Category Archives: Plant Cuttings

Plants, grafty little critters…

Image: Richard Reames/Wikimedia Commons, www.arborsmith.com.

Image: Richard Reames/Wikimedia Commons, www.arborsmith.com.

When it comes to making new combinations of genes – which may help to generate new species  in the evolutionary process known as speciation – the most usual route in eukaryotes  is via sexual reproduction.  In this ancient process, and speaking rather generally, gametes, made via meiosis (in which the complement of genetic material is reduced), fuse with each other and thereby create a new individual with the full genetic complement of the adult. Generally, this mode of reproduction, whether leading to development of new species or not, is viewed as ‘good’. And sex is favoured during adaptation to new environments. But sex is also ‘expensive’,  and one might expect some organisms to have found a cheaper – better? – way. Although alternatives to sexual reproduction exist – so-called asexual reproduction –  they don’t generate the genetic variety that could give rise to creation [oops, controversial term… – Ed.] of new species.

But, guess what? Plants seem to have hit upon an asexual method that can give rise to new species, as work by Ignacia Fuentes et al., straightforwardly entitled ‘Horizontal genome transfer as an asexual path to the formation of new species’, suggests. Using grafting (a time-honoured, horticultural technique used to join parts from two or more plants so that they appear to grow as a single plant), the team demonstrated that entire nuclear genomes  could be transferred between plant cells of unlike species (and which you wouldn’t expect to be able to be able to reproduce sexually in nature…). Or, in the technical language of a scientific paper, the authors ‘provide direct evidence for this process resulting in speciation by creating a new allopolyploid  plant species from a herbaceous species (Nicotiana tabacum, ‘cigarette tobacco’) and a woody species (N. glauca, ‘tree tobacco’) in the nightshade family (Solanaceae).  The new species is fertile and produces fertile progeny’ (and has even been christened N. tabauca).

All intriguing stuff. And which just goes to demonstrate – again, and if ’twere needed – how much more interesting (better?) plants are than animals! Finally, the authors suggest that this phenomenon could be exploited for the generation of novel allopolyploid crop species. But where will this all end? And isn’t this genetic engineering? Albeit of a kind that occurs naturally? And what should one make of the tree that’s been so multiply and repeatedly grafted that it’s a composite of dozens of different species? Or is it now just one species…? Discuss!

Garlic and octopus battle tree disease

Image: From Tacuinum Sanitatis, ca. 1400.

Image: From Tacuinum Sanitatis, ca. 1400.

For millennia, garlic, the ‘bulb’ of Allium sativum, has been used medicinally to help make humans better. Whilst many of these so-called ‘cures’ may be more fanciful than factually accurate, evidence-based medicine, there are studies that attest to the effectiveness of garlic or extracts thereof and therefrom against a range of human health-compromising bacteria and fungi (e.g. studies by Giles Elsom et al.Simon Woods-Panzaru et al. and Daniel Tagoe et al.). Indeed, so commonplace have such ideas become that garlic can be used as an educational tool investigating the anti-microbial effects of plant extracts. So much for humans: Is this relevant to looking after the health of, say, trees? Well, apparently so. In the battle against fungal diseases of trees, garlic has been mobilised with some success in Northamptonshire (a county in the east Midlands of the UK). Jonathan Cocking (Managing Director of Arboricultural & Ecological Consultants, JCA Ltd), whose company hold an ‘experimental government licence’ to engage in this work, use an allicin*-based solution administered directly to the base of trees. The solution is injected into an infected tree through eight pipes (the ‘octopus’ connection…) and transported throughout the tree via the transpiration stream. Apparently, ‘the moment the active agent starts to encounter the disease, it destroys it’, BBC Environment Correspondent Claire Marshall explains. Although details of the formula used are not forthcoming, it apparently uses organically-grown cloves from Wales, and somehow the allicin involved is stable for up to one year (rather than the usual 5–10 minutes’ lifespan of the molecule(!)). According to JCA’s website, their ‘Allicin/Conquer Project’ was started in 2009, and so far has had success against such fungus/oomycete infections as Bleeding Canker of Horse ChestnutSudden Oak Death,  Acute Oak Decline and Chalara dieback of ash. Although seemingly effective, widespread use of this treatment is considered impractical and expensive, and is unlikely to be used except to save trees of ‘historic or sentimental value’. It’s always reassuring to know that it’s still down to ‘value’(and that so-predictable human obsession with money/profit, etc…) as to which trees are allowed to die and which are worthy of being saved (in the UK, at least; I’m sure elsewhere in the world a much more enlightened attitude to saving trees prevails…). Anyway, let’s just hope the 10 finalists in England’s ‘Tree of the Year’ competition are in that ‘sufficiently worthy’ category should they succumb to some life-threatening infection, whether fungal or oomycete (or viral or bacterial or mycoplasmal or prionic, or …)!

