Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Herbal meth?


[Copied direclty from http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-soviet-military-secret-that-could-become-alaska-s-most-valuable-crop, please cite the original article at that site]


Rhodiola rosea. (Photo: Botanischer Garten TU Darmstat/Flickr)

Al Poindexter’s front yard in the south-central plain of Alaska has been taken over by a spread of more than 2,000 cell trays, each growing dozens of plants that look “like something you’d expect from Mars,” he says. The little ones look like little nubs; the larger ones are no more than an inch tall and feature a spiral of fleshy leaves.

“I tried killing it—you can’t kill it. That’s my kind of plant,” says Poindexter. “It can go weeks without water. Moose don’t eat it, rabbits don’t eat it, weather doesn’t seem to bother it. It’s a real easy plant to grow.”

This is Rhodiola rosea—golden root, rose root—a succulent that was used for centuries as folk medicine and once considered something of a Soviet military secret. Decades ago, the Soviets realized that Rhodiola could boost energy and help manage stress. These days, a small group of Alaskan farmers are hoping that it could enter the pantheon of plants (coffee, chocolate, coca) whose powers people take seriously—and, along the way, become Alaska’s most valuable crop.

In Alaska, farmers spend a lot of time trying to coax plants that would prefer to be growing elsewhere into surviving in Alaska’s tough conditions. Rhodiola, though, comes from Siberia’s Altai Mountains, and it seems right at home in the frigid ground.

“It’s actually an environment that the plant wants to grow in, as opposed to everything else we grow in Alaska,” says Stephen Brown, a professor and district agriculture agent at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “It’ll grow in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. It wants our long days. It’s already coming up out of the ground—and the ground’s still frozen."

Rhodiola growing in a test plot in Alaska (Photo: Stephen Brown)

In the northerly parts of the world, reports of rhodiola use go back centuries—long before Carl Linnaeus first named the plant in the 18th century. It was thought to boost strength and endurance, as well as help with altitude sickness. One analogy, Stephen Brown says, it that, if caffeine makes a person’s engine run faster, “Rhodiola gives you a bigger gas tank.”

For decades, Soviet researchers worked on divining the source and strength of the plant’s power. It’s not entirely clear when their investigations began: a significant portion, Rhodiola enthusiasts say, was never published but kept close in Russia government files. In 1961, one ecologist led an expedition to the Altai mountains to search for the source of the root, and by mid-decade, serious study into the plants’ effects had started, a group of researchers reported in the journal HerbalGram in 2002.

“It was considered a Soviet military secret,” says Dr. Petra Illig, the founder of Alaska Rhodiola Products, a cooperative of Rhodiola farmers. “Most of what was done back then was unpublished and hidden in drawers in Moscow. They used it for the physical and mental performance of their soldiers and athletes.” She and other investigators have confirmed that cosmonauts in the country's space program have also experimented with Rhodiola.

One of the first vocal advocates for Rhodiola in the United States was Dr. Zakir Ramazanov, a professor of plant biochemistry and co-author of the HerbalGram article. He first encountered it during his service in the Soviet-Afghan war—not through any official source, but a fellow soldier whose family sent him Rhodiola to make into energy-boosting tea. When he came to United States in the 1990s, he started importing the plant and would travel back to the former Soviet Union to try to collect the associated studies. He was able to trace the history of Soviet research back to the 1940s, Science News reported in 2007.

Rhodiola growing in Norway (Photo: Randi Hausken/Flickr)

Dr. Illig, who’s “a standard show-me-an-x-ray-and-blood-test doctor,” as she puts it, first found out about Rhodiola from that Science News article. She had recently moved up to Alaska, and “had more time on my hands than money,” she says. She started looking into it, figuring that since Rhodiola grew in the Siberian mountains that it would also grow in Alaskan mountains. By 2010, she had given over her yard to Rhodiola seedlings—100,000 of them. She applied to the state for a grant to expand the operation, which is how Stephen Brown got pulled into the project.

“We get a lot of these application where someone is proposing these herbal medicines,” he says. “I would refer to them as ‘unicorn and rainbow’ applications”—filled with promises of cure-alls. Rhodiola, though, was different: it was backed by credible citations and peer-reviewed literature. Brown wasn’t convinced the plant actually had beneficial properties, but thought if there was a market for Rhodiola, it might be worth growing, regardless.

