Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Educated plants

This story copied directly from ABC News, 7 December 2016:

Plants can learn despite absence of brain, UWA study suggests

by Tom Wildie

Pea seedlings growing in a tray indoors.

Plants have memory and can learn to associate separate events based on their association with past occurrences, a West Australian researcher says.

Associative learning was previously considered to be the domain of animals, with the brain and a central nervous system considered essential in creating memories.

However, the new results from research at the University of Western Australia (UWA) could cause a change in the understanding of how animals create memories, UWA research associative professor in evolutionary ecology Monica Gagliano said.

Associative learning is an organism's ability to create meaning between two seemingly unrelated events, much like the famous Pavlov's Dog experiment.

Professor Gagliano's research demonstrated plants have the ability to predict future events based on their association with past occurrences.

"When those events occur again together, you have to be able to anticipate, based on one event that was meaningless but now has meaning, what is going to happen next," Professor Gagliano said.

"The entire question of agency, sentience, even consciousness, becomes a topic we may now be able to treat medically and scientifically."

Professor Gagliano's research centred around teaching pea seedlings to predict the location of a light source, by creating an association with a fan.

Seedlings were placed in a Y-shaped maze, with a light source and a fan located at the top.

The plant was exposed to the fan and then immediately to light to create an association between the two, and the results were unexpected.
Plant changed growth path in anticipation

The testing was carried out across several days, with the plant responding to its photosynthetic processes when there was no light and growing to where the light was last present.

When the fan was activated, the plant changed its growth path in anticipation the light would come from a new source.

"What that meant, for the plant to choose what the fan was indicating, the plant was required to go against its own phototropic and native instinct," Professor Gagliano said.

"They overcame their own instinct and they trusted in a way, the message delivered by the fan and the association they had learned to move towards something that initially had no meaning whatsoever."

She said the result was surprising.

"It is not what you would expect from an organism that does not have a brain or a central nervous system," Professor Gagliano said.

"Plants have demonstrated that a brain and a nervous system are just one way [to create associations]."

The results could have a wider implication in the study of memory and brain function, as they demonstrate that memory creation may be a fundamental part of all organisms and that different species have different ways of accessing them.

Professor Gagliano believes the next step would be to look at how other organisms such as sponges, which are animals but don't have a central nervous system or brain, create associations

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Albino redwoods parasitic and toxic metal accumulators

Copied from Mercury News:

Albino redwoods: Mystery of ‘ghosts of the forest’ may be solved

Zane Moore, Special to the Mercury NewsAlbino redwoods are rare features of California’s redwood forests.
PUBLISHED: September 11, 2016 at 12:00 pm | UPDATED: September 12, 2016 at 7:25 am

For 150 years, they’ve been a mystery: white trees in the middle of deep green California redwood forests.

Scientists know that albino redwoods are genetic mutations that attach themselves to the roots and branches of normal redwood trees and live by drawing sugars off the huge host trees. There are roughly 400 in California, with Santa Cruz County having more than any other area. Their locations in many places are kept secret to keep poachers and souvenir hunters away.

Now, a San Jose researcher is showing that these “ghosts of the forest” may be more than a biological novelty, perhaps solving a generations-old question.

Zane Moore, a doctoral student at UC Davis, analyzed the needles of albino redwood leaves in a lab and found that they contain high levels of the toxic heavy metals nickel, copper and cadmium.

The phantomlike plants, which rarely grow more than 10 feet tall, appear to be drawing away and storing pollution, some of it occurring naturally in the soils — particularly shale soils — and some left from railroads, highways and other man-made sources that otherwise could degrade or kill redwoods.

“They are basically poisoning themselves,” he said. “They are like a liver or kidney that is filtering toxins.”

Moore, who also plans to test albino leaves for lead, mercury and other compounds, has worked with arborist Tom Stapleton, of Amador County, to carefully catalog the locations of albino redwoods across the natural range of redwood forests, which stretches about 400 miles from the Oregon border to Big Sur. Some albino redwoods also exist outside the range, where redwoods have been planted by people. There are numerous examples in the Central Valley — and even one in Seattle.

Moore’s research will be included this week at the annual Coast Redwood Science Symposium in Eureka.

“The results are fascinating,” said Emily Burns, director of science at Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco. “Albino redwoods are parasites, and if these sprouts have some sort of a function, that’s really cool.”

