Daily Archives: 16th of October 2011

Food for the billions – botany has the answers #bad11

Food Types

Food Types

Not only do the growing billions of people in the world want to eat, but those in poorer countries want to share in the lifestyles those of us enjoy in the West. They don’t want to be wondering where the next meal for themselves and their families will be coming from; they don’t want to get ill from eating that meal; they don’t want to spend all their waking hours bent double under the sun weeding their crops; they want to be able to buy and enjoy non-food comforts; and they want a varied and interesting diet with more meats and oils.

While writing that list, I inserted ‘above all’ several times, but actually each one of these points is critical to a billion people. In the West, we enjoy food as never before; nobody has three identical meals a day, whether “noodles and yak meat”, or “rice and …”, where the ellipsis is, as often as not, nothing. Largely because of our food and the ways it is grown, handled and processed, our life expectancy during the 19th century increased from 50 years to 75 – to put it more clearly, for every two days later that you were born, you expected to live an extra day. We don’t have big shocks about price or non-availability.

How can though, can our standards be achieved “without trashing the planet”, as Professor Bill Davies from Lancaster has noted, for the world’s population? Plant breeders and farmers selecting improved varieties play a major role, and their work will be supported by geneticists, physiolologists and germplasm experts. . The Phytopractor http://phytophactor.fieldofscience.com/ commented on a previous blog here: without botany, we would be naked, miserable and hungry. The relatively small group of people working in these areas, whether in crops or model species, and certainly including those modelling plant growth and looking at ecology and pathology, can address both systematically and by serendipity the constraints on crop production, and ensure that options are available for sustainable and affordable methods giving the best quality and quantity needed to meet the challenges.

On our Scoop It between October 9th and October 16th

These are links from our Scoop It page between October 9th and October 16th:

Trees ‘boost African crop yields’

Planting trees that improve soil quality can help boost crop yields for African farmers and improve food security, an assessment shows.


The results appear in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.

Plant light

Daniel Mullendore is a student of plant biology at Washington State University. While flowering plants are undoubtedly macroscopically pretty, Daniel likes to look beyond the foliage and the flowers to the beauty that most people never see.

What bananas tell us about radiation – as a unit for exposure

We cover much about the science of bananas on AoBBlog.com and in Annals of Botany – an even have the occassional article referring to radiation mutagenesis, since the crop cannot be bred conventionally by hybridization (when did you last eat a banana seed?). But the BBC now plans that we should use the amount of radiation in a banana as a unit for the dose of radiation: eating a banana will give you a 0.1 microSieverts dose.

Miscanthus – A bioenergy crop for all seasons – Feature – BBSRC/RuSource

Alan Spedding, Rusource Briefing 1381: Miscanthus breeding

Researchers at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at the University of Aberystwyth have been undertaking a large-scale study of Miscanthus to provide improved varieties for energy production. One way is to grow varieties which flower at just the right time and so maximise yields. Some types flower as early as June, others as late as November and some didn't flower at all. This diversity is promising as it will allow breeders to develop varieties that can flower at the time of year that best suits the environment in which they are grown.


Follow Alan Spedding on Twitter @RuSource

Subscribe to Rusource Briefings http://www.nationalrural.org/organisation.aspx?id=886c6950-1d3f-44d5-a362-324423edd7ea


The Race to Grow the One-Ton Pumpkin

Galvanized by the prospect of growing the world’s largest pumpkin, amateur gardeners are devising new strategies involving natural growth hormones, double grafting and more.

FAO: The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2011 edition just out

How does international price volatility affect domestic economies and food security?

The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2011 highlights the differential impacts that the world food crisis of 2006-08 had on different countries, with the poorest being most affected. While some large countries were able to deal with the worst of the crisis, people in many small import-dependent countries experienced large price increases that, even when only temporary, can have permanent effects on their future earnings capacity and ability to escape poverty.

This year’s report focuses on the costs of food price volatility, as well as the dangers and opportunities presented by high food prices. Climate change and an increased frequency of weather shocks, increased linkages between energy and agricultural markets due to growing demand for biofuels, and increased financialization of food and agricultural commodities all suggest that price volatility is here to stay.

Source: www.fao.org

Brazil cooks up transgenic bean

Paired with rice or steeped in feijoada stew, beans are an essential feature of Brazilian cuisine. So great is Brazil's love of legumes that demand often outstrips domestic supply, forcing the country to import beans from Argentina, Bolivia and China. But this relationship could face the ultimate test as Brazilian scientists roll out a transgenic pinto bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) engineered to fend off one of the crop's most devastating enemies: the golden mosaic virus.

