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From Seaweed to “Orange” Corn

The menu for our tenth course is probably the most varied so far.

Will we be eating seaweed in the future? And maybe even orange corn?

In between these two plant news items from October 2014, we also sample mushooms, tomatoes and hot chili peppers, and finally we get some dessert from Bill Gates (yes, THAT Bill Gates!).

  • Meet the farm of the future, where common seaweed is being upgraded from an environmental problem to a valuable natural resource and raw material.
    See what you may be eating in the future at: Food, fuel and more will be produced in sea farms of future.
  • Though modern medicine seems the epitome of all that severs our society from the past, it still draws on the same ancient processes of cognition that have always served to keep people alive — and that make us uniquely human.
    Read about how a physician found that identifying wild mushrooms is like diagnosing human diseases at: Learning From Fungi: Of Medicine and Mushrooms.
  • Plant breeders have long identified and cultivated disease-resistant varieties. A research team at the University of California, Riverside has now revealed a new molecular mechanism for resistance and susceptibility to a common fungus that causes wilt in susceptible tomato plants.
    Find out how researchers identified a new process that explains why tomatoes are susceptible to a disease-causing fungus at: To Wilt or Not to Wilt.
  • “…what did it mean that the hottest pepper on earth had a Scoville rating of more than 2 million? How do you quantify the spiciness of a chili pepper?
    How hot are the chili peppers you’re eating? Find out at: Rating Chili Peppers On A Scale Of 1 To Oh Dear God I’m On Fire.
  • Purdue researchers have identified a set of genes that can be used to naturally boost the provitamin A content of corn kernels, a finding that could help combat vitamin A deficiency in developing countries and macular degeneration in the elderly.
    Learn more about this at: Natural gene selection can produce orange corn rich in provitamin A for Africa, U.S..
  • And finally, for some dessert: The Love Life of Plants, courtesy of Bill Gates….

    Next-Time: From plants in space to the secret life of fungi.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    Menu #9: From Caffeine To An Asteroid (Plus “Dessert”)

    The plant news “smorgasbord” of September 2014 provided quite a variety “dishes”.

    It was difficult to choose only five, but I did manage to include a video “dessert”.

    Bon appétit!

  • Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world.” A recent study, published last September, “…sheds light on how plants evolved to make caffeine as a way to control the behavior of animals — and, indirectly, us.”
    Read this fascinating article at: How Caffeine Evolved to Help Plants Survive and Help People Wake Up.
  • A genetically engineered tobacco plant, developed with two genes from blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), holds promise for improving the yields of many food crops.
    See how at: Plant engineered for more efficient photosynthesis.
  • Almost everyone is familiar with the smell of a freshly-mowed lawn. “The smell of cut grass in recent years has been identified as the plant’s way of signaling distress, but new research says the aroma also summons beneficial insects to the rescue.
    You probably will never think of a mowed lawn in the same way after you read: Mown grass smell sends SOS for help in resisting insect attacks.
  • Leaf surfaces are wonderful microbial habitats (for example, please see here). Research published last fall “…demonstrates for the first time that host plants from different plant families and with different ecological strategies possess very different microbial communities on their leaves,…
    Learn more at: Research finds each tree species has a bacterial identity.
  • The giant asteroid that most believe resulted in the demise of the dinosaurs also must have affected terrestrial plant communities. Unlike the dinosaurs, plants are still here.
    Find out how plants survived this cataclysm at: A Plant’s Guide to Surviving the Chicxulub Impact.
  • Video Dessert: New plants will no longer have Latin descriptions

    On The Next Menu: Seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes, chili peppers & orange corn…plus “dessert”.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    From Seed Saving To “Editing” Fruit

    Plant-related news did not take a vacation in August 2014.

    There were certainly plenty of stories to choose from for our eighth nibble at last year’s “leftovers”.

    So tuck in for some toothsome treats.

