Tag Archives: Botany

M people and the ‘B’ word…

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

No, this is not an item about M People, an ‘English house music band which formed in 1990 and achieved success throughout most of the 1990s’, nor about using profane language… Anyway, how would any of that be relevant to a straitlaced, sober, serious botanical news round-up that is the hallmark of a P. Cuttings item? It is about the phenomenon (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) known as ‘Dr M’. If you’ve not encountered this gentleman, then you should – we can probably all learn a little from him in our eternal quest to big-up botany and help to enthuse the next generation of plant biologists (or, at least, attempt to engender plant appreciation into the citizens of tomorrow). Dr M is the moniker of Dr Jonathan Mitchley, botanist and plant ecologist who goes WILD about teaching plant identification at the University of Reading (UK), and also acts as an ecological consultant with RSK Ltd. Looking like one imagines the Peter Pan of phytology should look like, his grinning visage beams botanical radiance upon all who chance upon his various web-based antics. His enthusiasm for all things verdant seems boundless and is evident in his varied offerings, such as his blogvideo-based plant ID quizzes and his YouTube-tastic Poaceae song. Maybe all of his outputs may not be to everyone’s taste, but they’re worth a look – you are highly likely to find something you can ‘borrow’ to enhance your own teaching of botany. In any event it’s really uplifting to see Dr M and ‘his people’ having so much botanical fun! As Dr M himself is wont to say, ‘Rock on, Botanists!!!’ Indeed (!).

 

[The true diehards amongst you might like to consider the extended-play, blooper-enhanced version of the Poaceae song on YouTube. Right, now what is the collective noun for a group of botanists? Answers, on a postcard-sized sheet of herbarium paper, please to… And in breaking news – well it was when this piece was penned – Dr M is now Associate Professor of Field Botany at the University of Reading – Ed.]

Crocus, saffron-omics and the highest value crop

Saffron, Crocus sativus and origin label

Saffron, Crocus sativus and a protected origin label

Saffron, the stigma of Crocus sativus, is the highest priced agricultural product (often €/$25 or £15 per gram) and a good example of a profitable crop with sustainability, cultural and social values, and high labour demand. I have been discussing –omics studies of the crop – the DNA, RNA, metabolites and secondary products – at the annual meeting of a European Science Foundation COST programme Saffronomics.

www.Saffronomics.org logo

www.Saffronomics.org logo

The ‘Action’ aims to coordinate research on Saffron-omics for crop improvement, traceability of the product, determination of authenticity, adulteration and origin to provide new insights that will lead a sound Saffron Bio-Economy. Despite the high price, the spice costs only a few pence/cents per portion, and adds enormously to the flavour and colour of many dishes. Biologically, saffron is the species Crocus sativus, as recognized by Linnaeus, and it is a sterile triploid with 2n=3x=24 chromosomes.

Audience for annual meeting

Audience for annual meeting

The programme of our Annual Meeting opened with the genomics sessions – the DNA, RNA, genetics and epigenetics. I don’t usually start reviews with, nor indeed include, my own talk, but here its content sets the scene for other work discussed at the meeting. I talked about the work of Nauf Alsayid, who shows the lack of any clear DNA differences between any accessions of saffron – whether from Kashmir, Greece, Italy, Spain, Holland or Iran. I cited a paper from 1900, itself reporting work back to 1844, where the French botanist Monsieur Paul Chappellier reported “for the Saffron, there is only known a single and unique species; for ages it has not produced a single variety”, writing that he was importing bulbs Naples, Athens, Austria, Spain, Cashmere and China (Chappellier P 1900. Creation of an improved variety of Crocus sativus. J. Royal Horticultural Society XXIV Hybrid Conference Report 275-277 – brilliant download, even available free for Kindle!). Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Highest quality Saffron from Thiercelin 1809

Highest quality Saffron from Thiercelin 1809

After my talk, Jean Marie Thiercelin, the seventh generation of the major saffron and spice company http://www.thiercelin1809.com told me that his grandfather knew Paul Chappellier, and he commented in the history of saffron production in France: Chappellier knew how to produce 10 to 15kg per ha before the First World War. After the war, saffron production stopped altogether in France, but it has restarted this century, with now some 137 growers on 37 ha but production of only some 5kg per ha.

