In the study of geographic range boundary development, the focus has been on leading rather than on trailing edge dynamics. This is an important caveat as trailing edge dynamics will be critical for understanding population level persistence. A study in AoB PLANTS by Alsdurf et al. begins to fill this knowledge gap and extends the conceptual framework of the field by focusing on trans-generational environmental effects in Boechera stricta, a perennial wild relative of Arabidopsis. The authors found that while these effects may overcome some constraints on stress tolerance evolution and range expansion, other constraints may be created to limit range.
Why do we eat? Not a trick question. Apart from minor considerations about taste and sensory experiences, the plain fact of the matter is that we eat to get energy so we can do stuff (like read this blog…) and survive (i.e. not die). However, we are often encouraged to ensure that we control our energy intake, i.e. the number of calories we consume. To a large extent we rely on the calorific information displayed on the packages of the food we buy, to ensure that we don’t over-eat. Simply put, you find out how many calories are needed to maintain your particular ‘lifestyle’ (e.g. as published in government guidelines), and total up the calories for the food you consume to ensure you stay within that limit.
Easy, you might think, but what if the calorific information on your tin of lychees or whatever is incorrect, inaccurate, misleading or just plain wrong? That’s the concern now raised by Rob Dunn in his thoughtful piece entitled ‘Everything you know about calories is wrong’. And in the spirit of showcasing succinct writing (i.e. the following is definitely not plagiarism!), that article is admirably summarised by the journal’s ‘In brief’ commentary as follows: ‘Almost every packaged food today features calorie counts in its label. Most of these counts are inaccurate because they are based on a system of averages that ignores the complexity of digestion. Recent research reveals that how many calories we extract from food depends on which species we eat, how we prepare our food, which bacteria are in our gut and how much energy we use to digest different foods. Current calorie counts do not consider any of these factors. Digestion is so intricate that even if we try to improve calorie counts, we will likely never make them perfectly accurate’.
I don’t know, not only do we need to check the ingredients on our food packaging; we now also have to check the fundamental assumptions underlying the arithmetic! Clearly, food doesn’t do what it says on the tin…
[A plant-rich video presentation by Scientific American editor Ferris Jabr regarding this rather inconvenient truth is also available online – Ed.]
Many of us have heard of the lotus effect, the ‘very high water repellence (superhydrophobicity) exhibited by the leaves of the lotus flower (Nelumbo nucifera)’. Less well known – until this item was penned anyway – is another phenomenon that has been identified in the lotus by Philip Matthews and Roger Seymour.
As an aquatic plant, a high degree of water-repellancy may well have important survival value (and may even have been predictable..?). However, equally important is the ability to aerate below-water cells for aerobic respiration, especially those organs surrounded by waterlogged, anoxic sediment, such as anchoring rhizomes. Although well-aerated water contains oxygen and a range of other gases important to plant biology, their concentrations therein are much lower than those in the atmosphere. Any mechanism that can enhance supply of life-sustaining gases to an organism in such an environment will bring major benefits to its owner.
Well, and very much in keeping with the dictum ‘seek and ye shall find’, the University of Adelaide (Australia)-based pair did just that and found something rather remarkable. The duo propose an important role for large, leaf-sited stomata in regulating the pressure, direction and rate of flow of atmosphere-derived air within the extensive system of gas canals that connect rhizomes to petioles to leaves at the water’s surface. The active opening and closing of ‘central plate stomata’ (situated in the centre of the leaf above a gas canal junction, and which are much larger and less dense than those on the leaf blade proper) is hypothesised to regulate convective airflow within the lotus plant. Furthermore, not only does this ventilate the rhizome, but it may also direct rhizome-derived (‘benthic’) CO2 towards photosynthesis in the leaves.
It would appear that the spirit of Stephen Hales (17–18th century English clergyman and botanical experimenter) lives on, albeit down under! And another – additional – role stomata can play has been raised by María Nores et al. [http:dx.doi.org/10.1111/boj.12009]. Examining the pollination biology of the ‘four o’clock plant’, they propose that stomata are involved in nectar secretion whereby ‘nectar is secreted through modified stomata, accumulating between the base of the stamens and the ovary’. Multi-facetted stomata, not just mediating photosynthesis; clearly earning their accolade as ‘the most important orifice on the planet’.
