Daily Archives: 5th of December 2011

Free paper — Dividing without centrioles

Innovative MTOCs organize mitotic spindles in bryophytes, the earliest extant lineages of land.
Triple staining of γ-tubulin, microtubules, and nuclei here reveal that three types of MTOCs initiate spindles in bryophytes. Polar organizers in liverworts and plastid MTOCs in hornworts are unique and nuclear envelope MTOCs in mosses appear like those in seed plants.

  • Roy C. Brown and Betty E. Lemmon

Dividing without centrioles: innovative MTOCs organize mitotic spindles in bryophytes, the earliest extant lineages of land plantsAoB PLANTS  http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/aobpla/plr028

A gift for teenage children of all ages?

Christmas is looming for many of us and with it the challenge of buying the perfect gift for friends and family. Choosing something for young people (especially teenagers) is particularly difficult since their quixotic sensibilities can make choosing just the right thing something of a shot in the dark. Although a printed book might seem culturally retro to the younger generation, this is just what I am suggesting here. Not just any old book of course or even a book about plants (which you might expect in the AoB Blogosphere) but a philosophy book. I doubt such a heavy word occurs even once in the book itself but philosophy is what it’s about and it makes for very good reading.

The book I am referring to is Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality. It was published just a few months ago. This distinguished biologist has written numerous popular books before (most notably perhaps The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion) but this is the first time he has written specifically for young people ― an even harder task than buying them Christmas presents. Dawkins attempts, in plain non-technical language, to evaluate the world around us and the wider universe too. He pulls no punches in putting across his main theme that myths and magic have no place in the present day as we struggle to understand biological and physical reality.

Each of the twelve chapters starts with plain non-nonsense accounts of long-standing myths and legends and supernatural beliefs that many people still rely on to explain what is around them. This is followed by alternative myth busting evidence-based explanations. Dawkins successfully portrays these as far more exciting and full of adventure and promise than the long-standing belief-based explanations of old, no matter how colourful these may be in literary terms. He emphasises the precedence of experimental evidence over belief and decries any approach that fails to allow for knowledge to develop further as new evidence comes to light.  The subjects dealt with in this way are turned into leading questions that are used as chapter headings. They include ‘Who was the first person?’; ‘Why are there so many different kinds of animals?’; What are things made of?’; ‘What is the sun?’; ‘When and how did everything begin?’; ‘What is a miracle?’; ‘What is an earthquake?’; Why do bad things happen?’.  These are just the sort of awkward questions often posed by young people and Dawkins harnesses them to great effect to explain current state of knowledge on diverse matters stretching from subatomic structures to the big bang, with lots of biology parked in between.

It’s a pity Dawkins could find relatively little about plants to help get young readers excited about. However, they do feature here and there. Heavy use is made of analogies (e.g. a three-mile-high pile of imaginary photographs, one for each generation, used to illustrate the approx. 185 million generations that lie between us and our fishy ancestors). These can sometimes become a touch tedious but they usually get the job nicely done. All the well-crafted and unpretentious writing is, by contrast, bathed in colourful eye-catching illustrations by Dave McKean. Every page is brilliantly enhanced by his arresting artwork that is always well-grounded in the text that floats amongst the imagery.

By the way, The Magic of Reality is not just for teenagers. And, if nothing else it is an object lesson in how to write about complex and difficult subjects for non-specialists. There is a happy knack of combining confident exposition with the humility that comes from knowing there is so very much still to learn. Of course, if that were not true, science would simply grind to a halt. So it is perhaps odd that so much science writing is overbearingly ‘definitive’. Perhaps this happens when a wealth of learned facts is confused with knowledge and insight. Happily Dawkins writing is not in this mould.

Mike Jackson,

Chief Editor, AoB PLANTS

A Christmas Trilogy, Part 1

In lieu of the traditional collection of items in a monthly issue of the Annals of Botany, Mr P. Cuttings presents the following selection for your delectation, delight, distraction, diversion, etc, during this festive/holiday time of Holivacfest, Seasontide, Snowbreakfest, Winterval, Solsticebreak, Festivefest [or whatever politically correct term we’re supposed to use for Christmas this year]. Included here in Part 1 are some items that hark back to Christmas past; later there will be another for a Yuletide in the here-and-now, and a third concerning the ‘last day of a Pancha Ganapati’ yet to come.


Part 1: Hints at Christmas Past…

Whatever one’s religious views, leanings or persuasion one of the best-known Christmas stories is the tale of the Magi, Wise Men (usually three, but not necessarily so…) who visited the infant Jesus and brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Well, by dint of a minor miracle that is the modern-day phytological make-over, the following snippets are offered…


Gold  Image: Wikimedia Commons

Gold Image: Wikimedia Commons

The immunobotanical equivalent of counting sheep to induce sleep must be enumerating gold dots on ultrathin sections (no offence intended to those who engage in such aurinumerary activities!). Well, if that’s your bag, then Terry Mayhew has a compendium of new approaches for the plant cell biologist who has need to quantify immunogold localisation on electron microscope thin sections (Journal of Experimental Botany, 2011). As the article explains, ‘The various methods are illustrated with worked examples based on empirical and synthetic data and will be of practical benefit to those applying single or multiple immunogold labelling in their research’. And, if worrying about whether there’s enough gold to satisfy all of your immunogold localisation needs keeps you awake at night, fear not! Apparently, it just falls from the sky (I’m probably summarising a little here…), according to Matthias Willbold et al. (Nature, 2011). So, if you wait long enough a heavenly body will provide (hmm, sounds familiar…).