* Allicin, ‘garlic’s defence mechanism against attacks by pests’.

[I expect it’s been considered (and ruled out), but, mindful of reports of viruses accompanying imported garlic and the fact that plants are attacked by a wide range of virus pathogens, one trusts that the Welsh allicin, as organic as it no doubt is, is sourced from virus-free garlic and doesn’t pose a virus-infection threat to the trees into which it is injected… – Ed.]

Prize-winning banana research

Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, http://www.flagstaffotos.com.au.

Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, http://www.flagstaffotos.com.au.

Readers of this blog will probably be aware of the high esteem/newsworthiness in which bananas (edible fruits, botanically a berry – a new snippet of information to me! – produced by several kinds of large herbaceous flowering plants in the genus Musa) are regarded. Well, in keeping with that musan leitmotif, here’s another banana-themed item. At the 24th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in 2014, Kiyoshi Mabuchi et al. were suitably rewarded for their work investigating ‘why bananas are slippery’. Before this revelation elicits the anticipated “Eh? What?! They gave a prize for that??” reaction it should be pointed out that the Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded for achievements that make people laugh, but then think. In this case the Japanese tribologists’ work not only showed why banana skins are so hazardous (the comedic value of people slipping on discarded banana ‘skins’ has been known for generations), but also why apple and tangerine peel are not so ‘dangerous’. OK, so much for the ‘laugh’, what about the ‘thinking’? The team is interested in how friction and lubrication affect the movement of human limbs. The polysaccharide follicular gels that give banana skins their slippery properties are also found in the membranes in our own bodies where our bones meet and it is hoped that the botanical work will ultimately help in the development of a joint prosthesis. Banana research, going out on a limb?

 

[Ig Nobel Prizes (administered by Improbable Research) should not be confused with the more prestigious Nobel Prizes, whose list of prize-winners for 2014 didn’t include any banana-related research (so far as one could tell!). It is, however, noteworthy that Ig Nobels are presented for work done relatively recently; work that earns a ‘proper Nobel’ often takes years for it to be recognised. We would be interested to hear of any Ig Nobel Prize-winners who have gone on to win a Nobel Prize for their ‘ignoble’ work. Who’d have the last laugh then? Something to think about! – Ed.]

Timeless inner beauty…

Image: P. Cuttings’ personal archive.

Image: P. Cuttings’ personal archive.

When trying to appreciate something, it’s often remarked that it is the ‘inner beauty’ that’s important. In which case the plant cell biologists who probe the details within cells (and often illuminate them in all their glorious pin-point precision and fluorescent beauty with immunofluorescent techniques*) must not only, as scientists, be seekers of truth (for is it not writ, in scientia veritas?)  but also be true searchers after beauty. And if something’s really beautiful/true then it has a quality that transcends normal, mortal values and should be permanent. Is that correct? Well, the palaeopteridophytological work of Benjamin Bomfleur et al. may just be the definitive proof of that notion of transcendental permanence. Using language unusual for a serious, sober, scientific article, they describe the fossilised stem of a royal fern (family: Osmundaceae) in Lahar deposits (of putative Early Jurassic – Pliensbachian – date; 189.6–183 million years ago) from Korsaröd in Scania (southern Sweden) as having cellular details that are ‘exquisitely preserved’. Amongst the sub-cellular features discernible are parenchyma cells in the pith and cortex that show preserved membrane-bound cytoplasm, cytosol granules and putative amyloplasts (starch-bearing bodies). Furthermore, most cells contain interphase nuclei with conspicuous nucleoli! And – even more remarkably? – Supplementary Fig. S6 shows detail that is interpreted as signs of necrosis and programmed cell death(!). Whilst more importance is attached by the authors to the fact that the genome size of these reputed ‘living fossils’ has remained unchanged over at least 180 million years (and is understandably viewed as a ‘paramount example of evolutionary stasis’), the degree of internal preservation of cell contents is so good (see Figs S4 and S6 in the paper’s supplementary material!) I’m sure many extant workers could only hope to emulate such faithful preservation in their current work! So, not only is a thing of beauty a joy, it is a joy… forever (or 180 million years at least – long enough for you?). Somebody should write a poem about that!

