Plant Cuttings

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

A review of 'Nature Plants', the latest offering from the Nature Publishing Group.

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

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

Editorial and Commentary (and Books and Art…)

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

Research Highlights

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


News and Views

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


Research Articles

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


Finally, the verdict is…?

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


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

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

About the author

Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.