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New Plant Conservation Science Center opens at Botanic Garden

Monday, September 21, 2009
Pioneer Press
by Christopher Peterson

Walking into the Chicago Botanic Garden's Plant Conservation Science Center in Glencoe is a little like instantly becoming a plant biologist. Visitors might even be tempted to put on a lab coat.

Inside the 38,000-square-foot research facility, there is no "behind the scenes." Every inner working is on display for the public.

Think "Jurassic Park" -- only instead of hatching baby raptors, the scientists inside are tinkering with saplings.

The center opens Sept. 23 after more than a year of construction and preparations.

The laboratories inside are complete with beakers, Petri dishes, seed banks and researchers, all in plain sight of the center's visitors.

"There's no place for my scientists to hide," joked Greg Mueller, vice president of science and academic programs for the Botanic Garden. "That physical interaction, and seeing what's going on, is an important aspect."

Each of the building's nine labs focuses on a different aspect of plant conservation, with the ultimate purpose of getting information out to the public.

For example, the roof-top gardens were designed to test how native plants might grow in various soil depths.

By doing so, scientists hope to determine the most efficient and effective ways to make use of green roof space.

Already, building designers are keeping a close eye on what the center finds out, Mueller said.

The researchers expect to watch some of their projects dry up before visitors' eyes, but that's just science, Mueller said.

"If we haven't (failed at times), we haven't pushed the envelope enough," he said.

In another section of the center, researchers have been collecting seeds from 1,500 native species throughout the Midwest. The seeds are stored in a freezer, where they can survive for 200 years.

The idea is to learn how they grow and determine the genetic variations of a plant from one location to another.

And if an area under observation becomes imperiled, the center dispatches workers to replenish it with the seeds they collected.

Even the actual building is an experiment in conservation. The Plant Conservation Science Center earned a "gold" rating for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design," or LEED certification.

Complete with solar panels -- which provide up to 7 percent the building's power -- the center aims to be as energy-efficient as possible.

The building is heated and cooled via a system of floor tubing that pipes in water from outside, and the ceilings are slightly sloped to redirect sunlight where its needed indoors.

In addition, the building sits atop 4-foot pillars to reduce its physical footprint below.

The facility cost $50.9 million, including a $10 million endowment. It was funded mostly through grants and private contributions.

In return, the center hosts interns and graduate students earning Master's and Doctorate degrees, as well as professional researchers.

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