The William L. Brown Center (WLBC) is dedicated to the study of useful plants, understanding the relationships between humans, plants, and their environment, and the conservation of plant species and preservation of traditional knowledge for the benefit of future generations.
Humans depend on plant resources for food, shelter, medicines, materials, and elements of their spiritual world. Eighty percent of the population of the developing world relies on plants for their primary health care. Indigenous groups use plants in multiple ways during their daily lives. This traditional plant knowledge is mostly conveyed orally from generation to generation. These groups increasingly face changes that threaten the preservation of traditional knowledge and it is estimated that the majority of the world’s spoken languages will disappear in the next 50 years.
There are about 10,000 species of edible plants, yet only about 100 species make up the vast majority of the world’s food supply and less than 10 supply more than 90% of the world’s calories. Nature’s bountiful plant diversity has barely been tapped for potential alternative crops and genes that could help improve today’s important food plants.
Close to one third of modern prescription medicines contain a plant-derived ingredient, and chemicals from plants have contributed to the production of many synthetic pharmaceuticals. Yet only a tiny fraction of the 350,000 or more known plant species have been evaluated with modern methods for potential pharmaceutical use, and most plant species that have been studied have been tested against only one or a few diseases.
The Center maintains collections of useful plants, including the maize collection of Edgar Anderson and his colleagues, the cassava collections of David Rogers, and a library of human food plants. A data module in the MBG TROPICOS database facilitates the capture and retrieval of information about plant use.
An overarching goal of the Center is to address the lack of adequate research capacity in developing countries that are home to the majority of the world’s plant species. Training takes place in the field, at workshops, or through collaborating universities in St. Louis and ranges from informal hands-on training to formal graduate degree education.
The William L. Brown Award for Excellence in Plant Genetic Resources Conservation is given through the Missouri Botanical Garden every two years and recognizes career accomplishments in research and promotion of preservation of genetic diversity.