Continuing with the talks, a DNA-sequence level study of saffron by Gerhardt Menzel with Thomas Schmidt (Dresden) analysed of several Gigabases of genomic survey sequence data, revealing about ten distinct tandemly repeated satellite DNA sequences that could be used to identify chromosomes in saffron by in situ hybridization. The species has a 78% repeat content in the DNA, with about 6% being the rDNA, and many different classes of transposons.

Giovanni Giuliano - High trhougput sequencing of saffron RNA and gene discovery

Giovanni Giuliano – High throughput sequencing of saffron RNA and gene discovery

Giovanni Giliano (with Sarah Frusciante, Italy) demonstrated the carotenoid cleavage dioxygenase from saffron stigmas catlayses the first step in saffron crocin biosynthesis, a clear example of the pathway to the critical secondary product giving saffron its value (http://www.pnas.org/content/111/33/12246.short).


Slivia Fluch - Saffronomics Genomics Working Group Leader

Slivia Fluch – Saffronomics Genomics Working Group Leader

Both Matteo Busconi and Silvia Fluch (Austria) discussed epigenetic differences detected from different saffron collections: important for both understanding the controls on gene expression and for determining the origin of samples. Each producing area seems to have distinct profiles. Caterina Villa (Porto) reported results from use of the plant ‘barcoding’ primers ITS and matK with high resolution DNA melting analysis for saffron authentication, and more detail about the chloroplast genomes was presented from Bahattin Tanyolac and his Turkish colleagues. Although wild species of crocus are of interest from several points of view, only one paper, from Joze Bavcon (Slovenia) discussed these in detail, with a report of the natural hybrid Crocus reticulatus x C. vernus.

Joze Bavcon Crocus of Slovenia Book Cover

Joze Bavcon Crocus of Slovenia Book Cover

The next group of talks discussed the saffron metabolome, the analysis of different constituents of Crocus. Crocus is one of the few species to have its own international standard (ISO3632: http://j.mp/isosaffron ), and both quality and purity are measured (including contamination with stamens and pollen, along with detection of adulteration. Several participants were involved in the formulation of the standard, and Gianluca Paredi reported improvements that need less than the ISO methods needing no less than 23g of stigmas! Natural colours from plants such as Buddliea, Calendula, Curcum, Gardenia, safflower (Carthamus Asteraceae), cochineal (from the insect) and turmeric are widely mixed with saffron.

Chair of the Saffronomics Action Professor Maria Tsimidou

Chair of the Saffronomics Action Professor Maria Tsimidou

The Saffronomics project leader, Maria Tsimidou (Greece), used the three ISO3632 peaks for saffron – colouring strength from crocins absorbing at a peak wavelength of 440nm, aroma from safranal at 330nm, and taste (flavour) from picrocrocin at 257 nm – for examination of quality and authenticity of commercial saffron samples. Of 16 samples, 3 were adulterated, and half of the pure samples were graded in ‘category I’. Another amazing figure quoted was the price of saffron in quantity: of 75 tonnes imported to one county, only 35% is priced at more than $500 per kg. Authentic saffron could not be produced for anywhere approaching $1000/kg (typically $10-$15000/kg), so all this bulk product is fraudulent. Technology sessions in the meeting covered alternative quantification approaches to spectroscopy: Laura Ruth Cagliani in Milan tested  different solvents for extraction for NMR-based metabolomic characterization of authentic saffron distributed within the COST partners as well as the NMR evidence of absence of plant adulteration in those saffron samples.

Moschos Polissiou Saffronomics

Moschos Polissiou Saffronomics

A leading group from Thessaloniki was able to detect adulteration with as little as 15% cochineal. EA Petrakis and Moschos Polissiou demonstrated how FT-IR spectroscopy is promising to quantify small amounts of adulterants in saffron – safflower, Gardenia and tumeric – where diffuse reflectance mode provides rapidity, ease of use and minimal sample preparation. Other important reports discussed aging effects on profile of secondary metabolites (Paraskevi Karastamati Greece) and detection of herbicide residues (Christina Mitsi).