What’s better than a book on plant biology? A free book on plant biology! So, let’s applaud the latest initiative from Washington (USA)-based Dr Richard Stout (the ‘plant guy’ who blogs regularly on botanical matters at ‘How Plants Work’) whose ‘book’ entitled Plant Trek is available as a free PDF download. In keeping with its Star Trek, futuristic focus – on GM (genetic modification/manipulation/meddling)/GE (genetic engineering) and plants – it is sub-titled ‘To boldly go where no plant has gone before’, and sub-sub-titled ‘On the past, present & future of plant genetic engineering’. Split infinitive aside, the book deals more with gene-splicing than splitting, and is concerned not with science fiction, but with science fact. But, and as Stout admits, Plant Trek is not a comprehensive textbook on plant genetic engineering and biotechnology. And neither is it a compilation of his blog items (though to have collated the GM-themed items in one place would be no bad thing in itself). Rather, it is intended ‘for people who may be curious about plant genetic engineering’. Since that latter demographic includes members of every cohort imaginable, Plant Trek should be a great resource that can be deployed in a number of settings, whether one is looking for a user-friendly way to teach botanical GM to undergraduates or to employ on those missions to widely reach out and touch the minds of the lay-people of planet Earth. Indeed, the book is intended for people who may be curious about plant genetic engineering, but who don’t want to read a long, technical textbook on the subject (so, ideal for most undergraduates…). And with chapters such as ‘Where Do New Plants Come From?’, ‘How To Make A Transgenic Plant’, ‘Gene Guns, Terminators & Traitors’, ‘Farmaceuticals, Plantibodies & Edible Vaccines’, ‘Into The Wild’, and ‘Are GM Plants Self-Replicating Inventions?’, it covers the spectrum of past and present facets of, and concerns over, this relatively new technology. It also peers into the future a little with its penultimate chapter, ‘Plant Trek – The Next Generation’. And it’s bang up-to-date with its final chapter – ‘DIY Plant Genetic Engineering’ – which examines the phenomenon of ‘garage biology’ and ‘bio-hacking’. This brave new world of the so-called ‘DIY DNA hobbyist’ and ‘DNA accessoriser’ is exemplified by Antony Evans’ ‘Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity’ project. Despite being a ‘self-published’ tome, Plant Trek is academically rigorous and contains links to relevant academic articles and other web-resources (yes, even good old Wikipedia…). What’s not to like (and it’s FREE!)? Cheers, Richard.
[And if you’re interested in other ‘different’ ways of getting academic, plant biology messages across, why not check out Liam O’Donnell’s Understanding Photosynthesis with Max Axiom, Super Scientist’. It’s a ‘graphic novel’ about... photosynthesis that’s targeted at the 8–14 year-olds. Sadly, it’s not free, but it did win the 2008 Teachers’ Choice Award for Children’s Books. And if you want more photosynthesis, there’s always ‘A Leaf in Time – A Popular Introduction to Photosynthesis’ by the University of Sheffield (UK)’s Emeritus Professor of Photosynthesis, David Walker, which is free… – Ed.]
As we start another new academic year in the UK we have probably already revised our lectures (or should have…). Well, even if we have there’s still time to consider using ‘social media’ as additional/ supplementary tools and techniques for the delivery of our plant biology pedagogy. Whether we as educators like it or not, it is clear that our students are usually highly ‘tech-savvy’ and used to using such tools as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Having been brought up on those digital/social media tools, it is likely that they expect to see them used in delivery – and maybe even in assessment – of their botany teaching. So, maybe it’s time for those of you who have not yet used such technological tools (not me, you understand; hey, I’ve been known to embed video clips into PowerPoint!) to give them a go. If you remain to be convinced of their value, I encourage you to read Anne Osterrieder’s Open Access article entitled ‘The value and use of social media as communication tool in the plant sciences’. Anne is Research and Science Communication Fellow at Oxford Brookes University, UK (as well as being a regular contributor to this blog), and knows whereof she speaks, so read and learn. Although with an emphasis on disseminating research, the commentary’s message is equally relevant to more teaching-based situations. And although it may seem a case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ , this brave new world is unlikely to go away (and you know what happened to the original dinosaurs…). Plus, any and every trick and ‘gimmick’ is worth exploiting if it helps to promote the message that plants are really rather important (i.e. in the hopes of reducing ‘plant blindness’). So, go on, try it (you might even enjoy it…)! Your students expect it (and just think of the expression on the wide-eyed, open-mouthed faces of the little darlings when you deliver your first hi-tech-enhanced teaching session…).
[And if you’re wondering when the previous new plant organelle was identified, my suggestion is plastid stromules (in 1997…). And for more on plant tannin research, check out this work by Dr Irene Müller-Harvey at the University of Reading (UK) – Ed.]