Now, though, he’s a convert. “I'm a marathon runner and I'm trying to do marathon in every state,” he says. “Normally, I hit the wall at mile 19.” But, then he decided to try Rhodiola. “I never had that sense of total exhaustion I normally get. That’s when I realized that there’s something to this.”

(Photo: Tero Laakso/Flickr)

Among Rhodiola boosters, personal conversion stories like this one abound—though they’re quick to say that of course there needs to be more peer-reviewed research of the highest quality, including double-blind studies. The studies that have been published, however, do show that Rhodiola has extended the life of “flies, worms and yeast.” And it's been reported that sales are growing in American health food markets, and even faster in U.S. mainstream markets, where it’s been newly introduced.

What matters for Alaskan farmers is that, compared to crops like potatoes, Rhodiola has the potential to be sold at a much higher price per acre. “The big thing we’re trying to do right now is to expand the acreage,” says Brown. There are about five acres, in total, under cultivation right now. “At 200 acres, it would be the most valuable crop in the state.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Plant waits for full moon

I was alerted to this story in the latest hardcopy of New Scientist (no. 3016, p. 16): "Werewolf plant waits for full moon" and tracked down this on-line story by Ed Yong at National Geographic:

Shrub Attracts Pollinators By Glittering Under the Full Moon

On the cliffs of the Mediterranean, there grows an untidy, scrambling shrub called Ephedra foeminea. It isn’t the prettiest of plants, but once a year, in the middle of July, it becomes far more appealing. On the night of the full moon, the shrub exudes small, sweet droplets from its red cones. Without any clouds or trees in the way, these drops catch the full intensity of the moonlight, reflecting them into the eyes of passers-by. The shrub sparkles, as if covered in diamonds.

“We find it ever so beautiful,” says Catarina Rydin, from the University of Stockholm.

She thinks that the precisely timed lightshow attracts night-flying pollinators like moths and flies. After all, E.foeminea has no other obvious way of enticing these insects. It doesn’t produce scent and it doesn’t have bright white flowers that might stand out in the darkness. Instead, it relies on the moon, cloaking itself in reflective ‘pollination drops’ that shine like beacons.

This discovery was borne of frustration. Ephedra is part of an old lineage of plants that had their heyday during the reign of the dinosaurs, almost went extinct, and then stubbornly clung to existence. Rydin wanted to know why. She and her student Kristina Bolinder started studying two European species to work out how they reproduce. Bolinder became so familiar with the wind-pollinated Ephedra distachya that she could predict its pollination schedule and plan trips to Greece accordingly. But E.foeminea proved to be much harder to predict. “We made mistakes basically every year,” says Rydin. They’d go, only to find no signs of pollination drops. They always had to wait.

In 2014, they made a trip in early July and “as usual, we came at the wrong time,” says Rydin. “No pollination drops, no pollinators. We could do nothing but wait.” Wait, and read. Rydin read up on insect pollinators. She read about how some insects can navigate by moonlight. And when she reviewed records and photos from their 2012 trip, the only one where they accidentally got the timing right, she noticed that there was a bright full moon in the sky. “We talked about it. We even said that we had bad luck with the moon this year,” she recalls. “But we still didn’t get it.”
A week passed and the duo became incredibly frustrated. They tried to take their minds off with a nice Greek dinner, “but all we could talk about was why the ******* plants did not go into pollination phase,” says Rydin. “And, I am not sure why, but all of a sudden we experienced a eureka moment! The moon in the photos from another year, the darkness at the field site this year, the articles about nocturnal insect navigation… Wait a minute now… What if…?”

The duo looked at old records, from their own trips and from the scientific literature as far back as 1910, and found that E.foeminea always releases pollination drops on the night of the full moon. “Not much data is available, but it all speaks the same language,” says Rydin. The full moon of July 2014 was due on the 12th, a few days away. So, they waited “to see if that was what the plants were waiting for. And so it was!” The moon appeared, and the shrubs started sparkling.

E.foeminea’s timing is unerringly precise. Even if its cones are mature earlier in the month, it waits till the full moon to produce its pollination drops. And if some cones are immature, the plant still forces them to exude droplets on that particular day. By contrast, the wind-pollinated E.distachya is unconnected to lunar cycles. It produces pollination drops at roughly the same time, regardless of what the moon is up to.

How does E.foeminea detect moonlight? “Short answer: we don’t know,” says Rydin. It might be able to detect small changes in light intensity. It’s also unclear why the full moon matters; surely the light of a half-moon would be sufficient to guide in pollinating insects? The difference, Rydin thinks, is that a full moon is not just brighter, but brighter for longer. “We think it is all about maximizing efficiency. Only at full moon do the insects have a moon to navigate by during the entire night.”

This strategy has clearly served E.foeminea well for a long time, but also makes it vulnerable to rain, clouds, and perhaps man-made lighting. Perhaps this is why E.foeminea grows much further away from local villages than E.distachya does. And perhaps this is why it seems to be the only Ephedraspecies to retain its ancient insect-pollinated strategy, while other members of the group have trusted their fates to wind instead.

More on moonlit liaisons: Clock gene and moonlight help corals to co-ordinate a mass annual orgy

Reference: Rydin & Bolinder. 2015. Moonlight pollination in the gymnosperm Ephedra (Gnetales). Biology Letters.http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2014.0993

Monday, August 18, 2014

Plant talk

Entirely new form of plant communication discovered
Plants 'talk' to each other by sharing an extraordinary amount of genetic information, and it looks like parasitic plants could be using this to trick their hosts into submission.
Image: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Jim Westwood, professor of plant pathology and physiology at Virginia Tech in the US, has found that plants ‘talk’ to each other on a molecular level, swapping DNA information in a way that parasitic plants might be taking advantage of.
Westwood made this discovery by looking at the interactions between a parasitic plant called adodder, and two types of host plants - a small flowering plant called an Arabidopsis, and a tomato plant. Also known as Cuscuta plants, dodders use a creeping appendage called ahaustorium to penetrate their host plants and feed on their nutrients. In previous studies, Westwood had discovered that during this interaction, RNA molecules - which play a crucial role in coding, decoding, regulating, and expressing information passed down from DNA - were being passed between the two species. 
More recently, Westwood looked into the possibility that a special type of RNA molecules -  mRNA, or messenger RNA - were also being transported between the parasitic and host plants. Messenger RNA molecules send messages within cells, instructing them on which actions to take and when. 
"It was thought that mRNA was very fragile and short-lived, so transferring it between species was unimaginable,” Phys.org reports. "But Westwood found that during this parasitic relationship, thousands upon thousands of mRNA molecules were being exchanged between both plants, creating this open dialogue between the species that allows them to freely communicate.”
Here’s where it gets a bit sinister, because through this exchange of messenger RNA molecules, the parasitic dodder plant could be instructing the host plants on what to do, such as lowering their defences so the dodder can attack them with less resistance. Westwood plans to find this out in the next stage of his research.
"The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realised," said Westwood in a press release. "Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, 'What exactly are they telling each other?’.”
Other than giving us a much deeper insight into the behaviour of plants, this information could help scientists come up with better solutions to fight the parasitic weeds that threaten food crops in developing countries around the world.
"Parasitic plants such as witchweed and broomrape are serious problems for legumes and other crops that help feed some of the poorest regions in Africa and elsewhere," Julie Scholes, a professor at the University of Sheffield in UK who was not part of this project, said in the press release. "In addition to shedding new light on host-parasite communication, Westwood's findings have exciting implications for the design of novel control strategies based on disrupting the mRNA information that the parasite uses to reprogram the host.”
"The beauty of this discovery is that this mRNA could be the Achilles hill for parasites,"Westwood added. "This is all really exciting because there are so many potential implications surrounding this new information."
Westwood’s research was published today in the journal Science.
Source: Phys.org

Sunday, August 17, 2014

New fungi in packet of dried mushrooms

New species of mushroom found in commercial packet
DNA sequencing revealed that a store-bought packet of what seemed to be dried porcini mushrooms contained three species with no scientific names.
Image: Rebecca Siegel/Flickr
Turns out your delicious pasta sauce may or may not contain porcini mushrooms!
Two mycologists from the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens in the UK, Bryn Dentinger and Laura Martinez-Suz, got unexpected results when they analysed the contents of a commercial packet of dried Chinese porcini mushrooms bought in a store in London. After doing DNA testing of the 15 pieces, they discovered that they belong to three previously unidentified species. 

Porcini mushrooms are consumed all over the world. It is estimated that annual worldwide production reaches up to 100,000 metric tonnes. But not all porcini are created equal—and this research reveals that they are much more diverse than we might think. 

China, where the packet originated, is one of the main exporters of this ingredient to Europe, but having an effective method of identification when collecting mushrooms in the wild can be difficult. 

Dentinger and Martinez-Suz’s diagnostic research aims to stress the importance of correctly identifying the food we eat, which, as they state in their paper, “is essential for regulating global food trade and identifying food frauds”.
Science Alert: http://mail.sciencealert.com.au/news/20141007-25856.html 

Saving Lomatia tasmanica, an old plant

Botanists' bid to save King's Holly, 'world's oldest living plant', from extinction

King's Holly, otherwise known as Lomatia tasmanica, is believed to be at least 43,000 years old.
Only one cluster of the ancient plant remains in a secret southern Tasmanian location, surrounded by deadly root rot.
Tasmanian explorer, Denny King, discovered the plant in 1937.
It's believed there are fewer than 500 plants in the small secret location.
Greg Jordan, from the University of Tasmania, said King's Holly is probably the oldest living plant in the world.
"Definitely to date it's probably the best candidate for the oldest plant in the world," he said.
An intensive breeding program at Tasmania's Royal Botanical Gardens started in 2004.
The aim was to set up an insurance population of 50 plants in pots, but to date fewer than half have taken.
Mr Jordan said establishing an insurance population was a challenge.
Definitely to date it's probably the best candidate for the oldest plant in the world.
Greg Jordan
"The King's Holly doesn't do sex," he said.
"That's because it has three sets of chromosomes instead of two."
The plant bears pink flowers but produces neither fruit nor seeds.
It only reproduces vegetatively, meaning a new plant only grows when a branch falls and develops its own roots establishing a separate, but genetically identical, plant.
Natalie Tapson, from Tasmania's Royal Botanical Gardens, has been working with King's Holly for around two decades.
In that time several different techniques of growing the plant have been tried, but all have had their setbacks.
Ms Tapson said that while cuttings generally took root, they were difficult to transfer to larger pots.
"One of the issues is you get this blackening off, so whenever you cut a stem it blackens and it dies, so it's very very touchy," she said.
Ms Tapson now believes grafting King's Holly onto another plant could be the solution.
"By putting it on to a root stock, it's hoped that when you plant it out, or transfer it, you're not going to have that loss because the root stock is stronger," she said.
As well as root rot, scientists fear a fire could wipe the cluster out.
However, it's also feared a lack of fire could allow other plants to grow over the top of it.
First posted 9 Aug 2014, 10:11am
ABC News: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-09/botanists-try-to-save-the-worlds-oldest-living-plant/5659970

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Greenhouse plant in Himalaya (Rheum nobile)

Extreme rhubarb: The plant that grows a greenhouse

THE foothills of the Himalayas are lush and verdant. But the higher you go, the shorter the plants get. Above the treeline, at around 4000 metres above sea level, conditions are extreme. It's cold and windy, the steep slopes consist mostly of shattered rocks rather than soil, and from above comes an invisible barrage of ultraviolet light. The plants here are tiny and cling closely to the mountainsides, barely peeking above the scree-clad slopes. Every now and then, though, a towering pale form looms, ghostlike, out of the mist.
When the botanist Joseph Hooker caught his first glimpse of this peculiar plant in the 1840s, he was "quite at a loss to conceive what it could be". From a base of normal green leaves rises a hollow column made of overlapping pale-yellow leaves. The columns can grow nearly 2 metres high, dwarfing the other vegetation around them.

Monday, August 12, 2013

World's largest cashew tree (5 acres)

The world’s largest cashew tree know as Maior Cajueiro do Mundo( thousand year old)

June 12, 2013 1 Comment
The world’s largest cashew tree know as Maior Cajueiro do Mundo( thousand year old)
In 1994, Maior Cajueiro do Mondo located in Natal, Brazil.entered the Guinness Book
of Records for the world’s largest cashew tree.
This gaint tree has grown from an amalgamation of two genetic tissues Such tissues
grow the branches of the tree to outwrds rather than upward direction.
this cashew tree is located in Pirangi do Norte , Rio Grande do Norte , Brazil.
It covers an area between 7,300 sq meters and 8,400 sq meters or roughly five acres.
Having the size of 70 normally sized cashew trees.

The beauty of this tree is that it produces about 60,000 pieces of cashew fruit
each year. As for some people it may come as a surprise that a cashew nut
is not the fruit but a single nut is attached to the bottom of the fruit .
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Tags: Largest cashew tree maior cajueiro do mondo