H stable Isotope Map from http://www.earthmagazine.org/article/cold-case-files-forging-forensic-isoscapes

H stable Isotope Map from http://www.earthmagazine.org/article/cold-case-files-forging-forensic-isoscapes

Micha Horacek (Austria) presented new results looking at the ratios of stable isotopes in saffron, a technique increasingly used to determine the origin of all agricultural produce. He showed the impressive map of with the gradient of water (hydrogen and oxygen) isotope ratio from North to South and from East to West in Europe. He also showed the differences in nitrogen stable isotope ratios depending of fertilizer use, and sulphur which depends on the underlying geology. Current work with saffron shows considerable year-to-year variation in the position of accessions from different regions of Europe, but the data is still being collected. Soon Micha will be getting a sample of our own, Leicester-lab-produced, saffron to add to his map!

Our hosts at RIKILT, the Food Safety and Quality Institute, Wageningen University, have much advanced applied science on food quality. An eye-opening talk by John van Duynhoven told us about rehydration of freeze dried blanched carrot with dynamic assessment of water movement in samples with and without blanching, freeze drying at -28 and -150C. Another series of images showed water transport and the impact of pre-cooking of rice, using magnetic resonance imaging MRI as a functional measurement of rice cooking. The final section discussed why crackers don’t crack: vapour transport during shelf life of crackers! Modelling of the nature of water transport links processing & formulation to the structure and on to functional and storage implications.


Fran Azafran - a school book about saffron

Fran Azafran – a school book about saffron

For ESF – COST projects, dissemination and public understanding are important, and participants were treated to a preview of a series of six school books about Fran Azafran and Franny Azafran by Manuel Delgado from Cuenca, Spain. I look forward to seeing these in full, and hopefully to their availability in other languages too.


At the podium

At the podium

Like the best of the projects, I feel that saffron science has moved in the last decade, (including research in the consortia www.crocusbank.org and www.saffronomics.org) with notable fundamental, technical and applied outcomes of our research. We know about its relatives and genome structure, key genes, metabolic processes and the key secondary products, and even understand epigenetic control, corm growth and dormancy. After 4000 years of being sold fake saffron, the fraudsters know now that we can test for saffron purity and quality!

Marta Rodlan (Vice Chair of the Action), Jose Antonio Fernández Perez and Jean Marie Thiercelin: key people in saffronomics

Marta Rodlan (Vice Chair of the Action), Jose Antonio Fernández Perez and Jean Marie Thiercelin: key people in saffronomics

Saffronomics Meeting Book Cover

Saffronomics Meeting Book Cover

New plant journal

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It just had to happen, but we didn’t know it would take nearly 150 years to come to fruition. And fruition is an apt word because the creation of a new botanical journal has recently been announced by the publishers behind Nature, the world’s premier general science journal. Imaginatively entitled Nature Plants, this new organ is due to be officially published in January 2015 but already has interweb presence with a blog and can be ‘followed’ on such social media as Facebook and Twitter. Its aim is to provide a fully rounded picture of the most accomplished and significant advances in the plant sciences, and will cover ‘all aspects of plants be it their evolution, development or metabolism, their interactions with the environment, or their societal significance’. Furthermore, along with original research, Nature Plants will also deliver ‘Commentaries, Reviews, News and Views’ from across the full range of disciplines concerned with the plant sciences (i.e. a bit like the Annals of Botany…). However, with topics covered in the journal including (deep breath) ‘agronomy, genomics, biochemistry, metabolism, biofuels, metabolomics, biophysics, molecular biology, cell biology, photosynthesis, defence physiology, development, plant–microbe interactions, disease resistance, proteomics ecology, secondary metabolism, economics, sociology, evolution, symbiosis, food security, systems biology, forestry and water use’, I do hope they leave something for other – more established – botanical journals, such as the Annals of Botany!

[Have others heard that the original Nature – in keeping with its soon-to-be somewhat impoverished science coverage – is being retitled Nature Cosmology, Palaentology and Non-botany? Whilst we wish this new venture well, it will be interesting to see if anybody publishes in the new journal because, and despite the undoubted cachet and kudos associated with the word Nature in the article’s citation, it won’t have an Impact Factor (IF) for a few years. Now, who wants to risk having publications on their CV in journals with no IF with potential damage to promotion prospects and career advancement (not that IFs should be used for such purposes – see e.g. EASE statement on inappropriate use of Impact Factors? Just saying. – Ed.]

