Year 11 students from Brisbane’s Moreton Bay Boys’ College (MBBC) will join Griffith Sciences’ Professor Roderick Drew in an experiment to help save one of the world’s most endangered plant species.

Professor Drew, from the School of Biomolecular and Physical Sciences, is using tissue culture technology to tackle the decline of the giant swamp orchid (Phaius australis).

As of October last year, fewer than 100 giant swamp orchids remained in their natural habitat of the coastal lowlands of southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales, including the MBBC nature reserve.

However, inside a light and temperature controlled laboratory environment at Griffith University’s Nathan campus, Professor Drew has scores of tiny swamp orchids growing in small containers and being nourished by a special nutrient mix.

Four students – Cameron Silburn, Harrison Sabulis, Daniel O’Brien and Werner Pretorius — have been selected to work with Professor Drew after demonstrating a promising future in science. They will bring a selection of orchid seeds from the MBBC nature reserve to Griffith with the hope of germinating those seeds.

“Orchids have tiny seeds, like particles of dust, and they are difficult to control and require very delicate handling,” says Professor Drew.

“This is a great opportunity to teach the students about tissue culture and how to increase the biodiversity of their nature reserve. It’s very important to foster this knowledge and appreciation of plants among young people.”

The students will plant the seeds in a petri dish with a combination of nutrients. These will be stored at Griffith for three months before being transferred to a specialist growth room. If this process is successful, a sample of the plants will be taken back to the nature reserve for planting this spring.

Phaius australisgrows to almost two metres in height and is one of the largest species of terrestrial orchid in Australia. Its flowers measure as much as 12cm wide and each blossom is red-brown with pink and white colouration. The scent is akin to jasmine.

Head of Moreton Bay Boys’ College, Mr Tony Wood, said the partnership with Griffith and Professor Drew was a positive step towards saving the dwindling swamp orchid.

“For a number of years we have tried to propagate the seeds ourselves, but it’s been very difficult,” says Mr Wood. “This experiment will give our boys the chance to see a real-world application of science and will tie in nicely with the plant biology unit they are studying next term.

“Our boys will also get a feel for university life and hopefully it will inspire them to follow their love of science when they graduate from the college.”