Category Archives: News

#SciFund is running a masterclass in poster design

Grab Attention

If you’re attending a conference any time soon, then you may want to look at #SciFund’s new course Mastering the art of poster design. Unlike MOOCs you do have to pay for this, but what you get for $50 is a five week course between Jun 7 and July 11, 2005.

If you want to see if if the course is likely to help you, you can get a preview of sorts. One of the course tutors is Zen Faulkes, who runs the Better Posters weblog. You can scroll through and read his critiques of other posters.

Like the FutureLearn courses, we have no affiliation with #SciFund, so you’ll need to contact them to register.

Science, Politics and Evidence

Polling station

X marks the spot.

I write a few of these posts in advance. So this is being written the day before the General Election in the UK to come out the day after the election. I don’t know who has won at the moment, but if predictions are right it’s possible no one will know who’s won for a week or so after the result. We’re politically plural in the AoB Blog office so there’ll be a mix of emotions. For some of us it’ll be a day of exasperation or frustration, while the people who voted for the losers will deal with it in their own way.

But it’s not a foregone conclusion that politicians have to be disappointing.

Back in March last year a group of scientists decided that politicians could make better decisions if they had access to independent information. Instead of just setting up a unit, they chose to speak to politicians first to find out what would be most useful to them. They also wanted to know the best way an Evidence Information Service could deliver that information.

To get that information, they went to the public to ask for help. The idea was that each constituency would have its own champion who would interview an MP, and local representative for the devolved governments. I took part and spoke to my local MP and AM (Assembly Member) with a structured set of interview questions. The aim was to write a paper based on those responses. You can see the draft online.

Impressively, they’ve also released their raw data. Their conclusion is that the politicians who met with interviewers showed their human side in responding to questions. I don’t feel I can say exactly what my MP and AM said without breaching confidentiality, but I was impressed with both of them. It seems around the UK, politicians of all parties would like access to independent scientific information.

For most of the results announced today the winner will have been voted in by an overwhelming minority. Regardless of who wins, it would be helpful for the representatives to have somewhere they can get scientific information. Chris Chambers et al. might have a way to aid policymakers, even if the election results mean they’re not the ones I want.

You can read more about the proposed Evidence Information Service at the Guardian.

The European Space Agency is offering a free course on climate observation


If you ever wonder where climate data comes from then ESA, the European Space Agency, might have the course for you. Monitoring Climate from Space is a free online course that looks at Earth Observation. The variety of instruments in space, and their wide coverage of the planet is creating an awful lot of data. How can you pull it all together to get a clear view of what’s happening? Over the five weeks they’ll cover Earth Observation from the basics to a look at how the various climate models are made.

The course is the product of CCI, the Climate Change Initiative, one of ESA’s many units and delivered by FutureLearn.

If space isn’t you’re thing and you’re looking for something closer to home then there’s also courses coming up on Our Hungry Planet: Agriculture, People and Food Security and Soils: Introducing the World Beneath Our Feet.

If you’re planning to take one of these courses, why not let us know below?

Roots Down Under: A special issue of Annals of Botany open for submissions

Canberra from Mount Ainslie

Canberra from Mount Ainslie. Photo: Jason James/Flickr.

Plant productivity is very dependent on favourable interactions between the roots and soil. These interactions not only drive water and nutrient acquisition but they also affect the release of signals that influence all aspects of plant growth and development. Root–soil interactions are also critical for ecosystem services, including biodiversity and carbon sequestration. However, the intimate contact between roots and soil also make them vulnerable to biotic and abiotic stresses. Plants reduce these risks by modifying the rhizosphere and by perceiving and responding to pathogens, mineral stresses and competitors.

Root penetrating soil

Photo by Michelle Watt

The complexity of the root–soil interface is daunting and notoriously difficult to examine in situ. This explains why strategies to improve plant production have largely neglected roots until relatively recently. Nevertheless there is a growing realization that the next breakthrough for increasing plant productivity will come, not by manipulating shoot traits, but by targeting these below-ground processes.

As our understanding of the physiology, ecology and genetics of root function advances we might recognise those conditions that benefit plant fitness under challenging conditions and then, perhaps, we will learn how to manipulate this complex environment to improve agriculture and the environment.

