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About

Why “Howplantswork”?

The goal of this blog is to explore the inner workings of plants, on which we all depend for our existence.

In this blog, I’ll primarily focus on sharing new information about plant function (a.k.a., plant physiology).

I prefer to approach this subject mainly from the perspective of the life of a typical flowering plant (angiosperm): seed germination, plant development, how plants make a living from day-to-day, and, finally, flowering and plant death.

Along the way, I’ll feature topics of current relevance, such as the effects of increasing atmospheric CO2 on plants, the use of plants to clean the environment (phytoremediation), and the extraction of biofuels from plants.

Ultimately, it’s all about how plants work.

Who Is This Guy?

rich_jpegMy name is Richard Stout, and I live in Bellingham, Washington. I received a Ph.D. in Plant Physiology from the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1980. Since then, I’ve taught biology, biochemistry, botany, and plant physiology as a faculty member at Williams College (Williamstown, MA) and Montana State University (Bozeman, MT). While at MSU, I was fortunate to be able to do some plant-related research in Yellowstone National Park (see here, for example).

In May, 2008, I said goodbye to academia, and so now I have time to pursue online interests, such as this blog.

Dedication

dave1This weblog is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Dave Rayle, who was both mentor and friend.

Dave was a member of the faculty in the Dept. of Biology at San Diego State University for many years.

He, along with Prof. Bob Cleland at the University of Washington, discovered how the plant hormone auxin stimulates plant cell growth.

Known as the “Acid Growth Theory” (PDF), this hypothesis has become one of the fundamental concepts of how plants grow.

Basically, this theory explains how auxin stimulates the elongation of cells in young stems. It turns out that this is also key to both phototropism and gravitropism in plants.

And the acid growth theory may also have implications beyond the plant hormone auxin, since the acidification of the cell wall may also play a role in the growth of other walled cells, such as in fungi and protists.

dave2

Dave was also an avid (rabid?) fisherman.

He rarely passed up any opportunity to go fishing, whether for winter-run steelhead during blizzards on the Skykomish River in Washington state or for rainbow trout during summer float trips on the Smith River in Montana.

Dave died in June 2001 at the age of 58, soon after he retired from San Diego State University. (Fitting eulogies were written for Dave by his friends and colleagues Bob Cleland and Ken Johnson.)

Dave Rayle was both a scientist and fisherman extraordinaire.

It was my great good fortune to have known him.

And as he was a great teacher, as well as a great scientist, this site – all about how plants work – is dedicated to him.

 

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23 Responses to “About”

  1. Louise says:

    Hi, your site is fantastic! Could you do some info on bonsai plants? I’m interested to know why and how a maple (for example) only grows tiny leaves when clipped to bonsai. Why don’t they just grow normal sized leaves on a tiny trunk? How do they know? Weird questions, I know, but interesting don’t you think?

  2. Rey D. says:

    Hi. I’m from the Philippines and find your articles useful. I’m an agriculturist. Can you enlighten me or do you know anything about differential cellburst extraction. Thank you so much.

    rey D

  3. Pilar says:

    Hi!! I´m a botany student and I really enjoy your articles!
    I was wondering if you knew the the effects that global “weirding” can have on C3, C4 and CAM plants.
    Thank You very much!

    • howplantswork says:

      Hi,

      I’m glad that you enjoy this blog.

      The likely effects of “global weirding” on C3 plants will probably be significantly different than those on C4 and CAM plants.

      However, my answer to your question won’t make much sense to you unless you know how C3 plants differ from C4 and CAM plants. And also how C4 plants differ from CAM plants. Do you know? If so, let me know, and I’ll be happy to try to answer your question.

      Thanks for asking, by the way.

  4. Pilar says:

    yeah, know the basics like the photosynthesis, the places where they can be found, the weather, etc. I know that C4 and CAM plants are more “alike” and that C3 plants would have a greater impact with the global warming.

    • howplantswork says:

      The answer to your question is complex, and people don’t really understand plants and plant ecology well enough to make accurate predictions. And why it’s referred to as global “weirding” also reveals our uncertainty regarding how increased atmospheric CO2 will affect Earth’s climate. But we can still try to make some “educated guesses”. (see http://howplantswork.wordpress.com/category/co2/ for example)
      One thing is certain, however: atmospheric CO2 will continue to increase. Probably double in your lifetime. Earth hasn’t experienced such high levels of atmospheric CO2 for hundreds of millions of years. The fossil and geologic records of this period can give us clues as to what we can expect. Briefly, the planet was hotter and plant growth was lush.
      It was lush at least in part because plants had higher amounts of CO2 to use for photosynthesis. At this time, there were no C4 plants. ( http://www.palaeobiology.org.uk/projects_05.htm ) Why not? They didn’t arise until Earth’s atmospheric CO2 decreased. Plants were (still are) “gasping” for CO2 – much like you would be gasping for O2 on the top of Mt. Everest. C4 plants use a specialized leaf structure (Kranz anatomy) and an alternative enzyme to RuBisCo to capture CO2 and then transfer the CO2 into “normal” C3 photosynthesis. This way, they thrive at relatively low levels of CO2 compared to C3 plants. (So, why don’t C4 plants rule? Because they don’t do well at cool temps, that is, outside the tropics.)
      Fast forward to today, with ever increasing levels of CO2. C4 plants are losing their CO2 advantage and in some places are already being displaced by C3 plants.
      How about the likely effects of climate change, mainly more episodes of heat waves and droughts?
      In this case, CAM plants may have the advantage. Why? They’ve already adapted to desert environments. They are C3 plants. (Yes, C3!) They simply use an enzyme to capture CO2 carbon at night (stomates open!), store it as a 4C organic acid malate overnight, and use malate as carbon source during daylight to do C3 photosynthesis (stomates closed to conserve water).
      Bottom line: C4 plants may decline; C3 plants may grow more lushly; but increased incidents of heat and drought may favor CAM plants.

  5. Pilar says:

    Thank you so much! you answer in such an interest way! hehehe I was thinking that C3 plants would have a greater challenge with global warming than C4 plants… definetly CAM will be favored… Thanx again for your help! Great blog! :D

  6. Pilar says:

    Hey!! It’s me again!
    I have a different question now. Do you know what are the major differences between the life cycles of angyo/gymnosperms and the life cycles of Bryophytes, algae, fungi and seedless vascular plants?

    Once again Thank you for your help! :D

    • howplantswork says:

      Hey, Pilar. Welcome back.

      A nice wiki-page that answers your question is here.

      It’s easy, however, if you are familiar with some common examples of “bryophyte” and “algae” and “fungi” and “seedless vascular plants”. Are you?

      Hint: You’ve probably seen mushrooms, seaweeds, mosses, and ferns. But which of these belongs to which group?

      Anyway, these guys don’t produce seeds, right?

      But angios and gymnos do! (duh!)

      This is pretty obvious, but another big difference has to do with diploid versus haploid organisms. The humans and most flowering plants that you see are diploid. But the bryophytes and fungi that you can see are haploid. (This is a big old clue to answering your question.)

      Figure it out yet?

  7. Pilar says:

    yeah! BIG HELP! hehe
    Mushrooms are a tipe of fungi, seaweeds are algae, mosses are bryophytes and ferns i guess are seedless vascular plants?
    I think i get it better now! ;)

  8. Jacob says:

    Hello Dr. Stout,
    My name is Jacob and I am working to put together a quarterly magazine for citizen scientists. Would you be interested in putting together an article related to getting started with plants?

  9. stijn van laer says:

    Hello,

    I really liked reading the articles on your website. It was really interesting. Not only the content is good, but also the way it is presented. I have similar interest as you. I also studied biology, obtained a phd, did reseach and quited reasearch… And since one month I also have a blog on which I write my ideas on plants. My blog is a little different from yours. I have some ideas I want to share on the evolution of plants. I try to explain the biochemistry and architecture of plants by looking/trying to understand the evolution of the plant. I invite you to read my ideas. (at the moment, there are only two of my theory published online. A third will follow in one or two weeks). I would like to know your opinion.

    kind regards,

    Stijn

    • howplantswork says:

      Stijn,

      Thank you very much for your kind remarks.

      I will be sure to visit your website and read your posts regarding plant evolution.