Additional research is needed, she said, to find answers to other key questions such as, “Why aren’t there more albino redwoods?”Researcher Zane Moore explores an albino redwood in Monterey County. (Zane Moore - Special to the Mercury News)

Albino redwoods were first documented in 1866, when one was found near San Rafael and taken to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, where researchers couldn’t figure out why its waxy leaves were white. Later investigation found that the plants, which grow out of healthy redwoods, are white because of a genetic mutation that leaves them without chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green. It’s also critical for photosynthesis, the process by which plants use the energy in sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into food.

But until recently, they were always thought to have been freeloaders, taking from the big trees and contributing nothing.

Dave Kuty, a retired Apple engineer who lives in Felton and works as a docent at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, said the easiest way to see an albino redwood is to hike the park’s loop trail near its headquarters and look for Marker 14, where an 8-foot-tall albino redwood is growing.

As the oddities have gained a following on the internet, he said, he has been less inclined to broadcast widely where the 10 others in the park are located. That’s in part to keep people from hiking off trails to find them — and also to protect the rare plants.

“Sometimes people who own them report people climbing over fences to take samples,” Kuty said. “I used to tell everyone where they were in the park, and then I’d find pieces of albino on the ground. Ever since then, I’ve been reluctant.”

Kuty, who has helped Moore with his research, said many questions remain unanswered about the mysterious plants.

“Maybe the albinos are acting like a sponge — to get the bad stuff out of the soil and the plants,” he said. “That’s a possibility, but we need to do more research.”

Some are pure white. Others are yellowish. Some “chimeras” even have leaves that are half green and half white, Kuty said.

In theory, Moore said, albino redwoods could be cloned, then planted, and potentially used to clean up toxic waste sites. In the meantime, the research continues.

“There’s nothing like walking through the forest and seeing bright white leaves,” said Burns, of Save the Redwoods League. “People have wondered about them for a long time.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

32,000 year old seed germinates and grows

2,000-Year-Old Plant Brought Back to Life—Oldest Yet

Feat may help scientists preserve seeds for the future.
By Rachel Kaufman, for National Geographic News

By Rachel Kaufman, for National Geographic News
The oldest plant ever to be regenerated has been grown from 32,000-year-old seeds—beating the previous recordholder by some 30,000 years. (Related: "'Methuselah' Tree Grew From 2,000-Year-Old Seed.")
Russian team discovered a seed cache of Silene stenophylla, a flowering plant native to Siberia, that had been buried by an Ice Age squirrel near the banks of the Kolyma River (map). Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the seeds were 32,000 years old.
The mature and immature seeds, which had been entirely encased in ice, were unearthed from 124 feet (38 meters) below the permafrost, surrounded by layers that included mammoth, bison, and woolly rhinoceros bones.
The mature seeds had been damaged—perhaps by the squirrel itself, to prevent them from germinating in the burrow. But some of the immature seeds retained viable plant material.
The team extracted that tissue from the frozen seeds, placed it in vials, and successfully germinated the plants, according to a new study. The plants—identical to each other but with different flower shapes from modern S. stenophylla—grew, flowered, and, after a year, created seeds of their own.
"I can't see any intrinsic fault in the article," said botanist Peter Raven, President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who was not involved in the study. "Though it's such an extraordinary report that of course you'd want to repeat it."
Raven is also head of National Geographic's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)
Plant Study May Help Seed Vaults?
The new study suggests that permafrost could be a "depository for an ancient gene pool," a place where any number of now extinct species could be found and resurrected, experts say.
"Certainly some of the plants that were cultivated in ancient times and have gone extinct or other plants once important to ecosystems which have disappeared would be very useful today if they could be brought back," said Elaine Solowey, a botanist at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel.
Solowey resurrected the 2,000-year-old date palm that previously held the title of oldest regenerated seed.
Her palm seed, though, had been buried in a dry, cool area, a far cry from the S. stenophylla seeds' permafrost environment.
Regenerating seeds that have been frozen at 19 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 degrees Celsius) for so long could have major implications, said Solowey, who was not involved in the new study.
That's because all seed-saving projects—the most famous being perhaps Norway's so-called doomsday vault, aka the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (see pictures)—depend on freezing seeds.
"Any insight gained on seeds which have been frozen and how to thaw them and sprout them is very valuable," she said.
The Missouri Botanical Garden's Raven added that, if we can uncover the conditions that kept the seeds viable for 32,000 years, then "if you were doing it yourself, you'd be able to preserve [seeds] for longer."
Regenerated-seed study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Lichen = 2 X fungus + alga

This story by Maddie Stone is fascinating. Lichens = 2 X fungi + alga (at least in some kinds). It might explain why lichens with same 'primary' fungus and alga can look different. It seems it explains why some 'forms' are poisonous and some aren't. All very interesting...