Undaunted by the challenges, the International Society of Root Research (ISRR) symposia tackle these important issues. The ninth symposium in the series will be held 6–9 October 2015 in Canberra Australia. The meeting will bring together leading scientists and industry experts to discuss root function in both agricultural and natural ecosystems. Annals of Botany will be releasing a Special Issue on Roots early 2016 with Guest Editors Peter Ryan, Michelle Watt and Anton Wasson, which will contain highlights from the meeting in Canberra. This is also an open call for submission of other papers on all aspects of root research, which can also be considered for inclusion in the Special Issue, following the usual peer-review process. If you have a manuscript that you would like us to consider, please send an outline (Title, Authors and 250–500 words) to by 31 July 2015. If agreed, the full paper would need to be submitted by 10 October 2015, in order to enter the full review process.

The European Space Agency goes back to its roots

Arabidopsis root

White bar, bottom-left is 70μm. © University of Freiburg–F. Ditengou / T. Haser / AG Palm via ESA.

Zero-G Airbus A300

Zero-G Airbus A300 © Novespace/CNES/DLR/ESA

The roots are Arabidopsis roots. They’ll be flying, along with the rest of the plant, on a parabolic flight to see how they react to zero gravity and hypergravity. Franck Ditengou of the University of Freiburg in Germany is conducting the experiments.

Gravitropism is key to a plant’s ability to create roots, as it needs to be able to send them down. There have been experiments on plants in microgravity before. Annals of Botany had a whole supplement publishing results from the STS-2 and STS-3 Space Shuttle flights. However, these experiments has to be packaged carefully and investigated immediately on landing. What Ditengou’s experiments will do is film the roots as they grow, so changes are visible in-situ.

“You might think that plants move slowly, but in fact they grow very fast,” says Franck. “We had to develop special software that finds the root tip as it quickly grows past the viewfinder.” Young Arabidopsis seedlings grow about 1 cm a day which means that during their time in altered gravity they will grow roughly half as much again at this image’s scale.

The research continues ESA’s extensive interest in plant sciences.

The great botanical countdown

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Always keen to promote sites that are planty, educational, informative and entertaining (especially those that are free-to-access!), we’re happy to give a belated mention of Oxford Plants 400. This botanical bonanza is offered as a gift to the world as the UK’s University of Oxford counts down towards the 25th July 2021, which date marks 400 years of botanical research and teaching by that world-renowned seat of higher learning. Sponsored by the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and the Harcourt Arboretum, together with the Oxford University Herbaria and that university’s Department of Plant Sciences, the site aims to highlight 400 plants that have scientific and cultural significance. Profiling one plant per week, it is illustrated with images from Oxford University’s living and preserved collections, and as I penned this piece it was showcasing plant No. 58, Monstera deliciosa, the Swiss cheese plant as it is commonly known in the UK. Previous plants displayed have included cinnamon, coffee, Norway spruce, giant redwood, sugarcane, sugar maple and ash. Additionally, it has included the liverwort, Marchantia, which is being exploited as a model plant at the UK’s University of Cambridge’s OpenPlant Laboratory for synthetic biology (so the listing is not limited to gymnosperms and angiosperms, but embraces so-called lower plants too), and the alga Chara (so it is not even constrained to members of the Plant Kingdom in the narrow sense*). I’ve not found a list that reveals all future plants, so it’s a nice surprise when each week’s new addition is revealed in my Twitter account direct from the project (@Plants400). This is a nice resource with much of plant-and-people relevance – ideal material for educators’ own botany lectures, talks, or their students’ essays, etc. Check it out!

* Although questioned by such workers as Sabina Wodniok et al., it is still widely held that a relative of modern-day Chara is the likely ancestor of the land flora, i.e. the members of the Plant Kingdom, which certainly justifies its inclusion as one of the chosen 400 ‘plants’.

[How one would have liked featured plant No. 1 to have been the larch (genus Larix), which includes trees that demonstrate that not all conifers are evergreen with the eponymously deciduous Larix decidua. Sadly, but understandably (and predictably?), that was probably never going to happen since that reference is to a comedy sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the majority of whose five-man acting cohort were alumni of the University of Cambridge, Oxford’s almost equally august competing seat of higher learning. However, Taxus baccata – the actual No. 1 –  is a conifer, which is not a million miles from Larix! In the interests of balance we’d like to point out that ‘other’ herbaria also exist, e.g. that associated with the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (Scotland, near England, UK), which is showcased in a short video presentation available on YouTube, and there’s also one at the University of Cambridge – Ed.]

Nature Plants: an appreciation [or, Now we are Three…*]

Image: Amédée Masclef, Atlas des Plantes de France, Paris: 1891.

Image: Amédée Masclef, Atlas des Plantes de France, Paris: 1891.