Frankincense  Image: Scott Zona/Wikimedia Commons

Frankincense Image: Scott Zona/Wikimedia Commons

On firmer botanical ground, frankincense is the name given to an aromatic resin from trees of the genus Boswellia, usually B. sacra. Boswellias are found in desert-woodland, rocky limestone slopes and gullies, and the ‘fog oasis’ woodlands of the southern coastal mountains of the Arabian Peninsula, and are generally considered to be ‘under threat’ in the wild. Much of this threatened status is probably due to an ancient association of the resin with various medical and ceremonial practices (and which is not helped by present-day exploitation of B. papyrifera in the fragrance trade: Rijkers et al., Journal of Applied Ecology, 2006). However, some degree of protection is accorded those frankincense trees still found today along the so-called Frankincense Trail in Oman, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bringing the story up-to-date, an age-old remedy for arthritis, that cruel and crippling bane of old-age, has been investigated by a team at Cardiff University (Wales, UK). An extract of B. frereana – a rare frankincense species(!!) – has been shown to inhibit the production of key inflammatory molecules that help to prevent the breakdown of the cartilage tissue (which causes the condition). Although the Somalis have used frankincense traditionally in this way for centuries, the 21st Century approach uses ‘innovative chemical extraction techniques to determine the active ingredient in frankincense’, which should enable the active chemical(s) to be characterised and compared against other anti-inflammatory drugs used for treating arthritis. That report is more than a little reminiscent of older work by Sengupta and co-workers (Arthritis Research & Therapy 2008), who demonstrated the arthritis-relieving value of 5-Loxin®, a novel extract from B. serrata. Extending the medicinal value of frankincense to cancers, Frank et al. demonstrated that the oil of B. carteri appears to distinguish cancerous from normal bladder cells and to suppress cancer cell viability (BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2009), which therefore has potential as an alternative therapy for bladder cancer. With all these potentially life-quality-enhancing/life-extending discoveries – from a wide range of Boswellia species – and on top of their other uses – it’s small wonder these trees are under such threat in the wild! The sooner we have the minor miracle that is the synthetic chemist’s art to develop sustainable – ‘artificial’ – alternatives, the better!


Myrrh  Image: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1887.

Myrrh Image: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1887.

Myrrh is another aromatic plant exudate. Technically, an oleoresin, myrrh is a natural gum that exudes from thorny trees of the genus Commiphora, primarily C. myrrha, in response to wounding. Fancifully, one might liken the liquid outpouring to tears from a tree that is crying because of the pain it has suffered during wounding. In which vein it has some resonance with accounts of an icon of the Virgin Mary that is reported to have wept myrrh. Apparently, the crying began in 2007 when the icon was in Hawaii, about the time of the start of the financial crisis that still plagues global stock markets and threatens to overwhelm the world’s financial institutions – and some countries – to this day. I’m sure we’ve all had cause to weep because of that! When last heard of, the myrrholachrymatory icon was in St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bakersfield (California, USA). Rather less religiously, but around Christmas time in 2006, patrons of The Star public house in Belgravia (west London, UK) were invited to identify myrrh and frankincense handed to them on a plate. The session was organised by the UK’s august Royal Society of Chemistry to celebrate the centenary of myrrh’s first scientific analysis. Both mystery compounds were correctly identified by a Mr Michael Powell who received £300 of vouchers to spend at Fortnum and Mason (a department store in central London; founded in 1707, it is recognised internationally for its high quality goods and as an iconic British symbol). Sounds like Michael’s the winner who got the gold, thereby completing the biblical threesome! Myrrh has been used medicinally for hundreds of years and doubtless still has many secrets to give up. Modern studies implicate the exotic plant extract in cholesterol-lowering activity, at least in overweight albino rats, according to the work of Nadia Saleh Al-Amoudi (International Journal of Food Safety, Nutrition and Public Health, 2009). However, the author cautiously – and sagely – concludes that ‘More studies are needed to confirm the effect of myrrh as overweight and obesity controller agent’ (which is also a good line to use whenever one wants to secure further funding to continue an area of research!). Finally, and in a curious reverse effect (to prevent weight loss, albeit that due to decomposition!), the body of Admiral Horatio Nelson was said to have been preserved in myrrh-infused brandy during its journey back to the UK after the Battle of Trafalgar.


Tune in again soon for Part 2: From Christmas Past to Christmas Present…

Epigenetic floral variant of clonal oil palm (Review)

Epigenetic floral variant of clonal oil palm (Review)

Epigenetic floral variant of clonal oil palm (Review)

The mantled somaclonal variation of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) hampers oil production as the supernumerary female organs are either sterile or produce fruits with poor oil yields. Jaligot et al. provide an overview of research focusing on this intriguing floral phenotype, which also provides a unique opportunity to investigate epigenetic regulation of reproductive development in palms. They propose that future efforts should concentrate on epigenetic regulation targeting MADS-box genes and transposable elements, since both types of sequences are most likely to be involved in this variant phenotype.