This is the story copied directly from Gismodo:

We've Been Wrong About Lichen for 150 Years

Image: Tim Wheeler
Hundreds of millions of years ago, a tiny green microbe joined forces with a fungus, and together they conquered the world. It’s a tale of two cross-kingdom organisms, one providing food and the one other shelter, and it’s been our touchstone example of symbiosis for 150 years. Trouble is, that story is nowhere near complete.
A sweeping genetic analysis of lichen has revealed a third symbiotic organism, hiding in plain sight alongside the familiar two, that has eluded scientists for decades. The stowaway is another fungus, a basidiomycete yeast. It’s been found in 52 genera of lichen across six continents, indicating that it is an extremely widespread, if not ubiquitous, part of the symbiosis. And according to molecular dating, it’s probably been along for the ride since the beginning.
“I think this will require some rewriting of the textbooks,” said Catharine Aime, a mycologist at Purdue University and co-author on the study published today in Science.Toby Spribille, who led the new analysis, has been studying lichens in one way or another for most of his life. He grew up in northwest Montana, where the shrubby, rubbery organisms are a ubiquitous part of the natural landscape. But when Spribille started to get serious about lichen researchin grad school, he hit a roadblock.
“Lichens are nearly impossible to re-synthesize in the lab,” he told Gizmodo, explaining how the colonies take a long time to grow and the conditions needed to induce symbiosis are not well known. Unable to rear their test subjects in controlled environments, lichen researchers have struggled to perform basic experiments that could shed light the roles of the different symbionts.
But recent advances in metagenomics—tools for extracting and sequencing DNA from environmental samples, no culturing required—offer a new way in. This approach caught Spribille’s attention when he learned something very strange about Bryoria, a lichen found throughout conifer forests of the western United States and Canada.
Bryoria have a long and storied cultural significance,” Spribille said, explaining how certain Native American tribes relied on the lichen as winter survival food. “There’s also evidence that first peoples would remove the more light colored ones and wash them, so that certain substances wouldn’t make them sick.”
Those substances include a toxin called vulpinic acid. The lichen that produces it, Bryoria tortuosa, can be distinguished from its non-toxic cousin, Bryoria fremontii, on the basis of its yellowish hue. But a few years back, when a group of biologists at the University of Helsinki tried uncover the genetic basis for this difference using a targeted approach called barcoding, they were stumped.
“They found that the toxic and non-toxic forms [of the two species] were identical—at least, in the known parts of the lichen,” Spribille said. “And they didn’t really study it further. We looked at that and said, this is a classic question you could go at with genomics.”
When Spribille and his colleagues analyzed Bryoria’s RNA—the messenger form of DNA—they discovered something amazing. “We found there was this third thing, riding along in every single sample,” he said, referring to the previously unknown basidiomycete.
At first, the researchers worried that the extra RNA sequences could be contamination, a common pitfall of genomic research. And so, they decided to see if they could find the basidiomycete in other lichens, too. “We found it in everything,” Spribille said. “From Alaska to Ethiopia to Antarctica, it always was there.”
The final proof that this was not an elaborate hoax came when the researchers developed green fluorescent markers that attach to specific RNA sequences in the basidiomycete, and blue markers that attach to complementary RNA sequences in the other fungus, an ascomycete. Sure enough, when they added these markers to samples of lichen tissue, the cells of a hidden fungal partner glowed under the microscope.
“This is an exciting discovery that forces us to reconsider what we thought we knew about lichens,” said Kathleen Treseder, a fungal ecologist at the University of California Irvine who was not involved with the study. “It would not have been possible without recent technological advances in how we study fungi.”
We also can’t be sure when that third partner joined up. Using an age-estimation method called molecular clock dating, the researchers showed that the basidiomycete lineage is as old as the ascomycete lineage. “By inference, these two lineages arose at the same point in time,” Aime said. But we’d need well-preserved fossils to build a case that all three lichen partners have been together since the very beginning.We can’t be certain the second fungus is present in all lichens. Spribille’s study only looked at lichens in the Parmeliaceae family, the most widespread and successful group on Earth today. But the entire lineage is vast and ancient, and it’s possible some groups split off on the evolutionary tree before the basidiomycete arrived on the scene.
Aime and her collaborators are now studying the new fungus more closely. The classic view of lichen is that the photosynthetic organism (an algae or a cyanobacteria, occasionally both) provides food, while the ascomycete fungus offers shelter and structure.
The recent studies on Bryoria and vulpinic acid hint at a likely role for the newcomer: defense. “We can’t prove the connection of the yeast to the toxin, but the evidence points overwhelmingly to it being involved in some way,” Spribille said.
Spribille noted that the location of the new fungus, inside a layer of starch that gives lichen its rubbery toughness, suggests it may also play a structural role. Clearly, more research is needed to sort out all the ways this newcomer fits into our picture of lichen—but serendipitously, its discovery could make future studies easier. “One reason we think it may have been so hard to culture lichen is that we were missing a key ingredient,” Spribille said.“Basidiomycetes have really cool metabolisms,” Aime said, describing how these fungi produce all sorts of toxic defense compounds, called secondary metabolites. “It’s likely they’re producing a lot of the metabolites we’ve used to diagnose lichens in the past.”
The nuances of lichen ecology aside, Spribille’s research underscores the incredible complexity of the microbial world which is now being revealed through genomics. “One thing that sets lichen apart from all other symbioses is that all the components are microbes,” Spribille said. “But when they come together, they form something self-replicating and beautiful that you can hold in your hand. For me, that’s something to draw inspiration from.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Saint Jean: My book review of Jean Galbraith: Writer in a Valley by Meredith Fletcher