Plants, the inside story

Image: Anton Joseph Kerner von Marilaun and Adolf Hansen. Pflanzenleben: Erster Band: Der Bau und die Eigenschaften der Pflanzen. Kurt Stüber, 1913.

Image: Anton Joseph Kerner von Marilaun and Adolf Hansen. Pflanzenleben: Erster Band: Der Bau und die Eigenschaften der Pflanzen. Kurt Stüber, 1913.

As well-read botanists, readers of this blog site are probably quite knowledgeable on the subject of epiphytic plants, which are plants – such as mosses, liverworts, ferns, cacti, orchids and bromeliads – that live on the outer surface of other plants.  However, most of us are probably less familiar with the concept (and reality…) of endophytic plants, which live within the body of other plants. Or, where we’ve heard of the term it is likely to be more in the context of endophytic fungi or bacteria. Strange as it may seem, endophytes can also be found amongst the angiosperms. And, by way of giving a ‘shout-out’ for those curious plants who’ve adopted this most couch-potato of lifestyles, I’m pleased to advise that a new key (plus consideration of the systematics of this worldwide family, a map, and colour photos of most species’ sexual organs…) to the Apodanthaceae (a family of two genera comprising 10 species) has been published by Sidonie Bellot and Susanne Renner

Living as endo-parasites permanently inside trees or shrubs of the families Salicaceae or Fabaceae, these plants emerge only to flower and fruit; consequently the Apodanthaceae is among the least-known families of flowering plants. Since the plants do not carry out any photosynthesis of their own, they are completely dependent upon their host for their nutrition (i.e. they are also holoparasitic). Endophytes, curious organisms(!). However, probably more famous is the equally holoparasitic relative of Apodanthes and Pilostyles, Rafflesia. Notwithstanding the smallness of its vegetative body, R. arnoldii has the honour of producing a flower >100 cm in diameter and weighing up to 10 kg. Amongst its other claims to fame – or should that be infamy? – is the smelliness of the flower’s odour, which is reminiscent of rotting flesh and which has earned it the rather ghoulish appellation of ‘corpse flower’. Furthermore, as well as stealing nutriment from its host, Rafflesia has also famously ‘borrowed’ many genes from the vine within which it resides, by the non-reproductive DNA transmission process known as horizontal transfer of genesSo, and although allegedly named in honour of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (both the ‘Father of Singapore’ and the ‘Father of the London Zoo’), this curious case of karyo-kleptomania seems more reminiscent of the antics of one A. J. Raffles, ‘gentleman thief’! And there’s even more bizarre genetic antics with the ‘suggestion’ (scientist’s code ‘for highly likely probability’…) that R. lagascae may be devoid of a chloroplast genome. I don’t know – flowering plants devoid of leaves, roots, shoots and some without chloroplast DNA. Are they really plants? Discuss!

The trees have it…

Image: Stefan Laube/Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Stefan Laube/Wikimedia Commons.

Trees, those magnificent, organic, large – sometimes huge – woody constructions continue to fascinate and inspire all who stop, stand and stare up (and up, and up…) at them. So here’s a selection of tree-based items to maintain – or maybe even initiate? – the phenomenon of arborifascination. But first a question: why did the three-toed sloth come down from the trees?

Answer: to defecate! Sloths are considered to be amongst the most, well, er, slothful of animals that, anecdotally, spend most of their time in trees, doing ‘not a lot’, apart from eating tree leaves [they are arboreal herbivores, after all; Tree Use No. (TUN) 1]. However, not only is this descent to the ground energy-consuming, it also exposes the sloth to potential predators; so why would they risk it? Work by Jonathan Pauli et al. may have the answer to this otherwise inexplicable behaviour. Three-toed sloths* harbour moths, inorganic nitrogen (N) and algae (e.g. green algae Trichophilus spp.) within their fur. The lipid-rich algae are eaten by the sloths and presumably supplement their diet of leaves. By leaving the tree for defecation, the fur-residing moths are transported to their oviposition (egg-laying) sites in sloth dung, which subsequently facilitates further moth colonisation of sloth fur. Since those moths are ‘portals for nutrients’, levels of inorganic N (potentially from moth excreta) in sloth fur increase, which in turn fuels algal growth. As the researchers conclude, ‘these linked mutualisms between moths, sloths and algae appear to aid the sloth in overcoming a highly constrained lifestyle’. Wow! I will never look at a three-toed sloth in quite the same way again.

