All posts by Alun Salt

About Alun Salt

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

Sweet nectar gives ferns a bitter taste

A collection of papers on Extrafloral Nectaries has recently moved into Free Access at Annals of Botany. One of the papers raises the question, can a plant that never flowers have extrafloral nectaries?

An unwanted caterpillar

Photo: Koptur et al.

Nectar secretion on fern fronds associated with lower levels of herbivore damage: field experiments with a widespread epiphyte of Mexican cloud forest remnants by Koptur et al. examines why ferns produce nectar. The paper starts with a brief review which includes a few facts that startled me. One is that extrafloral nectaries evolved before floral nectaries. This surprises me because I so deeply associate nectar with flowers. Another shock was that nectaries appear on ferns well before ants appear in the fossil record.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, but we’re so used to evolutionary stories being teleological, like plants evolved nectaries to reward insects, that it’s easy to forget that it’s a huge oversimplification that gets things very wrong. Nectaries didn’t evolve in order to do something with a purpose. Instead that plants with nectaries have a better chance of passing their traits to their offspring because they can reward insects. And what if there are no insects? Koptur et al. say that the early appearance of nectaries supports the ‘leaky phloem’ hypothesis, that sugars are forced out of the plant in weak developing tissues to ease hydrostatic pressure in the plant. This might explain how they formed, but once ants arrived did they help select ferns with better nectaries. Do the nectaries in ferns given them an evolutionary advantage?

The nectaries are on the leaves or fronds of the plant. Developing fronds are a prime target for herbivores, so if the ants were drawn into the leaves they could act as a defence. But do they. The experiment, like many of the best ones, sounds quite simple.

At its simplest, you find a plant with a suitable pair of young fronds. On one you paint over the nectaries with nail polish to prevent access to the nectar. You then see how the plants develop and compare the damage on the untreated leaf with the test leaf. Reality is messy, so they actually did a lot more than that to account for other factors – but the basic experiment was does access to the nectaries matter?

The results were clear. The fronds with blocked nectaries had four times the damage of the untreated fronds. The ferns benefited from hosting plants, and the ones that could attract them best got the best defence. The defence works best against invasive species that haven’t co-evolved with the fern and developed counter-defences against the ants.

It’s easy to see nectar as part of the plant’s reproductive strategy, or maybe as part of the reproductive system that’s been repurposed for something else. I think this paper neatly shows that there’s no need to assume any connection at all. There’s a lot more to nectar than bait for pollination.

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How to grow plants 400km above the ground

Quora is a site for posting questions to the internet. Sometimes those questions get answer. For example Robert Frost, who has trained astronauts for the International Space Station, has answered the question: How are plants growing in the ISS?

Gravity is not the only difference between the Earth environment and the ISS environment. In the closed atmosphere of a spacecraft, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can accumulate. VOCs need to be scrubbed from the air or seed production will suffer. There are elevated radiation levels that can cause mutations and affect growth. An experiment on Mir, that involved storing tomato seeds in space for six years found mutation rates up to 20 times higher in the space seeds than in the control seeds stored on the ground. And there are the spectral effects of using only electric lighting.

Plant in space

An autotrophic astronaut. Photo: NASA.

Because plants also respire, we have to have fans to circulate the air around the plants so that they don’t suffocate on their own exhalations. Even failed experiments can provide us with better understanding. An experiment to study plant lignin failed to produce healthy plant materials but taught us more about providing effective air movement.

You can read more at Quora.

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Increase the Impact of Your Research Paper in One Step

Annals of Botany had an editorial meeting recently one of the topics that came up was how can authors increase the readership of their paper? One place that can have a surprisingly large impact is the abstract.

If you’ve spent an age trying to get all the details of your research right, it can be painful reducing everything to a couple of hundred words. However an abstract isn’t a mini-version of your paper, it’s a tool to get people to read your paper, and that means making it as easy as possible for people to see why they should care. There’s the full slidedeck up at Haiku Deck or press play above.

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The Art of Urban Botany

A few links have come in through the feeds today on urban botany. It could be interesting if you can’t get away for a holiday. Urban Botany, Urban Art and the Instagram Effect by Hollis Marriot at In the Company of Plants and Rocks blogs a botanical tour around Laramie. The juxtaposition of natural and urban elements like graffiti, can be striking.

She points on to Lucy Corrander who blogs at Loose and Leafy. I like her post on the wild plants of Southampton High Street which includes:

If I have a mission, it’s to persuade people that every street is a garden. Not has a garden, note; but is one.

As she finds, it can be a tough claim to defend, but given the tenacity of plants, she might well be right.