We don’t usually review science journals in this column (nor books come to that) [neither do we usually permit such long Cuttings pieces – Ed!], but occasionally we need to make an exception. So, exceptionally and on this occasion, one would like to say a few words by way of appraising Nature Plants (hereafter reduced to NP), the latest offering from the Nature Publishing Group (the publishers behind Nature, Nature Biotechnology, Nature Climate Change, NatureGeoscience, etc.). Launching its first issue in January 2015 [as exclusively revealed by Mr P. Cuttings? – Ed.], NP follows the layout familiar from several other companion journals in the Nature range.

Editorial and Commentary (and Books and Art…)

The journal greets the world with a timely [as such items should be! – Ed.] Editorial on ‘the compromise recently reached by the European Parliament over genetically modified crop legislation…’. Although non-attributed, one assumes this piece was either penned, or at least approved, by the journal’s Chief Editor, Chris Surridge. There follow two Comment pieces. The one from Professor Huw Jones (of the UK’s Rothamsted Research institution) deals with the topical topic of genome editing, a technique that allows modification of plants but which some argue falls outside of current legislative and regulatory strictures regarding GM (genetic modification) GE (an initialism here for genome editing, not genetic engineering…) is not considered to be genetic modification as such. The Comment piece by Pedro Sanchez (Director, Tropical Agriculture and the Rural Environment Program) of the Earth Institute (Columbia University, New York) is a rather upbeat, optimistic piece on agriculture productivity in Africa and dares to suggest that ‘sub-Saharan Africa could become one of the world’s breadbaskets by 2050’. On a cereal-related theme, the Books and Art (not something you’d expect in a serious botanical science journal…?) section contains a review of Renee Marton’s 2014 book, Rice: a global history; by University College London’s Professor of Archaeobotany Dorien Fuller (who certainly knows a thing or two about the book’s subject matter).

Research Highlights

The four short items in the Research Highlights section feature recent research from other journals (rather like Plant Cuttings’ items…? – Ed.), for example Peter van der Sleen et al.’s ‘No growth stimulation of tropical trees by 150 years of CO2 fertilization but water-use efficiency increased’. But it’s not all keep-it-in-the-family mutual appreciation/admiration of other Nature journals: this section also showcases Alison Bennett et al.’s ‘Plant lignin content altered by soil microbial community’,  Fangjun Li et al.’s ‘Modulation of RNA polymerase II phosphorylation downstream of pathogen perception orchestrates plant immunity’ and Yi Shang et al.’s ‘Biosynthesis, regulation, and domestication of bitterness in cucumber’. Sadly, all four articles so highlighted are behind paywalls. But, arguably, that is where Research Highlights come into their own, in providing a little more insight into the articles beyond their freely viewable abstracts. However, oftentimes the insight serves to reinforce the view that one wants to access the full article and can therefore be more frustrating than helpful…


News and Views

The penultimate section – News and Views (N&Vs) – is essentially the hors d’oeuvres for the main course, the ultimate Research section. N&Vs effectively showcase some of the Research articles in that issue and put them in context [rather like a hybrid of Annals of Botany’s Plant Cuttings and ContentSnapshots? – Ed.]. How items are selected to be so ‘bigged-up’ is not known to me, but it can’t do the authors of the featured paper any harm, and helps in putting research into context and explaining it for non-subject specialists [as Plant Cuttings aim to do – Ed.]. One of the Research articles given the N&V treatment that particularly caught my eye in this issue is Matthew Koski and Tia-Lynn Ashman’s ‘Floral pigmentation patterns provide an example of Gloger’s rule in plants’ by commentator – and wearer of two hats(!) –  Professor Innes Cuthill (University of Bristol, UK). The study is succinctly summarized thus: ‘a 180-year-old “law” in zoology has found its best support so far in a study of floral colour, which not only documents darker plants growing closer to the equator, but also supports the idea that the colour stems from ultraviolet protection’. Also ‘N&V’d’ is Andreas Bracher et al.’s study ‘Degradation of potent Rubisco inhibitor by selective sugar phosphatase’, commented on by Rebekka Wachter and Nathan Henderson (both at Arizona State University, USA). The study is summarised by the pair thus: ‘Rubisco catalyses the first step in photosynthetic carbon fixation, but it can be easily poisoned by side-products of its activity. Structural and functional analyses of a protein conserved across plants, algae and bacteria shows how one such blockage is both removed and recycled’.  Not knowing that this sort of ‘poisoning’ event took place, and in such a fundamental biochemical process [even Mr P. Cuttings can’t know everything – Ed.], it is always nice to read about ‘new’ phenomena and learn something (and share it with others)!