Also challenging perceived wisdom is work by Marc Ancrenaz et al. Traditionally, orangutans (the world’s largest arboreal mammal) are assumed to be obligate arborealists, swinging seemingly effortlessly from tree to tree (TUN 2) as they navigate their lofty aerial neighbourhood. However, observations of terrestrial activity by these primates in the wild begs the question, why? Hitherto this activity was considered to be a response to habitat disturbance, but Ancrenaz et al. found no difference in instances of this behaviour in disturbed versus non-disturbed areas. They therefore propose that terrestrial locomotion is part of the Bornean orangutan’s natural behavioural repertoire and may increase their ability to cope with at least smaller-scale forest fragmentation, and to cross moderately open spaces in mosaic landscapes. So, it seems that even orangutans can have a bit too much of the ‘high life’ at times.

Finally, a terrestrial–aquatic organism that’s going up in the world. Reviewing evidence of tree-climbing activity in extant crocodilians (crocodiles and alligators), Vladimir Dinets et al. suggest it is much more widespread than previously considered and ‘might have multiple functions’, e.g. as an alternative site for thermoregulation (TUN 4), or increased detectability of prey (TUN 5). So, there you have it, ‘tons’ of alternative tree uses! Trees, helping to make the world an even more amazing place.

 

* Two-toed sloths don’t go in for this more energetic activity – and have lower densities of moths, lower N levels and reduced algal biomass in their fur…

Colourfully cunning cryptoflorigraphic conundrum

Image: From the ‘Voynich manuscript’.

Image: From the ‘Voynich manuscript’.

Botany is not without its mysteries. And one that’s previously eluded solution for 600 years or so is that of the so-called Voynich manuscript, an illustrated codex (a book made up of a number of sheets) consisting of about 240 pages, hand-written in an unknown writing system. Carbon-dated to the early 15th century, there are nevertheless suggestions that it might not be an ancient language but a hoax. And, despite containing many images of plants and other biological entities, its message and purpose has remained obscure (although an imaginative botanical interpretation is that it might represent a mediaeval plant physiology treatise). However, Stephen Bax, Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire (UK) has now claimed to have begun to decipher the manuscript’s text.

Progress is slow, but amongst the first few words to have been revealed are juniper, taurus, coriander, Centaurea, chiron, hellebore, Nigella sativa, kesar and cotton. A confident Bax declared, ‘… my research shows conclusively that the manuscript is not a hoax, as some have claimed, and is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language’. Clearly, some way to go before we have a final, complete version, and can use it as a set text in plant physiology classes (so don’t throw out Taiz & Zeiger’s Plant Physiology just yet!). But another ancient manuscript whose purpose is more obvious is the Tractatus de Herbis (‘Treatise on Medicinal Plants), a manual of materia medica [‘a Latin medical term for the body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of any substance used for healing (i.e., medicines)’] compiled during the 15th century. This tome has been reproduced in a limited edition facsimile replica of 987 copies (price available ‘on request’, though I suspect that if you’ve got to ask how much it is, you can’t afford it…). This limited edition is accompanied by a full-colour commentary volume by Alain Touwaide,Research Associate of the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, USA and Scientific Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC (USA).

[If you want to view the Voynich manuscript – for free! – it is available on-line. Even if the majority of the words are elusive, the images are quite wondrous… For more Voynich images and interpretations – e.g. putative plant identifications – Ellie Velinska’s blog is worth a visit  – Ed.]

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.

An explosive mix: C4, C3, C2 and CCM

Image: Ninghui Shi/Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Ninghui Shi/Wikimedia Commons.