* For a scientific haiku poem about this, may I humbly suggest the following? Page 15 at the Art Science Movement’s website.

 

[For an award-winning science journalist’s take on Bomfleur et al.’s Science paper, see Jennifer Frazer’s blog. Full-text of the paper – with supplementary pages – appears to be available in front of a paywall via the DiVA portal. And with apologies to our readers for the shameless self-advertisement by Mr P. Cuttings for his ‘poem’! – Ed.]

Better together…

Image: pixabay.com.

Image: pixabay.com.

No, this is not a belated bit of biased support for the Scottish referendum on independence from England  (which was rejected by those who voted and thereby prevented the United Kingdom becoming the anagrammatically amusing Untied Kingdom…). Rather, it is recognition that – at least in nature – sometimes things do work better when two partners co-operate rather than work against each other. Take for example the reef-building corals – an intimate mutualistic symbiosis between a unicellular alga, a dinoflagellate and an animal, the coral polyp. Put very simply, the alga provides much of the polyp’s food requirements by dint of its photosynthesis, which ultimately allows it to make the massive coral reefs. Although warm-water coral reefs are the basis of extremely rich and biodiverse ecosystems, they are nutritionally poor. This ‘nutrient paradox’ – originally recognised by Charles Darwin (is there any branch of biology that doesn’t have a contribution from this venerable Victorian?) – has traditionally been presumed to be due to very tight cycling/recycling of nutrients within the ecosystem (and the abundance of mutualistic symbioses therein, amongst other factors…). However, a new twist to this nutrient tale has recently been proposed by Orr Shapiro et al. They have revealed that, far from being static structures dependent upon the vagaries of currents to bring nutrients to them and remove waste products, the coral polyp actively generates micro-currents and eddies that promote nutrient inflow and exchange of materials. Using externally located cilia, these miniature structures whip up ‘vortical flows’ immediately adjacent to the epidermal surface, which reduces the exchange-limiting boundary layer at that site thereby facilitating mass transport between coral and the ocean. And in the way of all good discoveries, there are potential spin-offs to other areas of study. In this instance the team posits that investigation of these surface-situated cilia could be used as an alternative to the study of more-inaccessible, internalized cilia, e.g. those in the airways of animals. Thus, there may be unpredictable benefits for biomedicine from this photosynthetically dependent marine mutualism (I know, plants lighting up the path for others to follow – again!!). I’ve oftentimes wondered what the polyp brought to this relationship – aside from providing a chalky castle for the enslaved, hard-working alga. Well, I guess we now know, and it’s reassuring to discover (finally…?) that this intriguing symbiosis is much more mutual than we might previously have imagined.

 

[A video of this phenomenon can be seen on YouTube. The irony of internalization of the dinoflagellate symbiont – which, as its name implies, usually has flagella (two in this case, like much bigger versions of cilia)  – within the coral polyp and its consequential loss of its flagella on the one hand, and the importance of the polyp’s cilia (pale imitations of flagella?) in and to this relationship on the other, is not lost on Mr P. Cuttings. And this item gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘on the lash’ because cilium is Latin for eye-lash… – Ed.]

Thirsty? Then suck on a stone!

Golden gypsum crystals

Golden Gypsum Crystals from Winnipeg. Image: Rob Lavinsky/Wikimedia Commons

Whilst it is claimed that only the taxman can get blood out of a stone, it seems that some plants can abstract water from stone-like minerals.

Arguably, ahead of light, water is the most important abiotic factor that plants need and obtain from the environment. Although water is essential to plant life, it is not always available in sufficient amounts, and plants have evolved many adaptations that enable them to cope with water-limited environments – e.g. xerophytes in extremely arid areas, and halophytes in saline habitats. One strategy that was hitherto unrecognised is the extraordinary (I don’t think that’s too strong a word to use) ability of some plants to obtain large parts of their life-giving and -sustaining water from a mineral in the soil.

Analysing the isotopic composition of xylem sap in the rock rose Helianthemum squamatum, Sara Palacio et al. showed that it was similar to that of the water of crystallization in gypsum – CaSO4.2H2O, an inorganic mineral common in the plant’s environment. And, significantly, the composition of the water in the xylem differed from that of free water – i.e. that which is freely available within the soil (albeit in short supply!), the more usually assumed water source for plants. This therefore provided strong evidence that the plants were using the mineral as a water source – especially in the summer months when it accounted for 70–90% of the water used by these shallow-rooted plants.

