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.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Coffee grounds could make better mushrooms

From: ABC News

Recycled coffee grounds give rise to Fremantle mushroom farm

Updated yesterday at 11:11am
An ambitious plan to start WA's first urban mushroom farm using coffee grounds to grow the fungi has come to fruition, diverting three tonnes of coffee waste from landfill.
Last year, best mates Ryan Creed and Julian Mitchell saw a market for mushrooms and a cheap way to grow them, with moist coffee grounds providing the perfect soil for gourmet oyster mushrooms.
The fly-in fly-out mine workers successfully crowdfunded the $30,000 needed for their plan to cycle around Fremantle every day picking up the waste and taking it to a commercial urban farm to mix with mushroom spores.
Over the past three months they have produced 240 kilograms of mushrooms using three tonnes of coffee grounds in a sea container in a Fremantle industrial area.
They are now selling the mushrooms back to local restaurants, while hundreds of other people are now growing their own mushrooms with their boxed home kits.
Mr Creed said the response from the public had been "phenomenal".
"We've been overwhelmed by our start and we sold out of our first crop," he said.
"We've sold roughly 400 boxes after 30 days of production so it's far exceeded our expectations, people are surprised that you can grow them on your kitchen bench."
They are now regularly supplying mushrooms to more than 10 restaurants and are beginning to branch out further.
"With our boxes we've got them online, but we're looking to get them into retail stores and eventually a national chain," Mr Mitchell said.

Coffee grounds get third life as garden fertiliser

Mr Creed said only 1 per cent of a coffee bean ended up in the cup, while the remaining grounds become a problematic waste product.
He said about 300 tonnes of coffee waste from the Fremantle area alone went to landfill each year.
The coffee waste collected for the mushroom farm is mixed with straw, which is later repurposed as garden fertiliser.
Mr Mitchell said it was hoped this little-known method of mushroom farming could help reduce the large carbon footprint agriculture can produce.
"Urban farming, such as mushroom, has very low input in terms of water use, electricity use, no chemical input. So we see things like urban mushrooms and other products coming online really decentralising how we go about growing food," he said.
The two would-be mushroom moguls set-up the social enterprise "Life Cykel" to create sustainable food and educate others about healthy living.
"We've just been able to bring on 10 schools to use the mushroom growing boxes for fundraisers as a healthier alternative to chocolate," Mr Creed said.
Fremantle restaurant Bib and Tucker's head chef Scott Bridger is using the mushrooms from his coffee waste on his new menu.
At the moment, the restaurant has two or three kilograms delivered each week for a signature dish.
"They are so delicate, so full of flavour and I think the best part is that they come from our coffee. They are grown in our coffee and delivered back to us as mushrooms, it is just winner all around," Mr Bridger said.
"We've been selling lots of it, people seeing "Fremantle oyster mushrooms" on the menu, straight away their eyes light up, it's local and different."

Coffee grounds could make better roads

29 April 2016

Recycled coffee grounds could make roads smoother and greener

A road with a coffee sign

Have road builders got a latte on their minds?

Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Your morning pick-me-up could make your drive smoother. Engineers have turned coffee grounds into building materials for roads.
The global coffee industry produces millions of tonnes of used grounds annually, with most ending up in landfill. ButArul Arulrajah at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, believes that this material should not go to waste.
“One of my hobbies is drinking coffee,” he says. “One time when I saw my barista throwing the used grounds in the bin, I thought, why not look at this material from an engineering perspective?”
Arulrajah and his colleagues collected soggy coffee grounds from the bins of a local café and dried them in a 50 °C oven. They mixed seven parts coffee grounds with three parts of a waste product from steel manufacturing called slag and added an alkaline solution to bind everything together.
Then they compressed the final mixture into cylindrical blocks, which were strong enough for use as the layer of road that sits under the surface and provides foundations.
“We estimate that the coffee grounds from Melbourne’s cafés could be used to build 5 kilometres of road per year,” says Arulrajah. “This would reduce landfill and the demand for virgin quarry materials.”
The research reflects a trend towards using green construction materials, says Caroline Baillie of the University of Western Australia. “Even ordinary companies are starting to develop recycled building materials – it’s not just the crazies anymore.”
A key next step will be ensuring that the energy required to create coffee-based building materials is not so high that it outweighs the recycling benefits, says Baillie.
Journal reference: Construction and Building Materials, DOI: 10.1016/j.conbuildmat.2016.04.021

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

170 years of herbarium records tracks junk food problem for bees

FROM: Environment 360

10 MAY 2016: REPORT

How Rising CO2 Levels May
Contribute to Die-Off of Bees

As they investigate the factors behind the decline of bee populations, scientists are now eyeing a new culprit — soaring levels of carbon dioxide, which alter plant physiology and significantly reduce protein in important sources of pollen.

by lisa palmer

Specimens of goldenrod sewn into archival paper folders are stacked floor to ceiling inside metal cabinets at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The collection, housed in the herbarium, dates back to 1842 and is among five million historical records of plants from around the world cataloged there. Researchers turned to this collection of goldenrod — a widely distributed perennial plant that blooms across North America from summer to late fall — to study concentrations of protein in goldenrod pollen because it is a key late-season food source for bees. 

Honeybees feed on goldenrod flowers.

The newer samples look much like the older generations. But scientists testing the pollen content from goldenrod collected between 1842 and 2014, when atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide rose from about 280 parts per million to 398 ppm, found the most recent pollen samples contained 30 percent less protein. The greatest drop in protein occurred from 1960 to 2014, when the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose dramatically. A field experiment in the same study that exposed goldenrod to CO2 levels ranging from 280 to 500 ppm showed similar protein decreases. 

More than 100 previous studies have shown that elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide decrease the nutritional value of plants, such as wheat and rice. But the goldenrod study, published last month, was the first to examine the effects of rising CO2 on the diet of bees, and its conclusions were unsettling: The adverse impact of rising CO2 concentrations on the protein levels in pollen may be playing a role in the global die-off of bee populations by undermining bee nutrition and reproductive success. 

“Pollen is becoming junk food for bees,” says Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Research Service in Maryland and lead author of the study. The study itself concluded that the decline of plant proteins in the face of soaring carbon dioxide concentrations provides an “urgent and compelling case” for CO2 sensitivity in pollen and other plant components. 

Elevated CO2 levels affect plant physiology by enabling the plant’s starchier parts to grow faster and bigger, since atmospheric carbon dioxide is a building block for plant sugars. For goldenrod, this growth essentially dilutes the plant’s total protein,
From 2006 to 2011, losses from managed honeybee colonies averaged 33 percent per year in the U.S.
rather than concentrating it in the grain, which makes a starchier pollen. 

“I knew there was work done on insects about how rising CO2 would reduce the protein content of leaves, and so insects will need to eat more leaves to get the same amount of protein,” says Ziska. “But until now, we didn’t know about how CO2 affects protein content in pollen.” The study is a synthesis of the knowledge about what is happening to bees and how CO2 impacts the quality of plants, and it brings those two disparate ideas together. 

A number of new and accumulating pressures are threatening bee populations. From 2006 to 2011, annual losses from managed honeybee colonies averaged 33 percent per year in the United States, according to the USDA. Beekeepers have had to replace 50 percent of their colonies in recent years. Factors such as mite outbreaks and the use of neonicotinoid pesticides have been implicated in so-called “colony collapse disorder.” 

“I am not saying that understanding neonicotinoids or Varroa mites is not important, but I am saying that how bees respond to these stressors might have something to do with their nutrition,” says Ziska. “If we are mucking around with their nutrition, all these other responses could be affected.” 

Bees eat two foods to keep them alive, nectar and pollen, which are fundamentally sugar and protein. Bees can scout a good source of nectar and tell the rest of the hive where it can be found. But bees don’t have a communication strategy for protein. They cannot recognize whether the pollen they consume is a good protein source or not. And by late fall, when bees begin to store food for the winter, the pollen choices are limited. 

Goldenrod records kept in the Smithsonian’s botany archives. Enlarge image.
Photo: Smithsonian NMNH

“It’s not like honeybees and native bees have a menu of lots of different species to choose from,” says Joan Edwards, a pollen ecologist at Williams College in Massachusetts and co-author of the goldenrod study. “Because goldenrod and asters are the only food available for bees [in late season], it limits their ability to adapt. They can’t turn to another food source.” 

Some beekeepers have turned to supplementing food for honeybee populations, but native bees like bumble bees don’t have that option, explains Edwards. “Native bees do the lion’s share of pollination,” says Edwards. “Bumble bees and solitary bees provide a free ecosystem service for our food supply. Lack of protein is threatening native pollinators, which has huge public health consequences.” Roughly 35 percent of global crop production depends on pollination to produce fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and oils. 

Unlike other insects, which will eat more leaves to compensate for lower protein levels in their food, bees will eat a quantity of pollen, but will not adjust consumption based on nutritional inferiority, says entomologist Jeff Pettis, research leader at the USDA’s bee laboratory. However, at least one laboratory study indicates that bees can be resilient to nutritional stress. The laboratory bees foraged for a broader diet, if one is available, to compensate for a nutrition imbalance by identifying complementary types of pollen — similar to how vegetarians balance legumes and grains to get a complete protein. 