Jean Galbraith had no car, no television and, until her final years, no telephone. These conveniences became pervasive elsewhere during Galbraith’s lifetime (1906-1999) but their absence in her home shaped the literary legacy of this much loved botanist from Victoria. Galbraith was first and foremost – in her mind and that of her biographer Meredith Fletcher – a writer, and she wrote almost always from her family home near Tyers, in the Latrobe Valley 158 km west of Melbourne. As we learn, she was also a gardener, conservationist, botanist, farmer, family carer and Christadelphian.

It is this last attribute (you can look it up) that gives me the courage to call this book a hagiography. This is not meant as a criticism or with any cynicism. Jean Galbraith was saintlike (in a good way) in her frugal existence, her caring for others and her desire to preserve and celebrate what she viewed as God’s creation. Like Galbraith, the author Meredith Fletcher writes without sentimentality but with sincere love and affection for her subject. And, unlike the authors of a few biographies I’ve read recently, Fletcher is a good writer.

Writing began for Jean Galbraith as something to do when her eczema stopped her walking in the bush. Soon though, Galbraith lived to write and wrote to live. Her first nature essay was published when she was 11. At 13 she wrote her first flora, inventing names for the plants she didn’t know (an approach I rather like). Despite a clear talent for writing, and a growing interest in reading, Galbraith left school after Grade 8, not wanting to leave Tyers nor incur the expense of further study (both strong themes in the book).

Then the ‘miracle’. At age 16 she did get out of Tyers, to attend a Field Naturalist Club of Victoria flower show at Melbourne Town Hall. Here she met and was mentored by schoolteacher turned botanist, Herbert (‘H.B.’) Williamson, chief organiser of the show and himself encouraged by Ferdinand Mueller to botanise. She corresponded with Williamson weekly until he died in 1931, the start of many such relationships: Edith Coleman became her orchid mentor, joined by Charles Barrett, Donald Macdonald and others.

At 19 she returned to the city, attending two vacation schools at The University of Melbourne, in music and philosophy. Classical music remained a passion for life, after writing and plants. The year 1925 was also when she began her professional writing career, being invited to contribute to the Australian Garden Lover magazine under the botanical botaniconym ‘Correa’. She contributed monthly (480 articles in 480 months she said in 1965) until December 1975, 50 years later.

