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MSU Billings botanist using DNA to study plants at Dover Park

Posted at 6:19 PM, Aug 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-19 20:19:56-04

An MSU Billings bontanist is using DNA to identify the plant life at John H. Dover Memorial Park in the heights.

Students help collect samples, and a lot of the work takes place back at the laboratory.

"It's very much like thinking about human genealogy," said Dr. Jason Comer, MSU Billings assistant professor of botany. "It's kind of the same thing just rather than looking at the same species. We're looking at a bunch of different species."

Comer says that process will be the same and maybe even simpler when studying animal DNA.

But as a botanist, he teaches about the importance of plants.

"One of the byproducts of photosynthesis is oxygen," Comer said. "And one of the first things I tell my class when they come in is if you don't think plants are important, hold your breath. And it takes them a second to realize what I'm getting at, is without plants, we don't have oxygen. Without oxygen, there's no people."

He and his students have collected samples for about 100 plants. And he estimates they'll find about 130 species for what he calls a floristic study.

"Collecting any of the plants that I can find in flower and fruit and trying to identify those," Comer said. "So making a list of all the plants in Dover Park. And with that, I'm also interested in starting to see not just the species that are there, but what's going on at the genetic level."

While Dover Park was homesteaded land, there's still a lot to gain by identifying native plants.

"Understanding what's going on at the genomic and genetic level of these invasive species might allow us to find ways to prevent them from growing," Comer said. "Maybe a really targeted herbicide that only kills that one plant and so it leaves the crop plants alone."

The DNA study will help the Yellowstone River Parks Association, which manages Dover Park, as well as state and federal agencies that manage other land in the area.

"Any information that I can give them to help them make their jobs a little bit easier is always a good outcome."