      Happy New Year,

      Richard

  10. stijn van laer says:

    Hello,

    I forgot to mention the webaddress in the previous mail on which you can find my theories:

    http://www.plantevolution.be

    kind regards,

    Stijn

  11. Greetings Professor Stout,
    Love your blog. Always something uniquely interesting to discover. I visit often (via Twitter) whenever you post. I have a question about how to scientifically describe the relationship between two vascular plants that are fused. Twice in the past few months I’ve come across a smaller tree growing from the trunk of a different more-mature species. Below are two links to pictures I recently took. The first is a picture of what I believe to be California Privet (maybe: Ligustrum ovalifolium Hassk) growing from the trunk base of a California palm (http://www.lifeandleaf.com/leaf/parsitic-plant-relationships/). The second is a Camphor sapling growing from the primary branch bark crook of a huge Canary Island Pine (http://www.lifeandleaf.com/leaf/tree-as-parasite/).

    My guess is that a bird-passed seed becomes trapped in the frond skirt of the palm, and in the joint of the branch bark on the CI pine. The seeds germinated and tapped into the Xylem somehow. The question I have is, “is the relationship epiphytic or parasitic?” I’ve seen described both ways on the web, but it seems to me parasitic. Or maybe I am waaay off base. Any clarification would be greatly appreciated.

    Best,
    Robert

    • plantguy says:

      Robert,
      Thanks for your interesting comment.
      I’d say your interpretations are quite reasonable, though I don’t have much experience with such phenomena. My experience with epiphytes includes orchid living on the branches of tropical tree species in the tree canopies in cloud forests. And I remember that mistletoes are considered parasitic plants.
      What’s the precise difference between an epiphyte and a parasite?
      My working definition is that if the host plant is merely a platform for the dependent plant, then the dependent is an epiphyte.
      If the the roots of the dependent plant penetrate the host, then I’d say it was a “parasite”. If the dependent’s root cells can generate water potentials that are more negative than the host’s adjacent cells, then water will flow into the “parasite” from the host via simple osmosis.
      If the dependent can somehow tap into the host’s phloem, then I’d say it’s likely a “more serious” parasite. Though, if the dependent has green leaves, and thus produces sugars via photosynthesis, does it actually contribute sugars to the host via this connection?
      As you can appreciate, it’s difficult to simply classify all the different instances of plant-plant interactions.
      For example, some scientists are convinced that there are complex connections among plants via subterranean fungal mycorrhizae. So, which are the hosts and which are the dependents?
      Sorry…..I don’t think I’ve clarified much, if anything.
      I’ve bookmarked your website and look forward to reading it often.

      Best regards,
      Rich

      • Robert says:

        Professor Stout, or may I call you Rich?
        Thank you for your response. Since emailing you my initial question I scoured the Web for a few more hours and it appears that I was way off base on the epiphytic guess. You are right, they are parasitic relationships as the parasite receives water/nutrients through a tapped physical connection via the physiological bridge, (which I learned is termed: haustorium) and epiphytes grow on plants (e.g., orchid roots wrapped on/around tropical tree branches for optimal canopy water/light access).
        A plant parasite (to be called one) must physically connect its vascular system to at least one of the tissues of the host. Since both host plants (in my pictures) are large and pulling much water, and the parasites are leafy, I think your guess that Xylem is providing water and the rest is left photosynthesis. But who really knows. Still, what an interesting thing to see. You would think the host would force the invader out for survival, but I suppose the small size of the invader can be viewed as some sort of sucker fish on a big whale. Just getting a taste but not intending to kill.
        Robert

  12. Hasan Hijazi says:

    Hello professor,
    I am a U.S. trained economist, & although I don’t have a question; I only wanted to congratulate you on this highly educational and entertaining site;
    I believe that every once in a while, we all need a tab on the back, and although I belong to dismal science or discipline! ; Yet I will continue to be a junior budding botany enthusiast (as I continue to find correlation with economic life); In a word, simply I think what you are doing is just wonderful, and I am more and more fascinated with this kingdom as much as I am sure you are still obviously fascinated with plants.
    Best regards

  13. […] (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 […]

  14. Sarah (Fetzek) Tabor says:

    Hello Professor Stout,

    I was just wondering how you are doing and thought I would try to track you down on the www. I look forward to reading more on your blog! I hope you are enjoying retirement. This story got me thinking about the good old days in YNP and how I wish I could’ve pursued the bryophytes a bit more….
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140317-ancient-moss-frozen-life-biology-science/

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