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April 18th, 1998

Theoretical Issues in Plant Biology

by Dr. Frank Almeda
Executive Director
Senior Curator of Botany, California Academy of Sciences

Our title for this session, this Bio Forum session has purposely been kept quite broad and some of you may think rather vague. I'm sure some of you are wondering well, what kinds of theoretical concepts in plant biology are we going to discuss. We had a purpose in doing that because very often if we actually focus on a topic that's too narrow, some teachers find that it's very easy to just overlook it and pass it up for something more interesting on a nice Saturday like today. This also gives us great ease in lining up a very good set of speakers.

But, if there is one thread that we could use, one thread of thought or one theme of if you will, that we can use to describe today's presentation, I think the word is „change¾. As a matter of fact, if we decided to give this a subtitle for today's Bio Forum, I think we could probably readily describe it or title it „Natural and Human Induced Changes in Terrestrial Ecosystems Through Time¾. A lot of what you'll hear today will certainly be new to you and some of it may be familiar. If it does turn out to be the latter, we are hopeful that these presentations will help each of you to examine some familiar facts in novel ways. Very often, science tends to be thought of by many non-practitioners as merely a body of facts or a body of knowledge. But, it's really much more than just a body of facts or a body of knowledge. I like to also think of it as a process of discovery.

It is this process of discovery that really compels us to look at facts in new ways. We've never really been in a better position to do so, especially with the help of all the new technology that's available to us and the increasing trend among scientists to develop interdisciplinary approaches. Now you'll probably notice in your scheme of speakers for today that we have actually changed things just slightly. Instead of Dr. Mooney which was scheduled to be our first speaker, we've actually him to position number three so that the actual subject matters that our presenters will be giving to you has a better flow.

Dr. Niklas will begin our program this morning by asking a very basic but much debated question as he poses it. Is plant evolution largely adaptive or is it contingent on historical accidents? He will discuss in some detail a computer generated model dealing with the early evolution of land plants that can be used to predict how plant architecture must change to assure evolutionary success as the environment changes. Following his presentation, we will hear from Dr. Tiffney who will provide us with a tour de force through some 450 million years of plant evolution, giving you a feel for the life forms based on sequential evidence of the fossil records and a consideration of the climates and major physical events that prevail. I'm sure he'll also touch on the topic of extinction. The word extinction has become a much feared event as species go these days but, I'm sure Dr. Tiffney will point out that it's actually been a very dominant feature in the history of life on our planet. I think the word to fear is accelerated extinction not just extinction.


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