As if the task of explaining the details of the ‘normal’ C3 Calvin Cycle of photosynthesis (P/S) to our students isn’t hard enough, we also need to appraise them of C4 P/S  – with its spatial separation of initial CO2 fixation into organic acids in mesophyll cells and its subsequent release and re-fixation via the enzyme Rubisco (ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase)  into the photosynthetic Calvin Cycle proper within bundle sheath cells*. As testing and trying as that is, nature always has to go one ‘better’, and ‘spoil’ things. So, the fin-de-millennial recognition of a variant of this C4 P/S in which initial CO2 fixation into 4-carbon acids and its subsequent release and re-fixation into the Calvin Cycle of C3 P/S takes place within a single cell is kind of unwelcome (no matter how fascinating it is!). Well, anyway, it exists – in such higher plants as Suaeda (Borszczowia) aralocaspica, Bienertia cycloptera, B. sinuspersici and B. kavirense, all in the Chenopodiaceae (now within the Amaranthaceae) – so we need to get over it, and try and understand it. And that’s what Samantha Stutz et al. have been doing. Although these plants perform spatial separation of the two CO2 fixation events within a single mesophyll cell, they do so using two distinct – dimorphic – chloroplasts. Already known is that light is necessary for development of the dimorphic chloroplasts in cotyledons in B. aralocaspica. In the dark they only have a single structural plastid type (which expresses Rubisco): light induces formation of dimorphic chloroplasts from the single plastid pool, and structural polarization leads to the single-cell C4 syndrome. The aim of Stutz et al.’s study was to determine how growth under limited light affects leaf structure, biochemistry and efficiency of the single-cell CO2-concentrating mechanism. Overall, the team found that the fully developed single-cell C4 system in B. sinuspersici is robust when grown under ‘moderate light’. Where might this sort of work be going? Well, whilst it is interesting for its own sake – the pure pursuit of knowledge – it has a more applied dimension too. Central to all of this single-cell photosynthetic biology and biochemistry is the concept of CCM, carbon-concentrating mechanisms, whereby levels of CO2 are increased in the vicinity of Rubisco so that it favours photosynthesis – CO2-fixation – over photorespiration (so-called C2 photosynthesis) which uses O2 as substrate and consequently reduces photosynthetic efficiency. Well, in bids to replicate some of the greater photosynthetic efficiency of C4 plants (largely by virtue of their diverse CCMs…), an attractive notion is to engineer various forms of CCM into C3 crop plants. This approach is exemplified in the work of Mitsue Miyao et al., where they attempted to exploit enzymes of the facultative C4 aquatic plant Hydrilla verticillata (which engages in single-cell C4 P/S) to convert rice from its typical C3 P/S into a single-cell C4 photosynthesiser. Although they didn’t achieve their goal (and it’s good to know that ‘negative’ results can still be published!), their article is an interesting and soul-bearing account of the lessons learned in this work. As we continue our quest for that elusive boost in photosynthetic yield, we’ll no doubt continue to exploit any biochemical variant on the photosynthetic theme that nature displays. Which begs the question: how many more variants exist amongst the 325,000 species of flowering plants (let alone all the algae and other members of the plant kingdom)? Seems like we need more plant anatomists, plant biochemists, plant physiologists – as well as plant taxonomists (see my last post on this blog) – after all!

 

* That’s C4 P/S as opposed to CAM (Crassulacean acid metabolism), which is also a version of C4 P/S but which involves temporal separation of the same two carbon-fixation events in plants such as pineapple, cacti and agave. However, CAM is hardly ever referred to as C4 P/S because the all-powerful Zea Supremacy lobby has commandeered the term for that spatially separated C4 version found in plants such as maize… but don’t get me started on that!

 

[Intriguingly, and in addition to its dimorphic chloroplasts, Suaeda aralocaspica has dimorphic seeds, which exhibit distinct differences in dormancy and germination characteristics. Now, they say that things come in threes, so what’s the third dimorphy about this iconic species…? – Ed.]