  • Most seed-preservation endeavors have followed pretty much a “one-size-fits-all” approach for collecting and saving seeds. “A new study, however, has found that more careful tailoring of seed collections to specific species and situations is critical to preserving plant diversity.
    Find out what’s new about saving seeds at: Saving Seeds the Right Way Can Save the World’s Plants.
  • How does a complete plant with stems, leafs and flowers develop from a tiny clump of seemingly identical cells?
    See how a research team combined math and genetics to discover a piece of the puzzle regarding: How plants grow and develop.
  • According to a paper published last August, planet Earth was a pretty boring place before flowering plants came along. Flowers may indeed have transformed land-based ecosystems.
    See how at: Flowering plants revolutionized life on Earth.
  • The mechanical force that a single fungal cell or bacterial colony exerts on a plant cell may seem vanishingly small, but it plays a heavy role in setting up some of the most fundamental symbiotic relationships in biology.
    Find out how “touchy” plants may be at: A touching story: The ancient conversation between plants, fungi and bacteria.
  • One of the main objections people have to GMO crop plants is that they contain foreign DNA from totally different organisms, even fungi and bacteria. But what if GMO crops are the result of relatively minor changes in the plant’s own genome? Will this change everything regarding the public acceptance of GMOs?
    Learn more at: Coming soon: Genetically edited fruit?
  • Next-Time: Caffeine and asteroids and their effects on plants…and more.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    From Plant Vibrations To Plant Detox

    Much of the plant news in July 2014 seemed to come in pairs.

    There were a pair of stories involving “vibrations”, a pair about plant development in 3D, and a pair about plants “cleaning” the environment.

    So, of course, the tasty news tidbits for the seventh month of 2014 will be served up in pairs.

  • News about vibrations in plants last July involved both the macro and molecular scales.

    First, at the macro level…Plant scientists have known for decades that plants respond to mechanical stimulations, such as wind, raindrops, etc. (see thigmomorphogenesis, for example). But can plants actually detect and respond to mechanical stimulations by insects?
    Apparently so. For example, see Plants respond to leaf vibrations caused by chewing insects.

    And for plant vibrations at the molecular level: “Biophysics researchers at the University of Michigan have used short pulses of light to peer into the mechanics of photosynthesis and illuminate the role that molecule vibrations play in the energy conversion process that powers life on our planet.
    Read how this work not only adds to our understanding of photosynthesis, but also may help improve solar panel design at: Deep within spinach leaves, vibrations enhance efficiency of photosynthesis.

  • Understanding how differential gene expression ultimately results in the formation of leaves, roots and flowers has long been the “Holy Grail” of plant development biology.

    The 3-dimensional (3D) imaging of developing plants has greatly contributed to achieving this quest. The results of two such studies were reported in July 2014:
    The first: Flower development in 3D: Timing is the key.
    And the second: Plants grown in a microscope reveal root development.

  • Despite the statement by Ronald Reagan that “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.”, I presume most of us would prefer to breathe the air in a forest rather than the car-exhaust-laden air along a busy city street. Indeed, new evidence supports the idea that trees may actually help remove air pollution.
    Read about it at: First national study finds trees saving lives, reducing respiratory problems.

    Using plants to mitigate environmental pollution is often referred to as phytoremediation. A good example of this was reported online last July at: Using sunflowers to clean up toxic soils.

    On Menu #8: Old seeds, “genetically-edited” fruit, and more….

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

  • Old Forests, New Synthetic Plants, & More…

    Like in May 2014, the news about plants reported in June was pretty wide-ranging.

    So, this sixth trip to the 2014 HowPlantsWork “buffet” yields quite a variety of plant news ‘morsels”.


  • How does an old forest evolve over time? “The traditional theory had posited that when a forest gets old, it would respire more and use more energy.” New findings, published last June, do not support this theory.
    Find out what’s new with old forests at: Study Revises Theory on Growth and Carbon Storage in Mature Trees.
  • …in the 21st century, we face both ever-increasing demand and the need to shift towards more sustainable production systems. Can we build new plants that make better materials, act as miniature ‘factories’ for food and fuel, and minimise the human impact on the environment?” To address these questions, a new initiative in the UK called OpenPlant, taking inspiration from engineering and the software industry, is under way that will fast-forward the design of new plants.
    Learn more about this experimental project at: From foundry to factory: building synthetic plants.
  • Can air pollution actually reduce the amount of insect pollination of flowering plants? According to a report in June 2014, the answer is yes.
    Find out more at: Odours can keep insects from finding flowers.

  • During the Great Famine in Ireland from 1845 to 1852 over 1 million people died and over a million people emigrated. The cause of this human disaster was a fungal pathogen on potatoes called Phytophthora infestans.
    See how scientists tracked down the origin of this disease and why this information is important in 2014 at: Irish potato famine pathogen originated in Mexico.
  • In 2006, the U.S. Senate created a National Pollinator Week to “recognize the importance of pollinators to ecosystem health and agriculture in the United States.” Each year since then, recognition of National Pollinator Week has grown, with many states and local groups planning educational events.
    Learn more about this (and get ready for 2015) at: Charismatic Minifauna: Pollinator week is coming!
  • Next-Time: From vibrating plants to how plants “clean” the environment.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    Menu #5 = “Magic Mushrooms” To Heavy Metals

    The plant news topics from May 2014 were remarkably varied.