Research Articles

In this section, two Research articles that appealed to my quest for seeking out new botanical stuff – and neither of which was N&V’d (so how do they select those worthy of N&Ving…?) – are Chuanli Ju et al.’s ‘Conservation of ethylene as a plant hormone over 450 million years of evolution’ and Benjamin Jung et al.’s ‘Identification of the transporter responsible for sucrose accumulation in sugar beet taproots’. Although sugar beet (Beta vulgaris) satisfies approximately one third of global sugar (sucrose) demand – and sucrose (largely sequestered within vacuoles in the taproot) can be up to 18 % of the plant’s fresh weight – the identity of the transporter that leads to sucrose’s vacuolar accumulation has long been a mystery. Jung et al. have identified BvTST2.1 as a vacuole-sited sucrose-specific transporter, exploitation of which discovery it is hoped will help to increase sugar yields from sugar beet and other sugar-storing plants in future breeding programmes. Investigating the evolutionary development of higher plant’s ethylene (a plant hormone involved in such phenomena as fruit-ripening, leaf and flower senescence, and seed germination) signalling pathway, Chuanli Ju et al. have identified a homologous system in Spirogyra pratensis (a living representative of the putative charophyte green algal ancestors of land plants) that exhibits a cell-elongation response to ethylene. They infer from this discovery not only that the common aquatic ancestor of the Embryophyta possessed this pathway prior to the colonization of land and that cell elongation was possibly an ancestral ethylene response, but also that this finding highlights the importance of charophytes for investigating the origins of fundamental plant processes.


Finally, the verdict is…?

So, what does NP give to the botanical community? Well [deep breath! – Ed.], plant ecology, biochemistry, physiology, crop production, crop domesticationsexual reproduction, plant–environment interactions, book reviews, topical insights, and commentary on important and diverse botanical topics, for one. A great start to a new botanical journal! However, it’s not been a trouble-free launch. Errata have already been issued regarding supplementary material for two of the Research papers, but at least the errors have been spotted and rectified in a timely manner. Now to that all-important overall assessment from Mr P. Cuttings: Nature Plants, one to keep an eye on (not least because its format seems to be modelled on the Annals of Botany’s…). What’s that you say, emulation is the sincerest form of flattery? Cheers, NP!


* With apologies to AA Milne’s poem ‘Now we are Six’ (and unfortunately thereby demonstrating that Mr P. Cuttings is only half as good as the creator of Winnie the Pooh). Rather, the reference to ‘three’ is recognition that there is now a trio of premier botanical journals that embrace the full range of plant science – Annals of Botany, New PhytologistNature Plants.

[FYI, ‘All 18 open access journals owned by Nature Publishing Group … will use the Creative Commons Attribution license CC BY 4.0 as default from today…”. Which is good to know but, and despite extensive searching on your behalf, I’ve been unable to find out categorically if NP is open-access. Whilst I had no trouble getting full access to all items in the first issue, it seems that was a ‘loss-leader’ an example of ‘freebie marketing’ – i.e. a marketing gimmick – to engineer interest in the product since the only free-to-view item in issue 2 was the Editorial. Finally, it will be interesting to see what effect the ‘business arrangement’ recently announced between the publisher of Nature Plants and Springer will have on this fledgling botanical organ. In the spirit of appropriate botanical glossary imagery, let us hope it doesn’t turn out to be caducous (‘falling early’) – Ed.]

