In Plain English: Michael Barnes

Down behind the French building, far from the mailroom and offices, the labs on upper floors and the subterranean teaching space, there is a great kingdom: the kingdom of plants.  That is, the greenhouses.  This is Michael Barnes’ realm, where he and his horticulturists tend thousands of plants.  In some rooms the same plant marches row upon row, grown for research into natural genetic variation or how plants resist disease.  But the Live Plant Collections hold 1,000 different species from all over the world, showing the kingdom’s wondrous variety. 

One of Michael’s most important tasks is protecting the plants from pests.  “I spend a lot of time spraying pesticides, and I hate it.”  So to stay out of the protective “space suit,” Michael is using organic pest control: bacteria, fungi and insects that eliminate the pests that ride into his kingdom on people’s Duke blue shirts or in dirty pots.  He just released some tiny wasps that feed on thrips, sucking out their precious bodily fluids.  Other beneficials actually function like the alien in “Alien,” laying their eggs in pests’ larvae.  The young eat the larvae from the inside out.  Brrrr!

There are still situations that demand pesticides, as when introducing a beneficial fungus would contaminate the genetic material being studied.  But Michael is making a dent.  In his free time Michael goes white-water kayaking, most recently in the New River Gorge.  “I was genuinely scared for my life, but it was exhilarating.”  Don’t put any dents in yourself, Michael!

For more information and to arrange tours, go to http://liveplantcollections.biology.duke.edu/.