    Since the working definition of “plants” in this blog includes protists and fungi, scientific reports involving mushrooms are certainly fair game.

    So, let’s start this course with some “magic” mushrooms and finish with plants that may actually “eat” heavy metals.

  • When emotions are processed in a negatively biased manner in the brain, an individual is at risk to develop depression. Psilocybin, the bioactive component of the Mexican magic mushroom, seems to intervene positively in the emotion-processing mechanism.” See why these “magic” mushrooms perhaps should instead be called “happy” mushrooms at: Psilocybin inhibits the processing of negative emotions in the brain.
  • “…how much gene flow is there between plant populations? How important is gene flow for maintaining a species’ identity and diversity, and what are the implications of these processes for evolution, conservation of endangered species, invasiveness, or unintentional gene flow from domesticated crops to wild relatives?
    Find out answers to these questions at: What can plants reveal about gene flow? That it’s an important evolutionary force.
  • If you think the 1930s drought that caused The Dust Bowl was rough, new research looking at tree rings in the Rocky Mountains has news for you: Things can get much worse….
    Find out how much worse at: Tree rings reveal nightmare droughts in the West.
  • Tomato plants not only take heed of their neighbours chemical ‘warnings’ but actually convert the signals into substances to defend themselves against imminent insect attack….” Some scientists think that these substances may actually be used as effective insecticides.
    Read more about this at: Tomatoes’ cry for help turned into chemical weapon to battle insects.
  • Scientists in the Philippines have recently discovered a plant species that can accumulate large amounts of the heavy metal nickel.
    Find out how this plant may be useful in efforts to clean toxic soils at: New species of metal-eating plant discovered in the Philippines.
  • Next-Time: From a new look at old forests to a celebration of plant sex.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    Spying On Plant Zombies From Outer Space?

    Some of the plant science news from April 2014 had kind of sci-fi theme to it.

    From outer space to plant “zombies”:

  • During photosynthesis, the chlorophyll in healthy plants absorbs light to be converted into energy, but it also emits a little bit of light that’s not visible to the human eye. Scientists have now figured out how to use that fluorescent glow to measure the productivity of plants in a given region.
    See how at: Land-plant fluorescence, measured from outer space.
  • The precise origin of the domesticated chili pepper, the world’s most widely grown spice crop, has long been in question. New research, integrating archaeological and genetic data with linguistic and ecological evidence, offering an answer to this question was published in April, 2014.
    Find out where the domesticated chili pepper was likely “born” at: Birthplace of the domesticated chili pepper identified in Mexico.
  • How will elevated levels of carbon dioxide affect plants? Many, many, many studies have been published on this subject in the past several decades. One of the more interesting such studies was reported last April.
    See the summary at: Field study shows why food quality will suffer with rising CO2.
  • Do plants have an “immune system”? Sort of. (See more about this here.) In fact, one of the ways some plants defend themselves from microbial pathogens is by sacrificing cells at the initial site of infection.
    See a summary of new research regarding how this may work at: Til’ death do us part – in the plant world.
  • Forget popular video game Plants Vs. Zombies, some plants are zombies and scientists have uncovered how bacterial parasites turn them into the living dead.
    Read about this fascinating research at: How plants become zombies.
  • For the Fifth Course: From “magic mushrooms” to “metal-eating” plants.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    From Bionic Plants To Plant Resurrection

    From March 2014 come reports from quite a range of places: MIT, the Rocky Mountains, and even Antarctica.

