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Seeds of Discovery in an Unlikely Place

When one thinks of Moscow, Russia, images of cathedrals with onion-like cupolas, large factories bellowing smoke, crowded railway stations, freight yards and 10 million people come to mind. And yet as a young boy growing up there, Alexey Shipunov nurtured his love of plants.

"I have been interested in plants since the sixth grade," the Minot State University assistant professor of biology said. "I have always been amazed by the different classifications and aesthetics of plants and how beautiful they are."

As a biology student at Moscow State University, Shipunov was taught the intricacies of botanical work, and it landed him a fellowship at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in London. Shipunov worked under the tutelage of Mark Chase, a leading botanist in plant DNA research, where he continued to explore, document and study orchid diversity.

To date, representatives of almost all families of flowering plants have been studied and classified according to their molecular structure. There remained an exception: Haptanthus hazlettii, a Central American tree. It was discovered, nearly by accident, in 1980 and described as a new genus and species in 1989. Only two specimens of H. hazlettii existed, but attempts to extract DNA failed. Five expeditions were organized to recollect the plant, but they brought no results. Consequently, the plant was considered "likely extinct." This was the stuff of a botanical Sherlock Holmes novel.

Reading about the H. hazletti mystery 30 years ago piqued Shipunov’s curiosity. In February 2010, he decided to do something about it.

"Why not go to Honduras?" he thought.

It was a bold idea, since Shipunov’s field experience included only arctic and temperate climes. With only two months to prepare, he consulted with experts about what supplies he’d need, researched tropical diseases, endured a multitude of inoculations and viewed aerial maps to determine where the remains of the tropical forest were located. In April 2010, he organized a small expedition and traveled to northern Honduras in search of H. hazlettii.

For five days the group stayed in tents by the river, without electricity or running water, and spent their days in the rain forest scouting through binoculars for "something unusual." It was difficult trying to differentiate between many plants with similar foliage. However, on their last day in the tropical forest, on a steep slope across the river, they spotted their prize: the branch of an H. hazlettii.

"It (finding the plant) was the most exciting thing in my life," Shipunov said. "I hoped but did not expect to find the Haptanthus. At best, I thought I might be able to provide exploration information for future expeditions."

Shipunov’s work was recently published in the American Journal of Botany. With the help of his GPS coordinates, six additional H. hazlettii plants have been discovered and are no longer considered extinct. DNA analysis shows it is related to the present day boxwood shrub family, which originated in the Cretaceous era, 120 million years ago. It was also discovered that H. hazlettii contains several bioactive compounds which could prove useful in pharmacological research.

More research is still needed to clarify flower structure, insect pollination and fruit production. But as questions unfold, the answers are within reach.

Shipunov’s next adventure is to collect and catalog plants in Ward County and the Turtle Mountains. His accommodations will include modern amenities such as electricity and indoor plumbing.