“Overall the diet of pollinators is going down due to land degradation, pesticide use, and habitat destruction, and now the protein content of their pollen is less,” says Pettis.
With all of these other stresses on bees, it may just be the straw that breaks the beehives' back,' says a scientist.
Scientists know that inferior-quality pollen has an immediate effect of shortening the lifespan of bees because it directly affects the size and strength of the bee colony that will survive until spring. The lack of nutrition may alter bee behavior and vigor and contribute to colony collapse and degraded health of pollinators. 

May Berenbaum, professor of entomology at the University of Illinois, says that bees are having a hard time getting enough protein as it is. “A declining quality of protein across the board almost assuredly is affecting bees,” she says. “Like humans, good nutrition is essential for bee health by allowing them to fend off all kinds of health threats. Anything that indicates that the quality of their food is declining is worrisome.” 

By itself, the relative effect of lower nutrition might be small, but it still might be important, says David Hawthorne, associate professor of entomology at the University of Maryland. “It’s like death by a thousand blows,” Hawthorne says. “With all of these other stresses on bees, it could still matter because it may just be the straw that breaks the beehives’ back.” 

The findings that the nutritional quality of plants is changing and affecting pollinators fits squarely with a new field of interdisciplinary research called Planetary Health, which has emerged to assess the links between a changing planet and plant and human health. 

Samuel Myers, a senior research scientist at Harvard’s School of Public Health, has published groundbreaking studies on how rising CO2 levels lower the nutritional quality of foods that we eat, like rice, wheat, and maize, which lose significant amounts of zinc, iron, and protein when grown under higher concentrations of CO2. Plant composition depends on a balance between air, soil, and water. As CO2, the source of carbon for plant growth, proliferates quickly in the atmosphere, soil nutrients — such as nitrogen, iron, and magnesium — remain the same. As a result, plants produce more carbohydrates, but dilute other nutrients. 

In one study, Myers estimated that lower nutritional values in crops will push an estimated 132 million to 180 million people into a new risk of zinc deficiency. 
The loss of pollinators would place 71 million people into vitamin A deficiency and 173 million into folate deficiency.
“Low levels of micronutrients are already an enormous health burden today and where people get iron and zinc is primarily from these kinds of crops,” says Myers. “With rising CO2, they get significant further reductions. That is a big deal from the global nutritional standpoint.” 

Myers — director of the Planetary Health Alliance, a new trans-disciplinary consortium aimed at understanding and addressing human health implications of Earth’s changing natural systems — also modeled how the complete decline in pollinators would affect human health. He calculated that the loss of pollinators would place 71 million people into vitamin A deficiency (which is linked to child mortality) and 173 million into folate deficiency (which is associated with birth defects). An additional 2.2 billion people already lacking in vitamin A would suffer more severe deficiencies, he projected. Overall, there would be 1.4 million excess deaths annually from complete pollinator decline. 

Now, new research questions are emerging to connect Myers’ research with Ziska’s with the goal of improving understanding of where this reduced pollen protein content is occurring globally and whether it is altering the nutritional status and health of bee populations. “One could imagine there are new nutritional impacts yet to be discovered,” Myers says. “If it is happening in goldenrod, there is no reason to believe this is not happening in other plants.” 

Myers said that a core principle in the field of planetary health is the element of surprise, which Ziska’s study illustrates. “We are fundamentally transforming all of the biophysical conditions that underpin the global food system,” said Myers. “Global food demand is rising at the same time the biophysical conditions are changing more rapidly than ever before. 
 Declining Bee Populations Pose A Threat to Global Agriculture
The danger that the decline of bees and other pollinators represents to the world’s food supply was highlighted this week when the European Commission decided to ban a class of pesticides suspected of playing a role in so-called “colony collapse disorder.” 
Chances are there are more surprises coming down the road. This is the tip of the iceberg in our understanding of changing health in a system that is changing rapidly.” 

Beyond the pollen–bee nexus, the extent and rate of multiple interacting environmental changes — including global warming, biodiversity loss, freshwater depletion, ocean acidification, and land use change — are unprecedented in human history. “The research showing how loss of pollinators could have serious adverse effects on nutrition and health outcomes is an important example of how environmental change can undermine human health,” Sir Andy Haines, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in an email. 

Researcher Lewis Ziska thinks plants will adapt and change to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide. But gesturing to the stacks of specimens at the herbarium at the Museum of Natural History, he says, “Here are 450,000 plant species, and every other living organism depends on plants as a food source. The fact that they are changing, all at different rates in an unprecedented time — it is pretty remarkable in trying to assess how the entire food web is changing.”