student from South Asia. Dr. James Miller was subsequently appointed the William L. Brown Curator and the Applied Research Department was renamed the William L. Brown Center (WLBC) in honor of Dr. Brown. In 2007, Dr. Rainer W. Bussmann, an ethnobotanist, vegetation ecologist and conservationist, was appointed director and curator of the WLBC.

With 15 current full-time staff based in St. Louis, seven staff members resident in Madagascar and Gabon, and associated post-docs and students, the Center is one of the largest and most active programs in economic botany in the world.

Strategic Advantage of the William L. Brown Center

The WLBC’s location at the Missouri Botanical Garden builds on the tremendous worldwide expertise and resources in botanical research available within the Garden and allows a unique approach to the study and conservation of useful plants grounded in rigorous science. Home to one of the largest international programs in botanical research and conservation, the Garden’s Science and Conservation Division is actively collecting information about the world’s plants to support growth of the herbarium, database, and library. The herbarium of over six million specimens is one of the largest in the world and is particularly rich in plants from the New World tropics, Africa and Madagascar, and China. Tropicos®, developed and maintained by the Garden, is the world's largest database of plant information, containing fully web-searchable records for over 900,000 plant names, 2.5 million specimens and more than 50,000 plant images. These resources support a research group of about 150, including nearly 50 Ph.D. level botanists who conduct research and conservation programs throughout the world.

The WLBC builds on the Garden’s tremendous repository of knowledge about plants, their uses, and their geographical distribution. Knowledge about these attributes is critical to the intended focus of the WLBC on under-utilized plants. The backing of Garden and the extraordinarily strong research programs of Rainer Bussmann (economic botany, sustainable development, Latin America, Africa), Jan Salick (ethnobotany and conservation, Latin America, Asia), and Wendy Applequist (DNA research, plant systematics and anatomy) make the WLBC a world leader in research on useful plants.

Existing Areas of Programmatic Strength

Mountain systems are highly bio-diverse, the most important sources of crop species and medicinal plants, and heavily affected by climate-change. The WLBC programs concentrate on medicinal and food species in mountain regions, especially the Andes, the Himalayas and the African Highlands. This allows WLBC to fill a critical gap left by competing institutions, while focusing on the core areas targeted by the research programs of the Missouri Botanical Garden, namely the Andean Region, Indo-China and Madagascar.

All WLBC programs cooperate closely with the Missouri Botanical Garden’s herbarium, library collections and Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development (CCSD). The WLBC is well positioned to develop and maintain collections and data on useful plants. The Tropicos database provides an ideal platform for the incorporation of information on plant use. The staff members, with their expertise across a wide spectrum of research issues, are the human capital upon which the WLBC’s programs are built, and direct partnership with other staff of the Science and Conservation Division is critical to the WLBC’s success.

  • Discovery. The WLBC has extensive partnerships aimed at the discovery and sustainable use of natural products. The WLBC is perhaps the world’s most active group in the collection, identification and supply of plant samples, development of strategies for the selection of species for research and other aspects of collaborative natural products work.
  • Ethnobotany. Numerous projects utilize information from local people to better understand how communities rely on locally available natural resources and to design solutions so that they can be used sustainably. Jan Salick’s and Rainer Bussmann’s ethnobotany programs are internationally recognized as leading scientific efforts to understand the relationship between plants, people, the environment and associated traditional knowledge.
  • Useful Plants. Expertise in plant taxonomy, access to collections, the Tropicos database, and facilities for the cultivation of medicinal plants enable the WLBC to perform research in a variety of relevant subjects, which in turn has led to multiple partnerships for the study and conservation of medicinal plants. The Garden is the only strictly botanical research institution participating in the NIH Centers for the Study of Botanical Dietary Supplements and the International Centers for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The WLBC is a leader in the compilation of databases on traditional medicinal and food species. It plays a leading role in the preservation of traditional knowledge for indigenous and local communities, and in the production of useful plant volumes for ongoing floristic projects of the Garden.
  • Communication. The WLBC plays a leading role organizing symposia, meetings and workshops to facilitate scientific exchange. The Garden is an international leader in developing the legal and ethical frameworks for conducting international programs in natural products discovery, medicinal plant research and ethnobotany. These frameworks ensure compliance with the Convention on Biological Diversity and equitable distribution of benefits that arise from such research, including efforts to value, acknowledge, and equitably compensate traditional knowledge.
  • Conservation and Capacity Building. Projects conducted by the WLBC include significant training programs ranging from botanical field techniques and ethnobotanical research to collections management, market development, sustainable production and public health. Projects of the WLBC have significant conservation components, including programs aimed at medicinal and other useful plants and incorporating traditional knowledge in the conservation of natural resources. Close collaboration with CCSD allows practical application of WLBC’s research findings.