Although much-derided, publication metrics – such as journal Impact Factors – seem to rule career advancement and progress in academia world-wide. The plant sciences are no exception with regard to this over-hyped, inappropriately used, arbitrary method of assessment. Well, we would say that if we were doing badly as a result of this system. However, a reason to be cheerful is that the Annals of Botany is amongst the ten ‘Top publications’ in botany/plant science (and one of only two with botany in its title!). This list – produced by Google Scholar Metrics – provides an ‘easy way for authors to quickly gauge the visibility and influence of recent articles in scholarly publications’, and uses so-called ‘h’ metrics. Publications are ordered by their five-year h-index and h-median metrics, and are searchable – for example, to see which articles in a publication were cited the most and who cited them. Now, although the dates and citation counts used are estimated(!), they are determined automatically by a computer program, and must therefore be independent, objective and believable. So, good news for the journal (yay!), and – maybe more importantly(?) – for those who publish in it!
In a novel analysis by Gornish published in AoB PLANTS, a regression-design life-table response experiment was used to determine how the interaction of fire and density affected vital rates of the perennial composite Pityopsis aspera, and ultimately how these changes in vital rates contributed to differences in estimated population growth rates. The shape of the relationship between population growth rate (λ) and density was modified by fire, primarily as a result of contributions from adult flowering stasis and survival, and first-year survival probabilities. Fire modified and even reversed the effect of extreme densities on adult flowering stasis and survival and of first-year survival, resulting in more positive contributions from these transitions to λ at the lowest and highest density values. These results demonstrate the first application of a regression-design life-table response experiment to elucidating the interactive effects of density and fire. They highlight the utility of this approach for both capturing the complex dynamics of populations and establishing a means of determining how vital rates might contribute to differences in demography across densities.
Taxonomic resources are essential for the effective management of invasive plants because biosecurity strategies, legislation dealing with invasive species, quarantine, weed surveillance and monitoring all depend on accurate and rapid identification of non-native taxa, and incorrect identifications can impede ecological studies. On the other hand, biological invasions have provided important tests of basic theories about species concepts. Modern taxonomy therefore needs to integrate both classical and new concepts and approaches to improve the accuracy of species identification and further refine taxonomic classification at the level of populations and genotypes in the field and laboratory. In a recent review in AoB PLANTS, Pysek et al. explore how a lack of taxonomic expertise, and by implication a dearth of taxonomic products such as identification tools, has hindered progress in understanding and managing biological invasions. They also explore how the taxonomic endeavour could benefit from studies of invasive species.
[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.]
When teaching about plants, science educators struggle with several problems in science or botany courses. Learning about plants is perceived to be less interesting than learning about animals, photographs of plants in textbooks are less numerous and less diverse than photographs of animals and attitudes toward plants are neutral rather than positive. Students also have serious misconceptions about the physiology of plants, and their abilities to name plants are limited. There is evidence that females have better knowledge about plants than males and that females appreciate plants more than males. A recent paper looks at the best way of teaching students about plants.
The study has several implications that should be taken into consideration in botany lessons. First, visual, colourful presentations of plants should include exposure of their fruits or seeds that promote information retention. In particular, contrasting colours of fruits may increase student’s attention, interest and consequently information retention about these plants. Second, talking about plants should contain survival-relevant information. This information includes plant edibility, the presence of toxic substances, medical importance of plants and incidences that can cause human death. For example, the hemlock (Conium maculatum) lacks any attractive seeds or other features potentially attractive to children, but the story of Socrates who was given a potent infusion of the hemlock and died can positively influence retention of information about this species. Finally, there was some evidence that the children involved in the research associated red colour with a fruit being edible, and black or green colours with toxic fruits, although this was not conclusive. Teachers should teach children that plants, similar to animals, possess aposematic, warning colours, and unknown fruits (with contrasting colour) should not be consumed.
Prokop P. & Fančovičová J. (2013). Seeing coloured fruits: utilisation of the theory of adaptive memory in teaching botany, Journal of Biological Education, 1-6 DOI: 10.1080/00219266.2013.837407
We have a fundamental and applied understanding of how differences in the wood chemistry of trees affects the durability of wood products. By comparison, relatively little is known about the ecological causes and consequences of species differences in wood chemistry; even less is known about how or why wood chemistry differs within species, across trees of different sizes. In a study published in AoB PLANTS, Martin et al. find strong and consistent differences in the wood chemistry of saplings and canopy trees, in several tropical hardwood species. These differences point to the importance of pathogens and tree biomechanics as evolutionary causes of size-dependent changes in wood chemistry.
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):
Alarmingly, that is the estimated upper limit of the cost of nitrate pollution in Europe, much of which results from use of nitrogen-based fertilisers to overcome nitrogen insufficiency in the soil for crop growth. A major problem associated with over-use of nitrate fertilisers on the land is water-based eutrophication, specifically human-caused cultural eutrophication, which is bad news for all of us, and something to be avoided if possible.
Trying to avoid such environmental damage – and maybe save some money as well – by releasing plants from their dependence upon externally supplied N compounds, a new technology aspires to convert crops that don’t normally harbour N-fixing bacteria (such as legumes) into plants that can use the nitrogen that is freely available in the atmosphere and fix it into compounds that the plant is able to use. The treatment – known as N-Fix and developed by Prof. Edward Cocking (Director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation) – exploits the ability of a specific strain of N-fixing bacteria found in sugar-cane, Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus, that can colonise cells of all major crop plants. The technology has been licensed by The University of Nottingham to Azotic Technologies Ltd and is delivered as a bacterial coating to the seeds. Importantly, it is stressed that the process is neither genetic engineering/modification (GE/GM) nor ‘bio-engineering’. Rather, N-Fix is seen as a natural seed coating that provides a sustainable solution to fertiliser overuse and nitrogen pollution, is environmentally friendly and can be applied to all crops.
Does this sound too good to be true? Well, 10 years of a series of extensive research programmes have established proof of principle of the technology in the laboratory, growth rooms and glasshouses. If this can be scaled up to sustainable levels in the field, this application has enormous implications for agriculture as the technology could provide much of the plant’s nitrogen needs, reducing costs – both monetary and environmental – of expensive synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Still, one wonders how widely available – and affordable – these seeds will be to those farmers in the poorest areas of the planet most in need of such an N-Fix.
[In addition to the press release’s associated video, for more on the science and potential of this fascinating story, try Cocking et al.’s ‘Intracellular colonization of roots of Arabidopsis and crop plants by Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus’, Raúl Pedraza’s ‘Recent advances in nitrogen-fixing acetic acid bacteria’, Ted Cocking and Philip Stone’s online poster, and the ‘Complete genome sequence of the sugarcane nitrogen-fixing endophyte Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus Pal5’ by Marcelo Bertalan et al. – Ed.]
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.
David Baulcombe’s eminently watchable keynote talk from the UK Plant Sciences Federation conference, PlantSci 2013: