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From “Smart” Plants to “Resurrection” Grass

Last month’s plant science news featured many familiar topics from 2015, including plant-microbe interactions and the effects of increased atmospheric CO2 on plants.

But perhaps the most interesting story from December 2015 involved a new theory from Princeton University biologists regarding the notion that “…ecosystems of the world take their various forms because plant “decisions” make them that way.”

One of the current “big” questions in plant biology is how the increased atmospheric CO2 that has occurred in the past century has affected plants, if at all. A report published last month provided a very interesting assertion.

Why have seed plants been so successful at spreading around the world? The answer, dear reader, may be “wax”.

When I was a professor in the Biology Department at Montana State University in the mid 1980’s, a colleague in the Plant Pathology Department, Prof. Gary Strobel, created quite a kerfuffle by attempting to combat Dutch elm disease by injecting young elm trees with genetically-altered bacteria, which, it turned out, was an unauthorized experiment at the time. When Stobel voluntarily (and somewhat dramatically) halted his experiments, this became national news.

Fast-forward nearly 30 years…there has been little, if any, subsequent evidence published that supports Strobel’s idea (see here, for example). But a new report published last month suggests that there may exist another potential biocontrol agent.

There are some plants, sometimes called “resurrection plants”, that can “come back to life” after nearly completely drying out. How can they do this? Some Australian scientists may have some clues to this mystery.

  • It’s easy to think of plants as passive features of their environments, doing as the land prescribes, serving as a backdrop to the bustling animal kingdom. But what if the ecosystems of the world take their various forms because plant “decisions” make them that way?Theory of ‘smart’ plants may explain the evolution of global ecosystems.
  • Swedish plant scientists “…have discovered that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have shifted photosynthetic metabolism in plants over the 20th century. This is the first study worldwide that deduces biochemical regulation of plant metabolism from historical specimens.Has increased carbon dioxide altered the photosynthesis of plants over the 20th century?
  • Having emerged late during evolution, seeds have transformed many plants into miniature travelers, contributing greatly to their colonization of terrestrial habitats. Researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, have just discovered one of the keys to this success: the cuticle.A wax shield to conquer the Earth.
  • According to a research of UPM along with other five European research centres, health of some elm trees could be related to the endophyte flora that inhabits inside these trees.Endophytic fungi in elm trees help protect them from Dutch elm disease.
  • A native Australian grass that “plays dead” during droughts and selectively culls its own cells to survive could provide genetic keys to help world food crops like chickpea withstand global climate change.Back from the “Dead” – Scientists unlock the secrets of “resurrection” grass.

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  • From Sexy Mushrooms to Electric Algae

    The rains of November help to bring out the mushrooms in the forests of North America. And, fittingly, one of the most popular plant-related stories of November 2015 was a tale of “Sex, death and mushrooms”.

    According to a report published last November, wheat “…provides a fifth of global caloric intake.” And “Estimates put potential losses from wheat rust diseases in Australia alone at more than one-and-a-half billion dollars each year.” So, it wasn’t surprising that a paper, published late last year, announcing the identification of a key wheat disease-resistance gene attracted a lot of interest.

    I’ve long believed that most people underestimate the importance of plants. But some people also believe that plants possess some sort of innate “intelligence”. What do you think? The BBC weighed in on the subject last November…..

    Are algae plants? According to one botanical webpage: “Most algae are traditionally considered as a plant subkingdom within the 5-kingdom classification. The diagnostic characters of the algal group as a whole were ill-defined, but nevertheless vastly different from the well-defined traits of the other two plant subkingdoms, namely the bryophytes and vascular land plants. Other biologists who were convinced that not all algae are plants revised the classification, preferring algae to be placed in Kingdom Protista, with only some multicellular phyla, particularly the Chlorophyta, Rhodophyta and Phaeophyta, remaining as plants. Then there were other biologists who regarded some of these multicellular forms to be placed in Kingdom Protista. The result was, and still is confusion.

    Anyway, however you consider algae, they were in the plant news several times in November 2015.

  • The unpredictable flowering of beautiful alien forms from rotting wood, dung or leaf litter in a forest moving toward winter is a strong and strange conjuration of life-in-death — in Baltic mythology, mushrooms were thought to be the fingers of the god of the dead bursting through the ground to feed the poor.Sex, death and mushrooms.
  • An international team of scientists has identified a gene that can prevent some of the most significant wheat diseases-…Wheat disease-resistance gene identified, potential to save billions.
  • Research suggests plants might be capable of more than we suspect. Some scientists – controversially – describe plants as “intelligent”.Do we underestimate the power of plants and trees?
  • Scientists from the John Innes Centre, the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh and Stanford University in California, have shown that genes from an alga which is capable of very efficient photosynthesis can function properly when introduced into Arabidopsis, a plant commonly used for scientific experiments.New progress towards maximising photosynthesis in plants.
  • To limit climate change, experts say that we need to reach carbon neutrality by the end of this century at the latest. To achieve that goal, our dependence on fossil fuels must be reversed. But what energy source will take its place? Researchers from Concordia just might have the answer: algae.Harnessing the electrical energy from plants – Algae could be new green power source.
  • Next-Time: Wrapping up the 2015 plant news retrospective….

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    From Ancestors to Zombies

    “Diversity” seems to be the best word to describe the plant news from October 2105.

    Many agree that the ability to form symbiotic relationships with soil microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi were key to the successful colonization of the land by green plants. A report published last October supports the idea that land plant ancestors were predisposed to form such partnerships.

    After over a hundred years, some scientists are still debating the findings of Gregor Mendel.

    A few months ago I wrote a post regarding “rewilding”, that is, the reintroduction of wild traits back into crop plants. Some plant scientists think this may be a novel approach to crop plant defense against insect predators.

    What triggers flowering in plants has been a major question for plant physiologists for a very long time. But lots has been learned in the last 20 years or so. A paper published last October revealed how a plant hormone may instigate flower formation.

    Zombies is a subject that people never seem to get tired of hearing about (inexplicably, to me , at least). Anyway, what would plant versions of zombies look like? Some scientists think they have an answer to this question.

  • When the algal ancestor of modern land plants made the transition from aquatic environments to an inhospitable shore 450 million years ago, it changed the world by dramatically altering climate and setting the stage for the vast array of terrestrial life.Ancestors of land plants were wired to make the leap to shore.
  • Biologists arguing about whether the results of experiments by the man hailed as the father of modern genetics are “too good to be true” have been distracted from a more important debate.Learning the right lesson from Mendel’s peas.
  • Rose gardeners have a lot to say about aphids. Some may advise insecticides as a way to manage an infestation, but others will swear by live ladybugs (natural predators of aphids). The latter is more environmental friendly, and once the ladybugs run out of food to eat, they move on. While this strategy may work in someone’s backyard, it’s not an option on a large farm.Wild plants call to carnivores to get rid of pests — could crops do the same?
  • …flowers don’t develop just anywhere on the plant; they only grow from certain cells, which must receive a particular signal to begin the process. While researchers knew that flower formation was governed by the activity of the hormone auxin, they didn’t understand precisely how it signaled the plant to form blooms.Biologists discover plant hormone ‘switch’ that unravels chromatin to form flowers.
  • It begins as a fairy tale which later turns into a horror story: Lusciously flowering plants, surrounded by a large number of insects. Usually, both sides profit from the encounter: Feasting on the plant juice and pollen, the insects pollinate the flowers and thus secure the survival of the plants. However, sometimes the insects – in this case a certain species of leafhoppers – can bring disaster to the plants, which they are not able to overcome.How Plants turn into Zombies.

    Back next time with a glance back at the plant news from November 2015…

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  • From Deception to Murder

    Looking back at the plant news from September 2015, I noticed that several of the more popular stories were involved with what I’ll call the “dark side” of plants.

    One of the best parts of the classic book by the late Professor Bastiaan Meeuse The Sex Lives of Flowers is about sexual deception of some orchids. A new report published last September provides new insights into this marvelous example of plant-insect co-evolution.

    In a case of, perhaps unintended, deception of the human kind, the website Retraction Watch posted an article last Fall about two plant scientists whose research has been seriously questioned.

    How many living trees exist on Earth? A new estimate was published last September. “The figure is eight times as big as the previous best estimate,…

    In a time of relatively rapid and uncertain climate change, it is very important to breed new crop varieties to cope with these challenges. And anything that can speed up the often lengthy plant breeding process is very welcome. Some Belgian scientists have done just that by using genetics to predict plant size.

    One of the truisms often stated by biologists is: “Viruses are not really alive.” Well, a new study begs to differ….

    Finally, forensic botany is a fascinating topic. (Please see HERE, for example.) In a brief (2 min) audio clip from the BBC, a forensic scientist tells why he likes brambles (a.k.a., blackberry bushes).

  • Many orchids are masters of sexual deception, tricking male insects into pollinating their flowers by producing chemicals that precisely mimic female insects’ sex pheromones. Now, ecologists have discovered that orchids dupe male insects by mimicking how female insects look, as well as how they smell.The art of deception: why morphology matters in flowers’ pulling power.
  • A nearly ten-year-long series of investigations into a pair of plant physiologists who received millions in funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation has resulted in debarments of less than two years for each of the researchers.NSF investigation of high-profile plant retractions ends in two debarments.
  • How many trees are there on planet Earth? A new estimate may surprise you.
  • …scientists have developed a new method which allows them to predict the final size of a plant while it is still a seedling.Scientists learn how to predict plant size.
  • A new analysis supports the hypothesis that viruses are living entities that share a long evolutionary history with cells, researchers report.Study adds to evidence that viruses are alive.
  • Forensic scientist Dr Mark Spencer explains why brambles are a useful tool in his work.How brambles can help solve murder cases (audio clip).

    To be continued….

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  • From Jurassic Bark to Plant “Cell-fies”

    August is typically a relatively slow month, news-wise.

    Not so for the plant news of August 2015.

    There were so many interesting stories that month, that it’s hard to narrow it down to less than a half dozen. But here goes….

    As a new Biology faculty member at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman in 1985, I had the pleasure of meeting another MSU faculty member Dr. Jack Horner (before he became famous).

    Shortly thereafter, in 1986, Jack won a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. But he’s probably most famous because of his association with the movie Jurassic Park, in which dinosaurs are brought back from extinction.

    An interesting piece published last August muses on the question: If you could, what plants would you bring back from extinction?

    Speaking of dinosaurs, they were fading out during the Cretaceous period as angiosperms were on the rise. New research, however, suggests that their overlap may have been longer, although the notion that dinosaurs significantly affected angiosperm evolution is controversial.

    And regarding flower evolution, Darwin was fascinated by orchid diversity. And this fascination has carried over to many current evolutionary biologists. A report published last August may be a major breakthrough in understanding orchid evolution.

    One of the major challenges facing plant scientists in this age of global “weirding” is to understand how plants cope with environmental extremes of heat and drought. Dr. Elizabeth Vierling has worked on this subject for decades, including the role of plant heat-shock proteins in coping with temperature stress. She has recently focused her attention on another facet of plant stress, as reported in August 2015.

    Finally, a report from Japan last August revealed a major advance in determining the metabolomics of a single plant cell….that is, taking a “snapshot” of the metabolic state of an individual plant cell…what I’ll call a “cell-fie“.

  • The subject of extinction and de-extinction are much in the news at the moment, but discussions tend to focus on the loss or resurrection of charismatic animals like tigers or tyrannosaurs. Where is the talk of the plant species that have been lost and that might be worth bringing back?Jurassic bark : What extinct plant species are worth bringing back?
  • The dinosaurs of Gondwana may have wandered around and died in fields of flowers that were the ancestors of daisies, suggests new research.Dinosaurs could have pushed up ‘daisies’.
  • Evolutionary biologists never lost their fascination with orchids. With more than 25,000 species, they’re the biggest group within the plant kingdom, comprising roughly 8% of all vascular plant species. Biologists have proposed various explanations for this extraordinary diversity, but it has been impossible to nail down their relative importance. Now, a new family tree of the orchids is a major step in that direction.Orchids’ dazzling diversity explained.
  • UMass Amherst biochemist studies a protein’s role in regulating nitric oxide.How plants cope with stress, at the molecular level.
  • Understanding exactly what is taking place inside a single cell is no easy task. For DNA, amplification techniques are available to make the task possible, but for other substances such as proteins and small molecules, scientists generally have to rely on statistics generated from many different cells measured together. Unfortunately, this means they cannot look at what is happening in each individual cell.Getting a picture of the molecules inside a plant cell, in just minutes.

    Next-Up: The plant news of September 2015….

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  • From “Natural” GMOs to Sonar-Reflecting Leaves

    Question: Was there a subject that seemingly dominated the plant news in July 2015?

    Answer: Yes

    And that subject was transgenic plants, a.k.a., plant GMOs.

    The number one “Most Influential Plant Science Research of 2015“, according to the Global Plant Council was “Sweet potato is a naturally occurring GM crop“. Though the original paper (see Ref. 1 below) was published in May 2015, I didn’t get wind of it until July. Some think that this might change people’s attitudes toward GMO crop plants. Hmmm…I wonder…

    At least one person changed his attitude about GMO’s last July. It was Bill Nye, the science guy.

    And, at about the same time, the online magazine Slate published a scathing report highly critical of the case against GMO’s.

    In the biotechnology news of July 2015, two popular articles included the use of RNA interference as a way to improve crops and the cultivation of GMO rice as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    So, without further ado, here they are:

  • One of the world’s most important staple crops, the sweet potato, is a naturally transgenic plant that was genetically modified thousands of years ago by a soil bacterium. This surprising discovery may influence the public view of GM crops.” (from: Nature) A good (open access) summary of this story can be found HERE, thanks to NPR.
  • “Bill Nye used to think genetically modified organisms weren’t a great idea.” Bill Nye changes his stance on GMOs. (And you can listen to Bill explain why he’s changed his mind about GMOs at Star Talk Radio.)
  • The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.Are GMOs safe? Yes. The case against them is full of fraud, lies, and errors.
  • RNA interference is proving to be a valuable tool for agriculture, allowing researchers to develop pathogen-resistant and more-nutritious crops.Improving crops with RNAi.
  • When it comes to major anthropogenic sources of methane (an important greenhouse gas), livestock and leaky natural gas wells and pipelines might come to mind. However, rice cultivation is also among the largest sources.Genetically modified rice makes more food, less greenhouse gas.

    And, finally, how could I not direct your attention to the following:

  • Imagine a bat flying through the jungle of Borneo. It calls out to find a place to spend the night. And a plant calls back.With sonar-reflecting leaves, plant lures bats to poo in it.
  • Reference

    1. “The genome of cultivated sweet potato contains Agrobacterium T-DNAs with expressed genes: An example of a naturally transgenic food crop.”

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    354596ebb0e329a14a097f49ea26ba3cFrom “Vampire” Plants To Exploding Plants

    Half-way through 2015 there was lots of plant news – from reports about parasitic plants to “exploding-plant” videos.

    A couple of papers published in June 2015 revealed some surprising findings regarding the nature and ecological significance of parasitic plants.

    It’s interesting to see what plant news items get re-tweeted and favorited the most. And one particularly popular tweet at the HPW Twitter feed from last June had to do with “shiny” leaves. “Shiny”, in this case, as a result of using fluorescent probes to detect calcium signaling.

    Plant genomic analyses have impacted virtually every aspect of the botanical sciences. And two reports published in June of last year illustrate the strength and diversity of such studies.

    One of the more interesting long pieces published in June 2015 was a news feature in the journal Nature about the resurgence of indigenous crops in Africa. (Also, please see here.)

  • New research has revealed that parasitic ‘vampire’ plants that attach onto and derive nutrients from another living plant could benefit the abundance and diversity of surrounding vegetation and animal life.‘Vampire’ plants can have positive impact up the food chain.
  • Indiana University scientists have discovered the first known instance of a plant or animal lacking several key genes involved in energy production in cells.Biologists find mistletoe species lacks genes found in all other complex organisms.
  • Scientists visualize calcium signals in plants which are elicited by wounding and ultimately regulate defense responses against herbivores.” Feeding caterpillars make leaves shine.
  • A genome-wide analysis has elucidated a drought-tolerance system in the model plant Arabidopsis. Scientists reveal underpinnings of drought tolerance in plants.
  • Last June, a study was published that “…highlights the importance and utility of coupling natural history collections and next-generation sequencing to obtain large molecular data sets for species-rich groups.” Next-generation sampling: Pairing genomics with large-scale herbarium sampling.
  • Long overlooked in parts of Africa, indigenous greens are now capturing attention for their nutritional and environmental benefits.The rise of Africa’s super vegetables.
  • And, finally, just for fun: Time-Lapse Videos of Exploding Plants
  • Be seeing you….

    (Next-time: a backwards glance at the July 2015 plant news.)

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    From “Silver Bullets” to Bamboo Math

    There was a lot of plant news involving plant-microbe interactions in May of 2015.

    Fungi are an important group of plant pathogens. Indeed, most plant diseases are caused by fungi. So, much research over the years has been devoted to combatting fungal pathogens and to understanding how plants defend themselves against microbial pathogens.

    In May of last year couple of papers were published regarding novel ways humans and plants are battling fungal pathogens.

    But wait, not all microbes are pathogens.

    Many fungi and bacteria have developed mutually beneficial relationships with plants. Two new ones were revealed in the May 2015 plant news.

    And, finally, probably one of the most fascinating stories of 2015 had to do with the unusual flowering of bamboo.

  • Deep in the soil, underneath your pretty trees, shrubs, plants and vegetables, lurks a fungus lethal to all of them. But University of Florida plant pathologist G. Shad Ali has a tiny silver bullet to kill it.Researchers Find a “Silver Bullet” to Kill a Fungus That Affects More Than 400 Plants and Trees.
  • Receptors carrying built-in decoys are the latest discovery in the evolutionary battle between plants and pathogens. Decoy domains within the receptor detect pathogens and raise the cell’s alarm when there is an infection.Plant receptors with built-in decoys make pathogens betray themselves.
  • Ancient relationship” between fungi and plant roots creates genetic expression that leads to more root growth. Common fungus could one day be used as ‘bio-fertiliser’, replacing mined phosphate which is now depleted to the point of impending fertiliser crisis.Fungus enhances crop roots and could be a future ‘bio-fertiliser’.
  • One of the fastest growing trees, poplars, may rely on tiny microbes in their leaves to fuel their growth.Leaf bacteria fertilize trees, researchers claim
  • Numerous bamboo species collectively flower and seed at dramatically extended, regular intervals – some as long as 120 years. These collective seed releases, termed ‘masts’, are thought to be a strategy to overwhelm seed predators or to maximise pollination rates. But why are the intervals so long, and how did they evolve?Bamboo Mathematicians – On the ecology of flowering.
  • To be continued…

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    From Kinky Orchids to Misunderstood GMOs

    Food and flowers and GMO’s.

    These are often popular topics in news about plants.

    And April 2015 was no exception.

    Back in the day, when I was boring undergraduates in botany classes, I found that most students knew very little about the nature of the fruits and vegetables that they ate – where they we’re grown, where they originated, and why they were eating these particular plants, but not others. (But I suppose that’s true for most of us.) A book published last year aims to enlighten us on these subjects.

  • The avocado undergoes a sex change overnight, and orchids are the kinky perverts of the plant world, but although there are 20,000 varieties of orchid we only eat one – the vanilla pod! These are just some of the fascinating facts unearthed in Professor John Warren’s new book The Nature of Crops: How we came to eat the plants we do.New book explores why we eat the plants we do.
  • What determines the onset of flowering and what controls flower development are two topics that have fascinated plant physiologists for many, many years. Much scientific progress toward answering these questions has been made in the last decade, but, of course, there’s still much to learn.

  • A molecular tug-of-war between two protein complexes gives rise to the amazing diversity of petal shapes in orchids, scientist say.How orchid flower petals get their shape.
  • A previously unknown correlation between plant pollination and the full moon has recently been discovered.Plant pollination synchronised with full moon.
  • “Scientists at the John Innes Centre have discovered why the first buds of spring come increasingly earlier as the climate changes.Scientists discover why flowers bloom earlier in a warming climate.
  • I shop at the local food co-op, and I can tell you that the level of opposition to GMO crops there often borders on the rabid. Why is this so?

  • A team of Belgian philosophers and plant biotechnologists have turned to cognitive science to explain why opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has become so widespread, despite positive contributions GM crops have made to sustainable agriculture.” The intuitive appeal of being anti-GMO.
  • Many people have strong opinions about genetically modified plants, also known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs. But sometimes there’s confusion around what it means to be a GMO.Not all GMO plants are created equally.

    Next-time: Some of the popular plant news stories from May 2015….

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  • From Explaining Terroir to Hacking Photosynthesis

    Looking back at the plant news from March 2015, I noticed a couple of recurring themes: how environmental microbes affect plants and how plants affect the environment.

    Perhaps the most intriguing report was how soil microbes may be a significant factor in determining a specific habitat’s “terroir”, that is, how a specific location or habitat affects the characteristics of the plants growing there.

    Indeed, no plant is an island. That is, microbes, herbivores, as well as adjacent plants, all may produce chemicals that affect a plant’s development and physiology.

    Conversely, plants may also exude chemicals that affect the environment around them. A study published in March 2015 (see below) revealed to what degree plant defensive compounds may affect aquatic ecosystems.

    Plants, like animals, get sick. But also like animals, plants have ways to defend themselves against pathogens. (Please see a previous post regarding plants’ “immune system”.)

    Though mammalian immune systems are much more sophisticated compared to plants, new evidence suggests that there may be some similarities.

    The main challenge to agriculture in the 21st-century is how to feed an increasing population in the face of global climate change. One way may be to significantly boost photosynthesis in crop plants. But how?

  • In the first study of an entire wine grapevine’s microbiome, researchers have found that the microbes associated with the grapes, leaves and flowers are largely derived from the soil microbes found around the plant’s roots. A vineyard’s soil microbes may shape the grapes’ microbial community.
  • Chemical changes that occur in tree leaves after being attacked by insects and mammals can impact nearby streams, which rely on fallen plant material as a food source, report scientists from the University of Chicago Department of Ecology and Evolution.Plants’ defensive responses have downstream effects on nearby ecosystems.
  • Similar to humans and animals, plants possess an innate immune system that protects them from invading pathogens. Molecular structures that do not occur in people, animals or plants enable recognition of these pathogens and trigger the immune response.A key mechanism in plant immunity decoded: Plants detect bacterial endotoxin in a way similar to mammals.
  • Using high-performance computing and genetic engineering to boost the photosynthetic efficiency of plants offers the best hope of increasing crop yields enough to feed a planet expected to have 9.5 billion people on it by 2050,…
    Hacking photosynthesis? – This may be needed to feed the world by 2050.

    To be continued…

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