As evidenced by her first stories, Jean was a keen gardener. The cover of her most famous book, Garden in a Valley, shows her garden at the Tyers home ‘Dunedin’, linear and orderly, at least in the early years. She grew local plants but never tried to reconstruct nature in her garden. In her writing, native Australian plants and ‘the bush’ were never far away and, over time, she progressed from garden notes to nature writing. Her writing style has been described as more like William Wordsworth or John Muir than the ‘blokey’ writing of her Australian peers and mentors. In particular, according to Fletcher, unlike her (mostly male) contemporaries she didn’t nationalise nature. Galbraith observed and recorded, with few embellishments other than what was needed to create a convincing portrait of her subject. She wrote about what she saw around her, right down to the view through a narrow window as she separated milk from cream in the mornings.

To my tastes, Galbraith’s writing is a little overworked and without the mischievous glint I enjoy, but as with Dr Samuel Johnson – one of my literary heroes – I can appreciate the writing and intent without liking the style. UK editor Michael Walter once advised Galbraith that at 91 words her dedication for a book was too long and in danger of looking ‘typographically inelegant’: the first sentence had 19 commas. In response, Jean reduced it to ‘For the Latrobe Valley Naturalists and all who helped’. Still, she loves commas, which I do, as well.

Galbraith also wrote for ABC Radio, including nature study scripts for primary school children. She had no children of her own but ‘a natural affinity’ with the young; according to Fletcher she showed respect without condescension. She wrote many children’s stories, some hitting the mark, some not. Feedback included ‘too abstract and scientific for the age range’, reminding me of a knockback my father (who died when I was six) got from ABC Radio. His story was called ‘The Funny Moo-Cow’. “Dear Miss Entwisle”, began the reply, “the idea of tricks belongs to older children who enjoy these. That kind of fun is a little too subtle for pre-school children. Enclosed are some notes on story writing which you may find helpful. Also your manuscript is enclosed”. My father clearly knew when to play the gender card, albeit not successfully on this occasion. Galbraith’s use of Correa as a pen name confused readers, some wanting it to be a woman, some a man. However most readers thought the writing was feminine in style, and appreciated it as such.

Galbraith contributed to emerging magazines such as Australian Plants when the Australian Plants Society (aka Society for Growing Australian Plants, aka Australian Growers of Australians) formed. She wrote for British magazines promoting Australian plants and for school magazines. As Galbraith had said in her earlier career, ‘you must have a lot of work published to make a living’. Her writing was not only widely valued, but her ‘promptness and attention to deadlines were an editor’s dream’. She wrote in long hand, which may have been less appreciated by editors. (In her 80s, when she contributed short items to Anne Latreille for inclusion in the gardening page of The Age, Anne would type them herself so Jean could get the full payment.)

Her most influential botanical work was Australasian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter 166 (March 2016) 39 Wildflowers of Victoria, a no-fuss guide to the vascular plants of my home state. In 1949 Winifred Waddell, of Wildflower Diary fame, secured funding for the book, asking Galbraith to be co-author. Jean Galbraith was eventually the only author, although Waddell contributed to the orchid section and Jim Willis was on hand for any technical questions (Waddell was apparently difficult to work with and on occasions Jim also acted as an intermediary between the two women).

Out of this project Jim Willis became yet another active correspondent, admiring Galbraith’s expertise as field botanist (that said, you don’t hear of many people Jim didn’t admire or support – should there be a God, and one with a predilection for saints, he too would be near the top of the queue). The publisher gave Galbraith six months to plan, research and write the flora. Yes, really. It took another year but it’s an amazing achievement given the lack of a contemporary flora (Galbraith’s book was published in 1950, twelve years before the first volume of Willis’ own handbook).

While happy to have the book published, Galbraith was frustrated to discover all her edits added in proof were omitted. So, after the first edition sold out – all 4,000 copies – ,she set to work to make the next edition more accurate. In 1962 she slept in the National Herbarium of Victoria for a fortnight, bunking down in a sleeping bag on Mueller’s couch. Jim Willis happened to be acting Director of the Botanic Gardens at the time and was happy to look the other way. It’s hard to fathom but the publishers of the second edition again failed to include her edits. Only with the third edition, in 1967 (and the one I have on my shelves), did the text reflect her intent.

Galbraith later wrote A Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of South-east Australia. This volume wasn’t as well received as Wildflowers of Victoria but it again featured her trademark pithy descriptions and simple keys. Galbraith was not afraid to simply list the key distinguishing characters when that was more useful than a formal key. Good on her.