  • A team of researchers wants to make plants even more useful by augmenting them with nano-materials. Crazy idea? See why not at: Bionic Plants: Nanotechnology could turn shrubbery into supercharged energy producers or sensors for explosives.
  • Scientists can learn a lot by hacking a plant’s internal timepiece.” See how “adjusting” a plant’s biological clock may improve its chances of survival in changing environments at:
    How the tick-tock of a plant’s clock could help fight the effects of global warning.
  • A unique 39-year study of wildflower blooms in a Colorado Rocky Mountain meadow shows more than two-thirds of alpine flowers have changed their blooming pattern in response to climate change.” Can this be attributed to global warming? See the answer at: Wildflower season lengthens by more than a month.
  • Even though the plant hormone auxin has many critical roles in plants, we have much to learn about how auxin works. Two new advances in auxin-research reported in March 2014 are: (1) Scientists find a molecular clue to the complex mystery of auxin signaling in plants and (2) Hormone causes dividing plant cell to rebel.
  • Previously it was thought mosses, which are known to live in environmental extremes, could only survive for up to 20 years.” See how scientists have brought back to life moss plants that were frozen in Antarctic ice for over 15 centuries at: Moss brought back to life after 1,500 years frozen in ice.

    Next-time: From plant zombies to spying on plants from outer space.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

  • More Hors D’oeuvres:

    As we work our way through the 2014 plant news “buffet”, let’s continue with more “appetizers”. This time, from the month of February.

    February 2014 was notable because it seemed to feature stories that made us think about plants – flowers and the scents from flowers, for example – in whole new ways.

    From Plants And The Human Brain To Flowers As Agents Of Contagion?

  • Why are humans often affected by plant-derived chemicals, such as the scent of a rose, or caffeine? Is it because our brains possess aspects of the “insect brain”?
    Find out more about this fascinating theory at: Plants and the human brain.
  • What makes an insect choose to eat one plant over another? Could the variety of other plants growing around it be a factor?
    See why some scientists think so at: ‘Neighbour-plants’ determine insects’ feeding choices.
  • Each plant has a typical leaf shape that can differ even within the same family. The information about what shape leaves will be is stored in the DNA.
    Read about how plant scientists have discovered: A gene that shapes leaves.
  • Pine forests are especially magical places for atmospheric chemists. Coniferous trees give off pine-scented vapors that form particles, very quickly and seemingly out of nowhere.
    New research by German, Finnish and U.S. scientists elucidates the process by which gas wafting from coniferous trees creates particles that can reflect sunlight or promote cloud formation, both important climate feedbacks.

    Read more about this research at: Pine forest particles appear out of thin air, influence climate.
  • As major hubs of plant-animal interactions throughout the world, flowers are ideal venues for the transmission of microbes among plants and animals.
    Find out why some scientists are asking the question: Are flowers agents of contagion?

    Next-Time: From bionic plants to plants on ice.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

  • Nibbling On The Past Year

    After replacing the 2014 calendar on the wall with the new 2015 edition, I decided to peruse my HowPlantsWork Twitter posts from the past year.

    I was delighted to rediscover some quite interesting (to me, at least) botanical items reported in 2014.

    So, I’m thinking that it would be enjoyable to share with you a few of these “morsels”.

    Rather than stuff ourselves with the entire year in review, I’ll serve them up month by month, in twelve courses, starting, of course, with January 2014.

    Although these stories may not be considered the most important plant science “breakthroughs” of the year past, I found them especially “tasty”.

    I sincerely hope that you do, too.

    Hors D’oeuvres: From An Alien Language To Cyborg Plants

  • The evidence for plant communication is only a few decades old, but in that short time it has leapfrogged from electrifying discovery to decisive debunking to resurrection.
    Read a great review of this fascinating subject at: The Secret Language of Plants
  • A reliable and cost-effective method for plant species recognition is the dream of many scientists. Species identification based on the composition of short DNA sequences – so-called “DNA barcodes” – has proven to be the safest way to reach this goal.”
    See a good example at : Tell me your barcode, and I will tell you what palm you are.
    (Also, a brief explanation of “DNA barcoding” can be found at here.)
  • Are genetically-engineered crops safe to grow and eat? Read a great story about one person’s sincere efforts to determine the “truth” about GMO plants at : A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops
  • Light-gathering macromolecules in plant cells transfer energy by taking advantage of molecular vibrations whose physical descriptions have no equivalents in classical physics….
    Read about this new theory at: Quantum mechanics explains efficiency of photosynthesis
  • Rain forests may owe much of the high biodiversity for which they are known to tiny fungi in the soil….” You can learn about this new research published last year at: Fungi are the ‘Secret Police’ in Rain Forest Diversity
  • Are we on our way to the “Internet of Plants”? Some scientists think so. See what they are talking about at: The Internet of Vegetables: How Cyborg Plants Can Monitor Our World
  • More Hors D’oeuvres Next-Time: From plants and the human brain to flowers as agents of contagion.

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