Several other ‘coexisting shallow-rooted, sub-shrub species’ (the gypsum-specialist Lepidium subulatum – a gypsophyte – and the ‘non-specialists’ Linum suffruticosum and Helianthemum syriacum) behaved in an isotopically similar way to H. squamatum, suggesting that this phenomenon may be a widespread strategy of water-extraction by plants in this environment.

Although it is as yet unclear how the plants get hold of the water from this unusual source, it is suggested that high temperatures in the environment may cause the water to evaporate from the mineral when it can then be acquired by the plant.

Whilst this is a neat enough solution (pun recognised, but not intended!) for life on Earth, the authors conclude that ‘given the widespread occurrence of gypsum in dry lands throughout the Earth and in Mars, these results may have important implications for arid land reclamation and exobiology’. So, botanical research that may truly be ‘out of this world’!

[Intrigued by these intriguing gypsophytes? Then why not indulge your interest and read more of Sara Palacio et al.’s research in ‘Plants living on gypsum: beyond the specialist model’? – Ed.]

Classical texts re-imagined/re-imaged…

Weird Scientific Equipment

Image: Stephen Hales, Vegetable Staticks. London, W. and J. Innys, 1727.

Do you remember the good old days when students read for a degree? Well, I don’t know how much proper reading they do these days – i.e. that which involves actually touching and turning the pages of a book or research article (but which is probably nowadays forbidden on health and safety grounds – well, you never know what disease you might pick up from a multi-accessed textbook… and paper cuts can really hurt…). But if their access to the real thing is limited it is heartening to know that some classic botany/plant biology-related texts are now available online as open-access items. So, by way of whetting your – and your students’ – appetites, here are a few I’ve stumbled across (another H&S issue with piles of textbooks, journals, manuscripts in one’s room…)…

Accordingly, first mention goes to that great ‘plant physiology’ text of 1727, Stephen Hales’ Vegetable Staticks, made available by the Biodiversity History Library. That important tome investigated such phenomena as root pressure and transpiration, and made such suggestions that ‘plants very probably draw through their leaves some part of their nourishment from the air’, and speculated that plants might use light as a source of energy for growth. At the time these were ground-breaking suggestions, but the fact that we take such ideas for granted nowadays is largely due to the work of such 18th century luminaries.

Other classic texts can be accessed free courtesy of the USA’s National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) TTP (Turning The Page) Online initiative, which is itself a development of the UK’s British Library’s own TTP system. But, ‘in creating our version of TTP at NLM, we have refined the original technology by using advanced 3D computer generated imagery, digital image enhancement, animation, illumination models and software programming to simulate the act of easily flipping through virtual books displayed in a highly photorealistic manner’. To see how close this is to the real thing, you are welcome to browse such timeless classics as Robert Hooke’s 1665 Micrographia. Lauded as ‘the first scientific best-seller, inspiring a wide public interest in the new science of microscopy’ [an essential discipline for unlocking plant structure, hence physiology, etc. – Ed.], it is also notable for coining the biological term cell.

If ethnobotany is more your bag, then there’s Elizabeth Blackwell’s 1737 A Curious Herbal. This charming publication includes hundreds of colour images of plants, many drawn from London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. Drawn by Elizabeth, the illustrations are accompanied by text supplied by her medically minded husband, from his debtors’ prison cell, and before he was ultimately decapitated for international conspiracy (! I tell you, botany is so multi-faceted!). And there’s also The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. Whilst it may not contain many botanic references amongst its treatments, it does at least have the great claim to fame of being the world’s oldest surviving surgical text (from approx. 17th century BCE), and was written on … papyrus (‘a thin paper-like material made from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus’).

Also containing a gallery of images for each text, this NLM initiative is a lovely resource. And if it is primarily images you seek – to illustrate your teaching, etc. – then many of those in the Wellcome Images collection are now essentially copyright-free, for any usage, under a Creative Commons Attribution Only (CC-BY) licence. Wellcome Images ‘is one of the world’s richest and most unique collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science’, and is of great value for providing those important historical dimensions to your lectures (and let us not forget that ‘we are where we are now because of where we’ve come from’ – Anon.), e.g. on plants-and-people or other worthy topics.

Finally, for some insight into the old-fashioned ‘world-at-your-fingertips-before-the-digital-age’, a recently completed project gives us a chance to explore the library that accompanied Charles Darwin as he travelled the world aboard the Beagle. Will all – or any – of this rekindle interest in proper books? I do hope so!

