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A Bronx Tale

Four places on the planet get an article before their name: The Vatican, The Hague, The Netherlands and The Bronx.

Steve Mirsky
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Four places on the planet get an article before their name: The Vatican, The Hague, The Netherlands and The Bronx. The only one of New York City's five boroughs that is situated on the United States mainland, the Bronx is perhaps best known as a symbol of the urban decay that plagued the nation in the 1970s and for the Bronx Bombers, a.k.a. the New York Yankees. But the rebounding borough is also strong in science, with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Fordham University and Lehman College of the City University of New York. In addition, the Bronx has two unique and internationally renowned scientific institutions: the Bronx Zoo, home of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and the New York Botanical Garden.

The zoo is the largest urban one in the country, with 265 acres and almost 4,000 animals. One mission is to educate the public – annual attendance...

BOTANICAL BLISS

Across Pelham Parkway from the zoo entrance's great copper gates, now oxidized to a deep green, lie the arboreal fields of the New York Botanical Garden, site of world-class botanical collections, laboratory investigations and another home port for international research. Since 1891, Garden researchers have traveled the globe on some 2,000 different expeditions to discover, collect, and analyze vegetation. Just this fall, the Garden announced that they were one of four New York institutions – along with New York University, The American Museum of Natural History, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory – that will share a $5 million National Science Foundation grant to create a virtual center for plant evolutionary genomics. The center is designed to create cutting-edge genomic DNA analyses and bioinformatics tools to understand the evolution of seeds and other traits of ecologically and economically important plants in an effort to ultimately improve seed quality.

The Garden's original library was part of the Columbia College of Pharmacy, which reflects the longstanding relationship between botany and medicine. Research in recent years has included ethnobotanical efforts that once again mix botany and medicine. Researchers like Michael Balick, director of the Garden's Institute of Economic Botany for nearly three decades, attempt to understand the medicinal use of various plants by native people so that pharmacologically active plant compounds may be isolated, and the indigenous people may profit economically from their natural resources.

The Garden's Steere Herbarium includes plant samples from the entire planet, but with an emphasis on New World species. The herbarium's seven million specimens make it the largest such collection in the western hemisphere, and the fourth largest in the world. Scientists anywhere can access the collection digitally or have samples loaned to them. Visiting scientists may also study plants on-site. So if you're a scientist in Manhattan interested in Amazonian biodiversity, sure, you could fly to Brazil. But why not just take the subway to the Bronx?

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