By Patricia Bianca S. Taculao

Imagine the Philippines as an enormous supermarket with an extensive array of products on its shelves–one of which is local flora. The archipelago contains more than thousands of plants, and neglecting to categorize them properly could lead to confusion when the need to identify a species arises.

To prevent such an incident, botanists are also in pursuit of enhancing the resources they possess in discovering, identifying, and eventually categorizing plants.

Dr. Grecebio Jonathan D. Alejandro is one example of the many botanists who developed and implemented in the Philippine setting a solution that involves a well-known, yet complex system of classification: barcoding.

Dr. Grecebio Jonathan Alejandro is known for pioneering research on plant molecular phylogenetics in the Philippines. (Photo taken from researchgate.net)

Barcoding, or DNA barcoding, is a modern procedure that helps identify species faster. It works by extracting a DNA sequence from a tiny tissue sample of any living organism. There are two basic steps that are involved in the process: the first builds the DNA barcode for existing species while the second matches the barcode sequence of unknown samples to that of the barcode library for identification.

It has a number of advantages such as flagging species that are new to science, addressing fundamental ecological and evolutionary questions like how species in plant communities are created, and diagnoses species by including the entire life history of an organism.

The process has been developing rapidly in recent years and has become a useful tool for biodiversity investigation and monitoring as well as molecular phylogeny and evolution.

Dr. Alejandro is known for pioneering research on plant molecular phylogenetics, or the study of evolutionary history of a classified group of organisms, in the Philippines using genetic barcoding.

His research discovery is vital to the process of selecting species with possible medicinal value, identifying species with ornamental potential, and describing key species for phylogenetic studies.

Implementing foreign knowledge on local premises

Dr. Alejandro attended several institutions that helped him become the botanist that he is today.

He started his journey in Far Eastern University where he graduated with a degree of Bachelor of Science in Biology in 1992. He then furthered his studies by earning a degree of Master of Science in Biological Sciences from the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in 1999.

As he progressed in his academics, Dr. Alejandro realized that Philippine botany and its techniques were lagging behind compared to its foreign counterparts.

“Until the late 90s, Filipino botanists were limited to traditional systematics and taxonomy. This is the reason why I pursued my doctoral overseas to learn the modern techniques,” he said.”

Dr. Alejandro attended the University of Bayreuth in Bavaria, Germany where he learned about DNA barcoding. By 2005, he earned the status of Doctor of Philosophy, Biology Major in Plant Sciences.

After he acquired his doctorate degree, Dr. Alejandro returned to the Philippines where he used his newfound knowledge to be of service to the country by improving the tools used in identifying various endemic species.

Other than spearheading the research on plant molecular phylogenetics, Dr. Alejandro wrote and presented about 120 papers, 25 of which are descriptions of new taxa, including a new genus known as Bremeria which is part of the Rubiaceae family.

Dr. Alejandro specializes in angiosperms or flowering plants, particularly with those included related to the Rubiaceae family. This type of plants consists of 13,150 species of trees, shrubs, and herbs which can be primarily found in tropical areas. Several of these are sources of useful chemicals while some are cultivated as ornamentals.

Examples of plants included in the Rubiaceae are coffee, hedyotis, and gardenias.

Coffee is an example of a member of the Rubiaceae family.

He also discovered a rare species of Philippine Hedyotis L. (Rubiaceae) which he named after Pope Francis I (Hedyotis papafranciscoi). The plant has been declared critically endangered.

Dr. Alejandro also named a Philippine coffee plant variety after UST (Mussaenda ustii) because its flowers resemble the university’s official color: yellow gold.

Currently, Dr. Alejandro is an Assistant Professor 3 in the Department of Biological Sciences at the UST. He is also a member of the Research Center for Natural Sciences.

He established the Thomasian Angiosperm Phylogeny and Barcoding Group (TAPBG), a research force that focuses on studying the biodiversity of Philippine Rubiaceae and medicinal plants. It is also concerned with the preservation and conservation of endemic plants.

TAPBG uses both classical tools and molecular markers to understand the diversity of Philippine flora.

Recognizing the name behind the discoveries

Due to his numerous breakthroughs in the field of botany, Dr. Alejandro has received an array of awards.

Some of these include Eduardo Quisimbing Medal from the National Academy of Science and Technology and the Gregorio Zara Achievement Award from the Philippine Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology.

Dr. Alejandro is also the recipient of the Outstanding Young Scientist Award of the Philippines.

He hopes to inspire and mold young minds into aspiring botanists that could soon either continue or develop the work he and many other bright minds in the field have begun.

“To the students of science, continue your passion in research and discovery for the greater good that it may benefit humanity,” Dr. Alejandro said.

For others who are not necessarily involved in the field of botany, he encourages them to support the advocacies of the Philipine government and non-government organizations on counteracting the effects of environmental degradation.

“Let’s help the environment recover from the destruction which is mainly caused by humans. We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment,” Dr. Alejandro added.

The information on Dr. Grecebio Alejandro was discussed by Dr. Rosario Rubite, a specialist in begonia plants, during the 5th International Symposium of the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society Inc. held last November 2019 at the University of Santo Tomas.

Rubite put botanists like Alejandro under the spotlight to illustrate that although botanists face many challenges in their career, there are still various opportunities and rewards in expanding the collective knowledge in local flora.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s March 2020 issue.