In the end Galbraith travelled further afield than Melbourne, to Queensland, Western Australia and eventually to London. In Albany to celebrate 50 years since ANZACs departed for Gallipoli, she noted that ‘there were enough white spider orchids [picked from the wild] to fill a bucket’, something she wasn’t happy about. I’ve heard similar stories about bunches of wildflowers collected from East Gippsland back in the day. Galbraith changed her approach and advice to wildflower picking as it became clear it threatened the existence of some species.

As the twentieth century advanced, there was the inevitable loss of bushland around ‘Dunedin’, mostly due to forest clearing for paper and coal mining. Galbraith became the Gippsland representative for the Native Plants Preservation Society and attended the formation meeting of the Latrobe Valley Field Naturalist Club, both of whom fought, with Galbraith’s help, to preserve precious bushland remnants. In her final years she sent submissions to the Land Conservation Council, helping to shape planning decisions in her neighbourhood and beyond. Fletcher adds that her conservation efforts were in part a response to her faith: don’t destroy what God created Galbraith wrote. She was not anti-development but an advocate for what she called ‘balanced development’.

Jean Galbraith attracted many friends and fans, and in time she became a mentor to others. Leon Costermans said he was inspired by her series on wattles in the Victorian Naturalist to write his influential plant guides. Edna Walling became a friend and advocate for her book on Victorian plants and in the 1960s the two of them worked on a book that was unfortunately never published.

I have to confess I knew next to nothing of Jean Galbraith’s life before I read this biography. I should have but I didn’t. I now feel privileged to have shared her life through Fletcher’s writing and to have discovered the remarkable person behind a book on my bookshelf. It got me thinking about how difficult it must have been to be a woman at that time (and still). Not in this case professional recognition or acceptance (that was forthcoming from all) but finding the time and resources to do creative work. To say Jean Galbraith lived a simple life is an understatement. Writing and the family farm were pretty much her only source of income: she notes that when she was finally eligible for the aged pension it gave her a rise in salary. Galbraith was said to throw nothing out. She recycled all paper and cardboard, and always made her own Christmas cards, embossed with pressed flowers.

For much of her life she cared for other members of her family, and for the frequent visitors to her home. Explaining to a friend why she couldn’t enjoy the garden on a ‘gloriously sunny day’, she said, ‘by ten o’clock I had finished my housework and made the butter and set the milk, so I sat down to write’. Only later in the day, while out gathering kindle to start the fire, was she was able to enjoy a little of that day’s sunshine. This delightful book tells of a wonderful woman, and her bread and butter.

Notes: This review first appeared in Australian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter 166: 37-40 (March 2016)  

Publication details: Jean Galbraith: writer in a valley By Meredith Fletcher Monash University Publishing, Clayton, 2015 292 pp. ISBN: 978-1-922235-39-8. AU$39.95 (paperback) books/jg-9781922235398.html Also available as an e-book ISBN: 978- 1-922235-40-4 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Yew a male or a female?

5,000-Year-Old Tree in Scotland is Changing From Male to Female

Fortingall Yew, in Perthshire, has been recorded as 'male' for centuries, but in recent years it has started to sprout seeds, suggesting that part of it is changing gender. This 'rare and unusual phenomenon' move has baffled botanists.  
The Fortingall Yew standing in a church yard in Perthshire, Scotland is estimated to be 5,000 years old. For as long as people have been recording data on the tree, it was assumed to be male – meaning that it produces pollen instead of berries. Yet, this year three red berries were spotted growing on its branches, which can only mean one thing: at least part of the tree is changing its sex to female.
How can this occur? Max Coleman of Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh says, “It’s a rare occurrence… rare and unusual and not fully understood.” He believes that environmental stress may have led to hormonal changes in the tree, causing the berries to begin sprouting. The autumn and winter seasons make it easy to differentiate a yew’s sex. Coleman recognizes that other yews and similar trees have been observed to seemingly switch sexes.
It appears that whatever change is taking place is gradual, as the rest of the tree is still male. Coleman explains, “In the Fortingall Yew it seems that one small branch in the outer part of the crown has switched and now behaves as female.” He insists that the tree remains healthy and the three berries (seeds) have been collected for further study. The Fortingall Yew is believed to be upwards of 5,000 years old, as estimated by measurements taken today versus during the 1700s. It just goes to show that it is never too late to start living to your fullest expression.