High-impact research

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

There are few more-iconic Earth-history events than the tale of the dinosaurs being wiped out after an asteroid collided with Earth approximately 66 million years ago close to what today is the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. And far from being a local extinction episode (an extirpation), there is evidence that ‘dinosaurs and many of their contemporaries went extinct rapidly and simultaneously all across the globe’ from a study by Zoltán Csiki-Sava et al. Indeed, the collision and its aftermath are implicated as the cause of the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event [formerly known as the Cretaceous–Tertiary (K–T) extinction], which saw a mass extinction of around three-quarters of the planet’s plant and animal species. The firestorm that is also inferred to have resulted from the impact has been considered widespread enough to have caused the attendant plant extinctions, or ‘a global firestorm that would have burned every twig, bush and tree on Earth’ in the more eye-catching prose associated with the science reporting of this research. Well, as sensational as that sounds, the latest view on that event suggests that there was no such global firestorm. In research that attempted to recreate the conditions of the impact in the laboratory(!!), Claire Belcher et al. found that the intense but short-lived heat near the impact site could not have ignited live plants, challenging the idea that the impact led to global firestorms. And, ‘because plants and ecosystems are generally resistant to single localized fire events, we conclude that any fires ignited by impact-induced thermal radiation cannot be directly responsible for plant extinctions, implying that heat stress is only part of the end-Cretaceous story’. Which could be viewed as proof of the saying that – and with Mr Cuttings’ profound apologies – the penstemon is mightier than the saurid. But there’s another twist to this asteroid’s fiery tale. For as much as ‘shock and awe’ may precede ‘regime-change’ in the shocking and awful affairs of the human world, so too in the natural world. The even greater degree of shock and awe that would no doubt have accompanied the Chicxulub bolide impact appears to have precipitated a major ‘regime change’ in the world of plants. Using fossil leaf measurements of minor-vein density and mass per area (as proxies for carbon assimilation rate and carbon investment, respectively), Benjamin Blonder et al. infer that plant species that survived the K–Pg extinction event had fast-growth ecological strategies corresponding to high assimilation rates and low carbon investment. Which is consistent with the loss of slow-growing evergreen species, and the ascendancy of deciduous angiosperms. ‘Potentially this also tells us why we find that modern forests are generally deciduous and not evergreen’, Boulder explains. And, as if to underline how dramatic (Earth-shattering almost…) an event this was, it spawned not just the one but two regime changes as the planet also witnessed the ascendancy of seed-bearing plants over the previously dominant, sporophyllous taxa. Although a truly extra-terrestrial origin of life on Earth – panspermia – is questionable, it does look like celestial bodies do have direct influence over – impact upon even(!) – the lives of some inhabitants on Earth. Phyto-astrology anyone? And the botanical relevance of this impact reverberates to this day in the form of asteroid P/2010 A2, a possible remnant cohort of the K–Pg impactor, and which is a member of the Flora family of asteroids.

[In the interests of balance, it should be mentioned that doubts exist amongst certain groups regarding the interpretation of the ‘Chicxulub incident’. Slightly less controversially, it is recognised that fire is a powerful life-giving component of natural ecosystems and has led to the development of so-called pyrophytes (‘plants which have adapted to tolerate fire’). For insights into some Mediterranean pyrophytes, Helen Roberts’ account on the University of Bristol‘s Botanic Garden blog is recommended. And putting the Yucatán bolide’s collision into the bigger context of the Earth’s chronological record, the BBC has produced an extremely… err… timely publication: ‘The 25 biggest turning points in Earth’s history’ – Ed.]

Plant parts doing unexpected things: Part 2 (or, Root research all up in the air)

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Our suitably erudite – albeit neophyte – botanical generation who knew about the functions of plant stems when quizzed previously (see Plant parts doing unexpected things: Part 1, posted previously) would probably do equally well when asked about the main roles of roots*. However, what they may be surprised to learn is that some roots photosynthesise (yes, like stems or leaves). We’re not talking about ‘typical’ soil-surrounded roots, but the so-called aerial roots of epiphytic plants perched high above the ground on trees – for example certain orchids. These photosynthetic roots dangle in the air that surrounds the epiphyte and its host plant. Whilst a photosynthetic capability is unusual for a root that is typically subterranean, you might expect that gain of this function might be at the expense of another, more typical root role, say absorption. But no, such roots still retain the capacity to absorb water from their surroundings. However, rather than rely on the assistance of root hairs as for their terrestrial, soil-rooted relatives, nature has equipped these aerial roots with an additional tissue, the velamen. The velamen is a remarkable multi-layered epidermis-like structure whose specially thickened cells not only absorb water from the humid air or rain water, but also help to reduce transpiration from the internal root tissues when the velamen cells are dried out. There is still much to uncover about the role of the velamen in the biology of epiphytes, but an interesting discovery has been made by Guillaume Chomicki et al., and one that relates not to the plant’s water relations but to the integrity of the root’s photosynthetic process. Recognising that levels of damaging ultraviolet B (UV-B) radiation are high in the epiphytes’ habitat, and knowing that UV-B screening compounds such as flavonoids help to protect leaves, the team wondered how similarly challenged, photosynthetic roots might be protected from UV-B harm. Using a nice combination of molecular and structural techniques – gene expression analyses, mass spectrometry, histochemistry and chlorophyll fluorescence – they demonstrated that UV-B exposure resulted in inducible production of two UV-B screening flavonoids within the living (i.e. young) velamen of Phalaenopsis × hybrida, but which compounds persist in the cell walls of the functional – dead – velamen tissue. Furthermore, and interestingly, this root mechanism of UV-B protection is apparently different from that employed by leaves. A case of same destination, different routes? Not bad for a dead tissue one could easily write-off as merely acting like a sponge!

* Which, for completeness, are generally assumed to be: anchorage of plant in soil, absorption of water/minerals from the soil, storage of reserve materials, and conduction of water/nutrients to/from the stem – Ed.