Cause for optimism (maybe not…)

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

As an ‘old-fashioned’ botanist my heart was gladdened to see that Number 1 in the ‘Top 10 most viewed Plant Science research articles in 2013’ from Frontiers in Plant Science was one that dealt with fundamental botany of the taxonomic kind. The paper in question was entitled ‘Angiosperm-like pollen and Afropollis from the Middle Triassic (Anisian) of the Germanic Basin (Northern Switzerland)’ and was written by Peter Hochuli and Susanne Feist-Burkhardt. Whilst that recognition may engender a feel-good view that plant taxonomy is doing rather well, Quentin Wheeler’s timely New Phytologist Commentary, ‘Are reports of the death of taxonomy an exaggeration?’, offers a more cautious interpretation. Commenting upon an article by Daniel Bebber et al., he concludes that plant taxonomy (though one suspects taxonomy of all biota fares as badly) is still in desperate need of greater attention – in terms of people to undertake the work and appropriate funding – as befits its importance to a true appreciation of the planet’s biodiversity and the inter-relationships between living things. Sadly, this state of affairs is unlikely to be helped by news that the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (London, UK) – one of the world’s premier centres of plant taxonomic endeavour – is in the midst of a funding crisis. Indeed, the situation is apparently so bad that ‘about 125 jobs could be cut as… Kew… faces a £5m shortfall in revenue in the coming financial year’. This must be particularly concerning since it comes shortly after news that visitor numbers to Kew increased by 29% last year compared to 2012. And this bad news on the plant taxonomy front is echoed in the USA where ‘too few scientists are being trained in agriculture areas of science’. So, there’s an insufficiency of people to grow the new crops that aren’t being identified because of the dearth of plant taxonomists. Where will it all end..?

[If you’re not put off by the precarious state of life as a taxonomist and want a little bit more of a career insight, then you could do much worse that read Elisabeth Pain’s ‘Science Careers’ article.  And for a welcome boost to publicising the plight of the endangered species known as Taxonomus non-vulgaris var. biologicus, see Tim Entwisle’s news article in The Guardian – Ed.]

One of a kind…

Image: Scott Zona/Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Scott Zona/Wikimedia Commons.

These articles have been going long enough(!) to be able now to report a successful outcome to a research project whose initiation was announced in a former news item entitled ‘Old meets new’. The project is the elucidation of the genome of Amborella trichopoda. “Amborella is a monotypic genus of rare understory [sic! What ever happened to understorEy??? - Ed.] shrubs or small trees endemic to… New Caledonia”.

Not only is this plant rare and monotypic – truly ‘one of a kind’! – but it is also probably the living – extant – flowering plant [angiosperm] that is closest evolutionarily to the earliest true first member of the angiosperm plant group, and may therefore be “the last survivor of a lineage that branched off during the dynasty’s earliest days, before the rest of the 350,000 or so angiosperm species diversified”. Given Amborella’s exalted status (which “represents the equivalent of the duck-billed platypus in mammals”), it is hoped that understanding its genetics will shed light on the evolution of the angiosperms as a whole. Indeed, the University of Bonn’s Dietmar Quandt is reported as describing Amborella as a more worthy model organism than Arabidopsis(!!!).

Since the angiosperms are probably the most ‘successful’ of all the groups in the Plant Kingdom (‘the land plants’, the Plantae), hopes are understandably high that unravelling the genome of Amborella – reported by the aptly named Amborella Genome Project – will lead to the identification of “the molecular basis of biological innovations that contributed to their geologically near-instantaneous rise to ecological dominance”. And accompanying the main nuclear genome article, Danny Rice et al. report on Amborella’s mitochondrial genome (mitochondria have some of their own DNA additional to that located in the nucleus) and find that numerous genes were acquired by horizontal gene transfer from other plants, including almost four entire mitochondrial genomes from mosses and algae. So, as ancient as it is, Amborella was still prepared to ‘learn’ from the experiences of even older land plants – mosses – and plant-like algae (which are in a different kingdom entirely to the land plants, the Protista). Adopt and adapt: a life lesson for all living things, I suggest.

[For more on this fascinating story, visit the home of the Amborella genome database. And if you still need some ‘proper’ botany (after all this genomery), you need look no further than Paula Rudall and Emma Knowles’ paper examining ultrastructure of stomatal development in early-divergent angiosperms (including Amborella…).  Notwithstanding all of this understandable present-day excitement, I can’t help but think that the importance of Amborella was foretold many decades ago, as "popular-in-the-mid-1970s" British-based pop band Fox seemingly declared: "things can get much better, under your Amborella…". Indeed! So, arabidopsis had better watch out! – Ed.]