Martine, Students Name New Plant Species

Caroline Fassett, Assistant News Editor

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For the University, the significance of the critical and commercial successful film, “The Martian,” lies in the fact that a new species of plant discovered by a member of the University has been named after the movie’s protagonist. This main character, portrayed by Matt Damon, is a botanist named Mark Watney; the name of the newly-realized plant species is Solanum watneyi.

Associate Professor of Biology Chris Martine of the David Burpee Professorship in Plant Genetics and Research came across “some oddball bush tomato specimens” collected in the 1970s when working in the Northern Territory Herbarium a few years ago. Recording the locations of the plant, Martine and his wife and children traveled to the area in the summer of 2014 and came across the vegetation. The professor immediately understood that it was something yet to be described.

The naming of the bush tomato specimen was something that Martine wanted his research lab group to participate in, saying it was a “special opportunity.” After coming up with the name Solanum watneyi, he and his research lab group took a field trip to see “The Martian” its opening weekend in Selinsgrove, Pa., bringing the plant itself with them into the theater.

“I think we all came out of the film pleased that we chose to name a species after the protagonist. There was no question, after we cheered Matt Damon saying, ‘I am the greatest botanist on this planet,’ that we all felt pretty good about the connection,” Martine said.

Martine said that Emma Frawley ’17, the student primarily responsible for caring for and studying the Solanum watneyi plants located in the greenhouse, spent most of her summer “measuring characteristics and comparing the species against other known species.”

“I germinated [the] seeds [collected by Martine] in February/March 2015 and conducted my research over the course of this summer. I took measurements of almost everything about these plants … as well as hand pollinating within and out of species to set fruit. Any observable differences were noted, too, like petal color, leaf margin type, etc.,” Frawley said.

Frawley conducted numerical data that ran through a statistical analysis program to determine whether or not the Solanum watneyi plants were composed of enough significant differences in comparison to the Solanum eburneum plants to be considered a different species. Frawley presented her research at the University’s Sigma Xi Student Research Symposium and at the Botany Conference in Canada, the latter being the first academic and professional conference she ever attended.

“Thousands of botanists from around the world were there to give incredible talks and present their own research, so presenting a poster as an undergrad felt extra special and extra lucky. The botanical science community is seriously the coolest, interesting, and most passionate group of people,” Frawley said.

Though Frawley largely credits Martine as the principal actor who named the tomato bush specimen, she said that the entire research group all approved of the name in their desire to get more people excited—not just about finding a new plant species, but about botany in general.

Frawley said that “[in the film,] Watney is a botanist who gets stranded on Mars and ends up growing potatoes in an attempt to survive. Botany doesn’t usually get a shout-out in mainstream media, so we jumped on the opportunity.”

In an article he penned for The Huffington Post, Martine’s thoughts matched those of Frawley:

“We botanists often feel like underdogs,” Martine said in his article. “Think about it: When is the last time you heard a child say they want to grow up to be a botanist? Or watch plants on TV? Or major in botany at college?”

“The naming of the plant was largely derived from his gratitude of a Mark Watney hero botanist to draw attention to our branch of science,” Martine said. 

If the popularity of botany heightens after naming this plant after a character from “The Martian,” it could be due in part to the Facebook page of Andy Weir, the author of the book which the film is based on. On his page, Weir shared a picture of the Solanum watneyi and said that it was a “new discovery and was classified by a group of botanists from Bucknell University led by Dr. Chris Martine.”

“What higher honor could a botanist like Watney ask for than to have a plant named after him?” Weir said.

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