'Moss man' of S'pore gets top award
NUS scientist Benito Tan is the first in
Asia to receive the prestigious Richard Spruce Award, for his
work on mosses in the region
SMALL is beautiful to scientist Benito Tan, 52, who has
spent most of his life studying Earth's simplest and most
ancient plants - mosses.
|Brylogist Tan has three species
named after him.|
The lifelong obsession with moss paid off for the National
University of Singapore (NUS) don earlier this month, when he
was awarded one of the most prestigious awards given out in
the field, the Richard Spruce Award.
The award was given in recognition of his important
contributions to bryology - the study of mosses, liverworts,
and hornworts - while he was in Venezuela attending a meeting
It came as a total surprise to him.
Said Associate Professor Tan: 'I was overwhelmed when I
heard my name being called because this means international
recognition of my research contributions in
Along with a plaque, the award - given by the International
Association of Bryologists, which has about 600 members
worldwide - included an invitation to give a special lecture
at the next bryological world congress in Vienna next year.
Prof Tan, who is from NUS' department of biological
sciences, is the fourth recipient of the award in 10 years,
but the first from Asia.
During the award presentation on Jan 15, the association's
president, Dr Robert Gradstein, who is from Germany, said that
Prof Tan was recognised for the 25 years he has spent
documenting the diversity of Asian mosses.
He also praised him for identifying 'hot spots' in the
region where mosses proliferate, and for his efforts in
campaigning for the protection of such areas.
Although he has been called crazy because of his passion
for mosses, Prof Tan, who has three species of mosses and
liverworts in the region named after him, says that his
interest is not purely academic.
Such plants, he says, contain special compounds that can be
found nowhere else.
And although these have not been well studied, they could
one day be made into drugs to treat diseases.
German scientists, for example, have found that some moss
extracts can kill fungi more effectively than commercial
Other studies found that peat moss apparently stimulates
pigs to feed and grow.
Prof Tan has also compiled online databases on regional
moss species and endangered species elsewhere.
Just this month, he and two of his students discovered two
new moss species here.
One of only a handful of such experts in South-east Asia,
he has braved everything from tribal wars and broken bones to
close encounters with snakes and other dangerous forest
creatures during his travels to some of the most remote spots
His unceasing hunt for new species has taken him to places
such as Eastern Siberia, Vietnam, China and Papua New
'Rather than just following trends of what's 'hot' in the
research world, it pays for a scientist to be committed to one
field of study, although it may not seem glamorous at the
time,' said Prof Tan.
'In the end, bits of information accumulated over the years
will build up a big picture that has important
There are about 18,000 species of bryophytes, which
reproduce using spores rather than seeds,
About 2,000 of them can be found in the
Mosses play a major role in the forest ecosystem, as many
animals and insects rely on them for food.