Brilliant bird-brained bryophyte diaspore diaspora…

many mosses

Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur. Leipzig and Vienna: Verlag des Bibliographischen Instituts, 1904.
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There is an ancient and time-honoured association – maybe co-evolution even – between birds and flowering plants, e.g. in respect of pollination and dispersal of the fruits/seeds of the latter by the former. Now, at the other end of the evolutionary spectrum of the Plant Kingdom, is news of another avian–Plantae link-up as Lily Lewis et al. present evidence for long-distance transport of bryophyte ‘bits-and-pieces’ in the plumage of transequatorial migrant birds.

Bryophytes – a general term that embraces mosses, liverworts and hornworts – are so-styled ‘lower plants’ that have occupied the planet for megamillennia and have many important ecological roles. But, like the other members of the Plant Kingdom, bryophytes are essentially immobile and fixed to one location. This poses problems to any enterprising moss, etc., that wants to boldly go, seek out, occupy and colonise new areas, in order to command resources and help to ensure its survival in the dog-eat-dog jungle that is the natural world.

However, evolution has equipped these cryptogams with a phase of the life cycle that is potentially mobile, the spore stage. Transfer of those spores away from the parent plant – and their subsequent germination, establishment and development into individual bryophyte plants – reduces competition for resources between parent and offspring, and extends the area occupied by that species.

Consequently, exploiting agents that can contribute to wide-ranging dispersal of those spores represents a considerable boost to aspirations of territorial gain for an ambitious ‘lower plant’. But reliance on spores to spread the species can be risky; e.g. if the bryophyte taxon concerned is dioicous and it either doesn’t travel along with another spore that gives rise to, or to a place that already contains, the corresponding male/female gametophyte in the new neighbourhood. Which is why Lewis et al.’s work is of considerable interest because – and despite the headline in Scientific American’s news item on the subject – the bird-assisted moss migration is not really about spores, but diaspores.

Although a diaspore (or ‘disseminule’) can be defined as ‘a reproductive plant part, such as a seed, fruit, or spore, that is modified for dispersal’, the definition is usually broadened to include any plant part that could result in the establishment of a new individual. Thus, it includes not only bryophyte spores, but also fragments of established plants, too.

Sampling the plumage of bird species in their Arctic breeding grounds – prior to their South Pole-ward migration – the team found examples of diaspores not only of bryophytes, but also of green algae/cyanobacteria, and fungi. The presence of these putative propagules amongst bird feathers thus seems to establish this phenomenon as another instance of ectozoochory (transport of plant – and algae/fungi/bacteria! – propagation units on the external surface of an animal).

But just because these passengers may be present at the start of the journey doesn’t necessarily mean that they arrive at the carrier’s destination, which in some cases – such as the red phalarope and the semipalmated sandpiper – is the southernmost tip of South America; e.g. could the disseminules be consumed during preening as a sort of in-flight snack by the birds…?

And – as the investigators recognise – even if diaspores arrive, this doesn’t demonstrate that they are viable and could become established in the new home. But it’s another step towards unlocking the mystery of how the disparate bipolar distributions of certain taxa of bryophytes, etc. could be established and maintained. Whether this counts as ‘blue-skies’ research I’m not sure, but it’s a topic that’s certainly got legs and could well take off!

[And if you’re interested in seeing of some of the pre-publication comments on the bryophyte paper, they can be found online. And for more on the world of moss, I recommend Jessica M. Budke’s blog site. – Ed.]

For they are jolly good fellows

The Royal Society/Wikimedia Commons.

The Royal Society/Wikimedia Commons.

We’d like to add our words of congratulations to two recently appointed plant-biological Fellows of the Royal Society (of London for Improving Natural Knowledge), Professor Liam Dolan FRS (Sherardian Professor of Botany, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, UK) and Professor David Beerling FRS (Professor of Palaeoclimatology, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, UK). Fittingly, Dolan has been so honoured because his ‘pivotal discoveries illuminate our understanding of the interrelationships between the development of plants, their evolution and the Earth System’ (e.g. Victor Jones and Liam Dolan, 2012Timothy Lenton et al.,  2012). Beerling has received his accolade in view of how ‘his integration of ecosystem processes into a broad geosciences framework established the importance of the terrestrial biosphere in Earth’s climate history’ (e.g. Laura Llorens et al., 2009*; Beerling, 2012). In addition to their research activities both have also taken time out to help spread the botanical message and enthuse the next generation of plant biologists, Dolan in the highly regarded undergraduate textbook Plant Biology, and Beerling with The Emerald Planet. Dolan and Beerling join approximately 1600 other Fellows in the self-governing fellowship that is the Royal Society, and which includes ‘many of the world’s most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine’. Well done to these most deserving botanists!