Crop domestication is a remarkable example of the evolution of wild plants into cultivable forms through human selection. Following the domestication of rice almost 10,000 years ago, ancient farmers selected many rice lineages for diverse agronomic and cultural traits, such as grain size, shape and colour; awn length; pest resistance; and aroma. A recent study in AoB PLANTS by Ray et al. examined the phenotypic traits of a large collection of Indian rice landraces (all accessed from Vrihi, rice seed bank, www.cintdis.org/vrihi) and found that a few grain, panicle and leaf traits are major drivers of the huge phenotypic diversity observed. They also demonstrated the existence of short grain aromatic landraces perhaps with independently evolved aroma traits. The independent origin of aroma in indica rice is fascinating as it explores lesser known aspects of indica rice domestication and diversification.
Frequently, journals will devote a whole issue to a particular theme, maybe even to a single species (even whole journals are seemingly devoted to Arabidopsis thaliana…). But rarely will they be devoted to a single journal article. Well, such is the power of ‘Ledbetter and Porter (1963)’ that the July 2013 issue of the Plant Journal pays due homage to that seminal publication.
Why does L&B ’63 deserve this honour? Simply stated, that rather modest paper, entitled ‘A “microtubule” in plant cell fine structure’, virtually single-handedly initiated a whole new area of plant cell biology research – the role of the cytoskeleton, particularly in connection with cell wall formation. Its trend-setting and iconic status can largely be traced back to some of the most influential ‘throw-away’ comments ever penned, such as, ‘It is noted that the cortical tubules are in a favored position to… exert an influence over the disposition of cell wall materials. In this regard it may be of some significance that the tubules just beneath the surface of the protoplast mirror the orientation of the cellulose microfibrils of the adjacent cell walls’ (from the article’s abstract).
Nowadays, after a further half-century of study, elements of the plant cytoskeleton – especially tubulin-constructed microtubles, actin-based microfilaments, and cytoskeleton-associated proteins – have been implicated in many aspects of plant cell biology and continue to provide fruitful areas of investigation. Many dimensions of those new and emerging microtubule-rooted areas of study are covered in the issue’s 12 review articles. And with titles such as ‘The role of the cytoskeleton and associated proteins in determination of the plant cell division plane’, ‘Microtubules and biotic interactions’, ‘Microtubules in viral replication and transport’, ‘Microtubules, signalling and abiotic stress’ and ‘Cytoskeleton-dependent endomembrane organization in plant cells: an emerging role for microtubules’, you begin to appreciate the true nature of the debt owed to that original Ledbetter and Porter article. But the best bit of all this? Each of the dozen review articles and the Editorial by Peter Hepler, Jeremy Pickett-Heaps and Brian Gunning are all… FREE(!). What a great teaching resource! Thank you, Plant Journal.
[A question for those who know more about such things than I: why are microtubules still permitted to be called microtubules, whilst microfilaments are almost overwhelmingly termed actin filaments in modern scientific literature…? Is it because the corresponding term ‘tubulin tubules’ would seem slightly silly? If so – and for consistency (surely, an admirable scientific principle?) – why don’t we go back to those simpler times of microtubules and microfilaments? – Ed.]
Plants monitor a wide range of information from their surrounding environment. They combine information of multiple sorts, and respond in an appropriate way. In plants there is no brain, and the information processing is distributed across the plant body. This video of a prize lecture by Professor Ottoline Leyser is made available via the Royal Society and is well worth watching (click the image to watch the recording):
I’ll let you into a secret – I’m not really a plant scientist, I only masquarade as one on this blog. My day job involves science education and one of the main things I’m interested in is online learning, such as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). This post first appeared on my personal/education blog, Science of the Invisible:
Apart from a couple of statistics courses, the majority of the MOOCs I have taken were because I wanted to explore the platform and approach to learning being used rather than because of the subject matter. Coursera’s What a Plant Knows is different, because as the non-plant scientist Internet Consulting Editor of Annals of Botany, I feel that I really do want to learn more about plants.
Based on his book What a Plant Knows, Daniel Chamovitz fits into what I’ll call the Model B MOOC Professor – the big personality. In the grey world of MOOCs, this works well for me, although it would be very easy to tip over the edge and become irritating. As usual, there is a little too much talking head video, but clearly efforts have been made to include alternative formats. The assessment component is perfunctory, a few MCQs for each section. To their credit, teaching staff, including Daniel Chamovitz, are actively participating in the course discussions boards.
Week 1 was a good general introduction, although maybe slightly a little too “OH WOW, it’s a PLANT”. Week 2 on plant responses to light (“What A Plant Sees”) is right on the money – great stuff! Without any doubt this is the best Science MOOC I have seen yet.
Will this (very good) MOOC bring students flocking to the professional study of plant science? Not in any significant numbers – I can’t see us having to start a plant science degree to cope with student demand any time soon.