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  • 7 February 2006

A Mexican wave goodbye as tequila plants join Eden project


Dr Stephen Pearce tends some of the tequila plants in the biology greenhouses

Dr Stephen Pearce tends some of the tequila plants in the biology greenhouses

Mexican tequila plants reared for a biology research experiment at the University of Sussex have found a new home - as prize exhibits at the world-renowned Eden Project in Cornwall.

Eight giant Agave tequilana plants, weighing more than 80kg each and measuring 2m across, plus 15 smaller specimens, had outgrown their home in specially adapted greenhouses at the University's department of Biology and Environmental Sciences.

The plants, commonly known as blue agaves, are thought to be the only examples of their type in Europe. They were originally imported and cultivated to explore their unusual properties, as part of a doctoral research project by Mexican postgraduate student Ivan Saldana. The tequila plant produces sugars that are an essential ingredient in the production of tequila, worth 500 million dollars annually to the Mexican economy. Once his studies were completed, Ivan returned to Mexico to work in the tequila industry. The plants, however, were in need of a new home that could provide the conditions found in their native Mexico.

Dr Martyn Stenning, of the department of Biology and Environmental Science, approached the Eden Project while attending a conference there last year. The Eden Project, based in Bodelva, Cornwall, exhibits important species of plants from around the world housed in two giant greenhouses, called biomes. The plants were collected by Eden Project scientists Dr Alistair Griffiths and Dr Tim Pettitt at the end of January. They will spend five months in quarantine to ensure they pose no disease risk to other species housed there.

Dr Griffiths, who is Scientific Officer for Living Collections at the Eden Project, says: "It was a great surprise when Martyn Stenning contacted the Eden Project to offer us some tequila plants. These plants have always been on our wish list. It is hoped that they will play an important role in the proposed new Dry Tropics Biome."

Dr Stenning says: "All the time Ivan was working on the plants, their cultivation and maintenance in a controlled environment glasshouse mimicking a Mexican semi-arid habitat was funded by a grant. Continued cultivation on this scale is now unsustainable, so I approached the Eden Project, who were delighted to take them on. Digging them up was a huge task!"

Specimens remaining at Sussex will be used in exciting new research under Dr Stephen Pearce, who will also have access to the Eden specimens. The blue agave, though vital to the tequila industry, and now thought to have properties that could reduce blood pressure and aid digestion, are also vulnerable to disease and pests. Dr Pearce's team, together with blue agave breeders in Mexico, is therefore looking at identifying related species that could be bred with the blue agave to produce more robust, genetically diverse plants.

Dr Pearce says: "Although the first chapter of the tequila project has come to an end, and our largest (and most painful!) plants have now been 'retired' to Cornwall, a collection of second and third-generation plants continues to grow in our glasshouses, ensuring that Sussex will play a role in the development of this unusual, fascinating and highly productive plant."

Notes for editors

For interviews etc, please contact the University of Sussex Press office. For information about biology and environmental science at Sussex, see http://www.sussex.ac.uk/biology/

For more information on the Eden Project, visit: http://www.edenproject.com/

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune or Jacqui Bealing, tel: 01273 678 888 or email M.T.Clune@sussexac.uk or J.A.Bealing@sussex.ac.uk

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