 

* It’s also rather gratifying to think that having their work published in the Annals of Botany will have helped both gentlemen attain fellowship!

[And congratulations, too, to those UK researchers working in plant sciences (including fungi…) who’ve been named in the global Top 1%. This listing of ‘Highly Cited Researchers 2014’ names more than 3000 people selected by having writing the greatest numbers of ‘reports officially designated by Essential Science IndicatorsSM as Highly Cited Papers’. I counted four female and 11 male notables from addresses – ‘primary affiliations’ – in north, central, west and south of England, but none from Scotland (or Wales or Northern Ireland). However, I am intrigued by included scientist ‘Philip J. White’, whose primary affiliation is shown as King Saud University, Saudi Arabia (KSU), because I found no mention of this notable person on KSU’s website. So, I wonder if this could actually be the Philip J. White currently at The James Hutton Institute (Invergowrie, Scotland, UK). That P. J. White has many other affiliations – Special Professor in Plant Ion Transport at the University of Nottingham (UK), Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Australia, Visiting Associate Professor at the Comenius University, Bratislava (Slovakia), Visiting Professor of the Brazilian Research Council, and an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Dundee (Scotland) – so maybe KSU was amongst those at the time the census was taken? Or perhaps there’s been a mistake? Or there’s another Philip J. White who is even more highly cited than James Hutton’s? So, will P. J. White please get in touch and put the record straight? – Ed.]

[Ed. – we are pleased to be able to report that the mystery has now been solved. The PJ White referred to is indeed Philip White of the James Hutton Institute who is also a Professor in Biology at the King Saud University. And we are more than happy to advise that the same PJ White is a co-author on one of the Annals of Botany’s most highly downloaded papers – White PJ and Broadley MR, Calcium in plants; Annals of Botany 92: 487-511, 2003.].

Bloody royal French gourd debunked

Image: Peter Woodard/Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Peter Woodard/Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most unusual plant-based items that has come to my notice recently is this rather ‘quirky’ item that sheds a forensic botany light on an episode of ‘regicide à la française’ when King Louis XVI had an unfortunate appointment with Madame la Guillotine. Big issues of whether mere mortals have the right to execute divinely ordained monarchs and the politics of late 19th century Europe aside, what is the plant connection? It’s not the wood that may have been used to construct the fearsome ‘engine of despatch’ (a euphemism if ever there was…), the guillotine. That would be far too obvious for Monsieur P. Cuttings (although the role of plant products in execution and torture has been given a fascinating scholarly treatment by Simcha Lev-Yadun of the University of Haifa- Oranim, Israel, in his paper ‘The ancient and modern ecology of execution’).‎ Rather, it concerns a gourd (the fruit of a member of the pumpkin family, the Cucurbitaceae) – which allegedly contained a handkerchief that had been stained with blood from the ill-fated monarch. (No, I don’t know why anybody might want to do this: chacun à son gout, I guess.) A fanciful tale certainly, but nevertheless one that we might like to believe. Sadly, when the DNA of the blood was subjected to various modern-day tests and analyses by Iñigo Olalde et al. this lovely story did not stand up – much like the late king himself after his sanguine appointment – to 21st century scrutiny. In a statement as beautifully crafted as the ‘pyrographically decorated’ gourd itself, the team conclude that, ‘although we cannot totally discard that the gourd’s sample belongs to Louis XVI on our genomic data alone, several lines of evidence, including the ancestry analysis and the functional interpretation of the genome fail to provide definitive support for the attribution of this specimen to the beheaded French king’. Le fin, enfin? (c’est la vie… or mort even…).

 

[This story is reminiscent of those concerning bottles of wine bought for vast sums of money in the belief that their contents are of immense value. In those cases (pun not intended, but duly noted…) the owners apparently never drink the contents for fear of discovering that the ‘wine’ is actually worthless. Seemingly for some things it’s simply best ‘not to know’; we seem prepared to accept that some cherished beliefs may not stand up to scrutiny so we choose not to scrutinise them. After all, if we studied everything we’d know everything. Sometimes it’s just nice to leave a few ‘mysteries’… – Ed.]