Images via Wikimedia (1,2) / via Inhabitat

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Touch feely plants

From: SMH/The Age

Believe it or not: plants respond tenderly when patted or touched

May 27, 2016 - 9:20PM

Peter Spinks, Fairfax Science Columnist

New findings suggest we ought to think differently about our interactions with supposedly unresponsive plants and vegetables.

Dr Olivier Van Aken of the University of Western Australia gets up close and personal with his pet plants. Photo: Dr Olivier Van Aken
Instead of talking to the trees, try cuddling your favourite geranium.
While flowers and other members of the plant kingdom seem not to complain when we pinch their buds or step on them, they are fully aware of what's happening and rapidly respond to the way they're treated, scientists have discovered.
While nothing very obvious happens to plants when they are touched, their physiological response launches a cascade of signals inside leaves that prepare them for the future. 
Dr Olivier Van Aken, UWA.
The research, published in the respected journal Plant Physiology, reveals that plants react in various ways when patted or touched – and may even flower differently or develop greater resistance to pests.
Tiptoeing through the tulips takes on new meaning as the flowers sense the presence of humans.
Tiptoeing through the tulips takes on new meaning as the flowers sense the presence of humans. Photo: Sean Gallup
"We've found that even the simple act of water droplets landing on a leaf causes an elaborate response inside of plants," said lead researcher Dr Olivier Van Aken of the University of Western Australia's ARC centre of excellence in plant energy biology. "The same goes for the wind blowing, an insect moving across a leaf or even clouds casting a shadow over a plant."
It's also been shown that the vibrations of something a small as a caterpillar chewing on a leaf, for instance, are passed on to more distant parts of the plant to elicit a response. "But, as yet, there's no evidence to back the idea held by some people that the vibrations caused by just talking to plants has a strong enough effect to move plants," Dr Van Aken explained.
The study suggests that the touch response may prepare plants to defend themselves from danger or to take advantage of favourable changes in the weather.
Said the plant to the bee: "I can feel you all over me."
Said the plant to the bee: "I can feel you all over me." Photo: David Porter
"While nothing very obvious happens to plants when they are touched, their physiological response launches a cascade of signals inside leaves that prepare them for the future," Dr Van Aken said.
A change in the expression of thousands of plant genes was initially observed by researchers when plants were sprayed with water. This occurred within minutes of spraying and stopped about half an hour later.
"We were able to show that this response was caused not by active compounds in the spray but by the physical contact from water drops landing on the leaf surface," said Dr Van Aken.
Curious as to what was happening, the researchers examined what else could trigger such a response. They found the results could also be produced by gently patting plants by hand or by touching them with tweezers. A similar response was triggered by shadows falling suddenly over plants, restricting the light received.
"Unlike animals, plants cannot run away from harmful conditions," said Dr Van Aken. "Instead, they've developed intricate stress defence systems to sense their environment and help them detect danger and respond appropriately."
The study also identified two proteins, AtWRKY15 and AtWRKY40, which help switch off the plant's touch response. "Switching off the response signal is very important," Dr Van Aken said. "It allows plants to get on with life as normal, forgetting about the signal and treating it as a false alarm."
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Monday, May 23, 2016

Plant that can change its appearance

A Blog by Robert Krulwich

The Sneaky Life of the World’s Most Mysterious Plant

It looks so ordinary, this vine. But it’s not. It is, arguably, the most mysteriously talented, most surprising plant in the world.
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
It’s called Boquila trifoliolata, and it lives in the temperate rain forests of Chile and Argentina. It does what most vines do—it crawls across the forest floor, spirals up, and hangs onto host plants. Nothing unusual about that.
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

But one day a few years ago, Ernesto Gianoli, a plant scientist, came upon aBoquila trifoliolata while walking with a student in the Chilean woods. They stopped, looked, and “then it happened,” Gianoli says. On the forest floor, they could see that the vine’s leaves looked like this, kind of stumpy and roundish:
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
But once the vine climbed up onto a host tree, its leaves changed shape. Now they looked like this—much longer and narrower:
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Both leaves came off of the same vine, but when the vine changed hosts, its newer, longer leaves matched its new surroundings. In Gianoli’s photograph below, the vine leaves are marked “V” and the tree leaves “T,” for “tree.” As you can see, it’s hard to tell them apart.
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
It’s almost as if the plant is camouflaging itself, changing shape to resemble its host.
As Gianoli walked along, he kept an eye out for Boquila vines climbing through the forest, grabbing onto tree after bush after tree, and it happened again! What he saw he found “astonishing.”
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
In this photo, the vine is on a different tree, and this time the tree’s leaves (marked “T”) are rounder, more like flower petals. And the vine (the leaf marked “V”)? Its leaves are now roundish too!
Woody Allen once made a film called Zelig, about a guy who takes on the characteristics of whomever he’s standing next to. The more Gianoli looked, the more Zelig-like this vine became, morphing over and over to look like one different host after another.
As my blog-buddy Ed Yong described it in 2014, when he wrote about this same plant, it has all kinds of moves: “Its versatile leaves can change their size, shape, color, orientation, even the vein patterns to match the surrounding foliage.”
On this tree, for instance …
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
… the tree leaf is jagged-edged, like a saw blade. (We’ve marked it with a “T.”) Our vine tries to create a zig-zag border (see the leaf marked “V”) and sort of pulls it off. Here’s a case, said Gianoli to Yong, “where Boquila ‘did her best’ and attained some resemblance but did not really meet the goal.”
Good try, though. It’s a crafty little vegetable.
But Why? How Does Mimicry Help This Vine?
The probable answer is that it keeps it from being eaten.
The forest is full of leaf-eaters. Imagine a hungry caterpillar wandering up to a tree:
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
It loves eating leaves. It might find vine leaves extra tasty. But if our vine is hiding among the many, many leaves of the tree, each vine leaf has a smaller chance of being chewed on.
Or maybe the vine is assuming the shape of leaves that are toxic to the caterpillar. This is called Batesian mimicry, when a harmless species tries to look like a very bad meal.
Whatever the reason, mimicry seems to work. Gianoli and his co-author, Fernando Carrasco-Urra, reported that when the vine is mimicking its neighbors higher up, it gets chewed on less. On the ground, it gets eaten more. But what’s really intriguing about this vine is how it does what it does: It’s been called the “stealth vine” because, like the classified American spy plane, its inner workings are still a secret.

Learning Its Secret…

No plant known to science has been able to mimic a variety of neighbors. There are some—orchids for example—that can copy other flowers, but their range is limited to one or two types. Boquila feels more like a cuttlefish or an octopus; it can morph into at least eight basic shapes. When it glides up a bush or tree that it’s never encountered before, it can still mimic what’s near.
And that’s the wildest part: It doesn’t have to touch what it copies. It only has to be nearby. Most mimicry in the animal kingdom involves physical contact. But this plant can hang—literally hang—alongside a host tree, with empty space between it and its model, and, with no eyes, nose, mouth, or brain, it can “see” its neighbor and copy what it has “seen.”
How Does It Do This?
Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra think perhaps something is going on in the space between the two plants. They imagine that the bush or tree may be emitting airborne chemicals (volatiles) that drift across, like so …
Gif by Robert Krulwich
Gif by Robert Krulwich
… and can be sensed by the vine. How the vine translates chemicals into shapes and then into self-sculpture nobody knows. The signal could be written in light, in scents, or perhaps in a form of gene transfer. It’s a mystery.
“It’s hard for us to grasp that there are … ‘scents’ that we cannot smell, but which plants, noseless and brainless, can,” writes science journalist Richard Mabey in his new book The Cabaret of Plants. It’s against the rules to call a plant “smart” the way we might call a dolphin smart; brainless beings aren’t properly called intelligent. Intellect, we like to think, requires a nervous system like our own, which is an animal thing, except that, as Mabey writes, “[I]n being able to cope with unfamiliar situations, [this vine] is demonstrating the first principle of intelligence.”
Hmmm. A knock, knock, knocking on the animal kingdom’s door? Or do plants have their own secret ways of reckoning, totally unknown to us? If Boquila can do this, surely there are others.
This little vine is sitting on a gigantic secret. I can’t wait to find out what it’s doing, because whatever it is, it’s whispering that plants are far more talented than we’d ever imagined.

To find out more about Boquila trifoliolata, you can start where I did, with Ed Yong’s wonderful post from a couple of years ago, then go on to geneticistJerry Coyne’s post, which asks a barrage of provocative and stimulating questions, and finish up with Richard Mabey’s short essay in The Cabaret of Plants. Or you can check out the science paper from Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra that started it all.