Biodiversity (by EO Wilson) and Synthetic Biology (by Church & Venter) | The Scientist (its last ever issue)

I am really sorry to hear that "The Scientist", a magazine I always pick up at conferences and regularly read on the website, is closing after the current 25th anniversary issue. Anyway, the current issue is a real cracker (with no mention of being the last). George Church and Craig Venter lead a series of articles on synthetic biology, genetic circuits, and exciting prospects. There are other articles from Walter Bodmer, Stephen Friend, Eric Kandel, Thomas Lovejoy, Chad Mirkin, Edward O. Wilson (on Biodiversity), Mary Woolley, and reviews of two papers on the Climate-Shaped Arabidopsis Genome:
Two genome-wide studies, backed up by field experiments, identify SNPs that correlate with Arabidopsis fitness in various climates." (as already featured here on AnnBot Scoop.it).

The front page of the issue is at http://the-scientist.com/2011/10/01/celebrating-25-years-of-the-scientist/ 

The return of the weird sex life of orchids

The Guardian story that went AWOL this week is back.

Scientists Eye Windows of Opportunity for Adapting Food Crops To Climate Change in the Next Two Decades

"The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) has released a series of studies focused on “climate proofing” crops critical to food security in the developing world.

The studies constitute various chapters in a new book titled Crop Adaptation to Climate Change which was developed by an international team of the world’s leading climate and agricultural researchers to provide adaptation strategies for more than a dozen crops—such as potatoes, beans, bananas and cassava—on which billions of people depend worldwide.

The studies describe how climate change could threaten food production and how specific adaptation strategies could neutralize or at least significantly lessen the impact. They argue that investments are urgently needed to identify important genetic traits, including drought tolerance and pest resistance, which will be critical for helping farmers adapt to new growing conditions.

“In these studies, we’ve brought together the best climate science with the best knowledge of crop improvement to spell out how crops will be affected and what plant breeders can do to avert or at least cushion potentially devastating blows,” said Julian Ramirez, a scientist at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and one of the authors of the studies.


(PS CGIAR sites have an unfortunate habit of wild & fast changes in their web addresses. The first post of this press release is gone within 2 days; if the above link breaks, try the news release service at http://www.sciencenewsline.com/nature/2011100303210005.html ) 

The fashionably late arrival of cucumbers in Europe #bad11

You might put together a salad from what you’ve grown in your back garden, but it’s a surprisingly cosmopolitan meal. Tomatoes came from Mesoamerica and if you have potato salad, then you have the Incas of South American to thank. Recent research by Jules Janick and Harry Paris, Medieval Herbal Iconography and Lexicography of Cucumis (Cucumber and Melon, Cucurbitaceae) in the Occident, 1300—1458, has found another relatively recent arrival in Europe, the cucumber. This is a surprise as historians thought it had been around the Mediterranean since ancient times.

Classicists can point to the Latin word cucumis, which ought to be a big clue cucumbers were grown in ancient Rome. The ancient Greeks also had a word, sikyos and it’s even known from Hebrew texts qishu’im. Janick and Paris took a close look at the texts using these words and found things weren’t that simple. To modern botanists cucumis isn’t just cucumber. Cucumis sativus is a cucumber, but Cucumis melo is a melon. The earliest known illustrated herbal manuscript is the Juliana Anicia Codex from 512 CE. Janick and Paris found that the word cucumis was only used for snake melon. They’re confident about that as appearance of a snake melon and cucumber are visibly different.

Cucumbers and melons in medieval manuscripts

Illustrations from medieval manuscripts from Janick and Paris's paper.
A: Cucumber. B: Melon. C: Snake Melon

After that the quality of illustrations gets worse. If a medieval manuscript did have illustrations, they’d be copies of copies and so useless for serious work. Things are bad until around 1300 CE, when there’s a return to high quality illustrations. In these new manuscripts there are melons, but there are also the first recognisable cucumbers. That leaves a puzzle. Did cucumbers appear in European fields at the same time as these new manuscripts were written, or had they been around for a while, and these just happen to be the first recognisable illustrations?

Along with the new images came a new label, citruli. This appears in Italian texts from the mid-12th century. Before then the word is not used. The word survives in modern Italian as cetrioli, which is based on citruli for cucumbers. Janick and Paris argue that the French preferred the word cucumeres, which before then had been used for elongated melons. It’s this shift in meaning that created confusion reading ancient texts.

So if the cucumber in your salad isn’t from originally from Europe, where did it come from?

There are two lines of evidence that point in the same direction. Genetic evidence suggests that the cucumber was domesticated at least 2000 years ago in India, and one name for the food agrees. The modern Gherkin, was a Kychern in Latin, a Khiyar in Arabic and Persian and back to Khira in Bengali and Hindustani.

I like the research. It’s excellent history because Janick and Paris don’t simply assume translations are correct. They go back to the original sources to see what was actually said. The outcome neatly turns a tired stereotype on its head. It’s easy to see the Dark Ages as a time of decay, but here we can see that exchange of ideas continued after the fall of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages.

You can read the paper at the Annals of Botany.