Moss Graffiti

Mossenger and Anna. Photo: Matthew Knight / Flickr.

Returning to plants and art, the tenacity can be an artistic tool in itself. I wandered on to Moss Graffiti, using moss as the ink for art. which Heavy Petal covered this back in 2007, so I’m quite slow. There’s a number of Pinterest images up, some very impressive and a how to guide at Stencil Revolution.

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Summer* Reading

*Or winter reading for our followers in the better hemisphere.

In the northern hemisphere, the summer break is upon us. If you’re looking for some light reading to take with you on holiday, what would you recommend? Kirkus Reviews has a short article on recent ecological science fiction, Seeders by A.J. Colucci looks like it could be interesting, combining plant neurobiology with horror. io9 has their own list from 2011, which includes a few I haven’t read as does SF Signal from 2012. Alan Cann has read The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, which I realise is another book I haven’t read.

Is there a science fiction book you’d recommend that tackles plants in a credible way?

If you prefer your SF to feel like work, then you’re not limited just to moving from science to fiction. Recently a few have tried going the other way in the Science of Tatooine Blog Carnival. Matt Shipman explains Why a Bunch of Science Writers Are Writing About a Fictional Planet, including Malcolm Campbell’s speculative Tatooine’s tangled bank – plants evolve in a galaxy far, far away

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So what ARE the 7 most important plants?

A while back Annals Editor Pat Heslop-Harrison was asking what ten plants should botanists know about. I’ve taken it a bit further with a Buzzfeed post on the 7 Plants That Changed Your Life.

I’ve tried to pick seven plants with global consequences, but I’m not entirely happy with the list. The seven plant limit means I’ve missed out a lot of important plants. For example, there are no marine plants on the list. Nothing that really address important evolutionary steps that plants made, so no mosses or ferns,

So what plants would you add to the list and why? I’d be interested to see if our readers could compile another list of another seven plants that would be equally good, or better.

Leave your suggestions below, or at Buzzfeed or on our Facebook page.

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Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak

Tomorrow's Table cover

Quite a few people have recommended this book to me, but I hadn’t made time to read it. My loss, this is an excellent book. I was told it was a good explanation about the uses of Genetic Engineering in farming. It does tackle that, but it also has a much broader vision, also talking about the role of organic farming in the future.

The authors Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak are a husband and wife team. Pamela Ronald talks about genetic engineering, while Raoul Adamchak talks about the teaching he does on UC Santa Cruz’s organic farm. The third feature of the book is the recipes interspersed with the text. The recipes highlight one of the best features of the book, it’s very personal, which makes it very relatable. There is a danger with this in that you risk replacing facts with anecdata: genetic engineering is ok, because it worked for me. Fortunately they authors move from the specific, this is what we do on the farm, to the general, and this is what the science says about how it works.

The book opens with Pamela Ronald’s work with rice. She had been trying to make a breed of rice that can survive flooding. I’ve seen paddy fields and I thought all rice could survive flooding, but you can take it too far. It matters because rice is the staple food in a lot of the world. The climate is becoming more unpredictable and while drought might be a problem in some places, in others there’s a very real danger of catastrophic flooding. Rice can survive some flooding but not weeks.

Pamela Ronald found a gene in another form of rice that could help it survive longer and then used genetic engineering to transfer the gene to a rice people ate. It’s not the popular image of genetic engineering, but it is one that could make a lot of difference.
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Behind the scenes of a hundred journals

The Faculty of Medicine, University of Split

The venue of the EASE conference, the Faculty of Medicine, University of Split.

Last weekend the European Association of Science Editors had their conference in Split, Croatia. For me it was an opportunity to look behind the scenes of many journals at once to see what was coming up in other areas of science editing.

Social Media

AoB Blog sent me there for the social media session. I spoke with Sarah Linklater of The Lancet about social media for journals. It was a good example of a presentation leading on to discussion. For example, I’m keen on journals making things as shareable as possible. Possible is a difficult word, because Open Access journals, like AoB PLANTS can share more than Annals of Botany – which is subscription based. Even so, could we agree that images should be shareable? It turns out we couldn’t.

There is a good reason for this. Hannah Cagney, also at the Lancet, pointed out that patients might give consent for images to be used for medical research. However sharing is complicated because consent for images in a research paper isn’t the same allowing the gruesome results of your infection to go viral on Facebook.

Despite that, it seemed there was an appetite to share what people could. Buzzfeed, once a few people got their heads round it, seemed popular. I’m hoping this will lead to a few more journals expanding what they do on Social Media, including other plant science publishers.
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