23 posts · 23,562 views
Covering research on any aspect of plant science, but especially the ecological. The focus is on what's interesting, not necessarily what's newsworthy.
Today, I’m venturing into the world of Arabidopsis, a plant I usually leave to the geneticists. More specifically, into it and its relatives’ evolutionary past. DNA sequences can be used to estimate how long ago species separated. Once they separate, they stop interbreeding, and their DNA sequences start to evolve separately. So the more differences [...]... Read more »
Beilstein, M., Nagalingum, N., Clements, M., Manchester, S., & Mathews, S. (2010) Dated molecular phylogenies indicate a Miocene origin for Arabidopsis thaliana. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909766107
For today, I’ve dug up a paper (I forget how) from 1998, when I was still in primary school, about why people like spicy foods, and why some cultures use more spice than others. The idea that we acquired a taste for spices to keep harmful bacteria in check isn’t implausible, but the evidence in [...]... Read more »
Billing, J., & Sherman, P. (1998) Antimicrobial Functions of Spices: Why Some Like it Hot. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 73(1), 3-49. DOI: 10.1086/420058
Phytoplankton—single celled green floaters—fulfil the same role in the oceans as plants do on land. They’re the basis of the food chain, capturing energy from sunlight, and eventually feeding just about everything else. So the news that they’ve declined by about 40% since 1950 (Nature News) is rather worrying. Let’s take a look at where [...]... Read more »
Boyce, D., Lewis, M., & Worm, B. (2010) Global phytoplankton decline over the past century. Nature, 466(7306), 591-596. DOI: 10.1038/nature09268
Most of our staple crops are annuals—plants that grow from seed, produce the next generation of seeds and then die, all in one year. In particular, the ‘big three’ crops, rice, wheat and maize, are all annuals. What would life be like if we instead grew perennials—plants that last more than one year? No more [...]... Read more »
Glover, J., Reganold, J., Bell, L., Borevitz, J., Brummer, E., Buckler, E., Cox, C., Cox, T., Crews, T., Culman, S.... (2010) Increased Food and Ecosystem Security via Perennial Grains. Science, 328(5986), 1638-1639. DOI: 10.1126/science.1188761
Science via Youtube today. Let’s start with some smoke rings. They go an impressively long way—much further than a simple puff of smoke fired with the same force would: So, why might a moss need to do the same thing? It’s all about spores. Mosses spread by spores, a bit like microscopic seeds. For peat [...]... Read more »
What’s soil made of? Take out the chunks of roots and twigs, take out the particles of minerals, and what are you left with? What makes it soil, brown and lumpy, rather than something like fine sand? It’s a mixture of organic matter: stuff produced by things living in or on the soil, that can’t [...]... Read more »
Rillig, M., Wright, S., Nichols, K., Schmidt, W., & Torn, M. (2001) Large contribution of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi to soil carbon pools in tropical forest soils. Plant and Soil, 233(2), 167-177. DOI: 10.1023/A:1010364221169
How many species are there here? It’s a beguilingly simple question, and a fundamental area of interest. A moments thought shows that the bigger here is, the more species there will be. So, if we start from a little patch of my lawn, and take successively larger heres until we’ve included the whole world, we [...]... Read more »
O'Dwyer, J., & Green, J. (2010) Field theory for biogeography: a spatially explicit model for predicting patterns of biodiversity. Ecology Letters, 13(1), 87-95. DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01404.x
Rosindell, J., & Cornell, S. (2009) Species–area curves, neutral models, and long-distance dispersal. Ecology, 90(7), 1743-1750. DOI: 10.1890/08-0661.1
Although Brazil’s been making biofuels for decades, the rest of the world has quickly got interested over the last few years, due to concerns about climate change, as well as the rising price of oil. Unfortunately, it’s none too easy: plants tend to store a lot of the energy in molecules that are hard to [...]... Read more »
Wendell, D., Todd, J., & Montemagno, C. (2010) Artificial Photosynthesis in Ranaspumin-2 Based Foam. Nano Letters, 2147483647. DOI: 10.1021/nl100550k
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you learn about something completely unexpected. In this case, it’s a new way to get nitrogen, an important nutrient for all living things. Where the soil is poor in nitrogen, various plants have developed ways to trap insects and the like, among them the pitcher plants. Now [...]... Read more »
Chin, L., Moran, J., & Clarke, C. (2010) Trap geometry in three giant montane pitcher plant species from Borneo is a function of tree shrew body size. New Phytologist. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.03166.x
“Give us this day our daily sunlight”, plants might pray, if they were Christian. Light is, after all, their main source of energy, captured by photosynthesis. But the machinery of photosynthesis isn’t always the best tool to detect light, and plants have an array of molecular sensors to detect small amounts of light in different [...]... Read more »
We discussed this paper at a journal club in our department yesterday (Monday 1st February). Some of our thoughts are below.
Although the media coverage of this study played heavily on the link to colony collapse disorder (which is causing honeybee colonies to die off around the world), the authors only allude to it in one [...]... Read more »
Not the way that you might think or fear, though.
Genetically modified crops face public resentment, especially in Europe, perhaps simply as a figurehead of big corporate agriculture. One concern that often comes up is the possibility that the foreign genes will escape, to non-GM crops nearby or to weed populations. It’s not as unlikely as [...]... Read more »
Gaines, T., Zhang, W., Wang, D., Bukun, B., Chisholm, S., Shaner, D., Nissen, S., Patzoldt, W., Tranel, P., Culpepper, A.... (2009) Gene amplification confers glyphosate resistance in Amaranthus palmeri. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(3), 1029-1034. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0906649107
Somewhere between 700 and 900 AD, the Maya civilisation in Central America seemed to collapse. Why? For some time, the conventional explanation has been deforestation. They were so efficient at chopping down trees for timber and for farmland that they got rid of the forest, and without it, the fertile soil was eroded. It’s not [...]... Read more »
McNeil, C., Burney, D., & Burney, L. (2009) Evidence disputing deforestation as the cause for the collapse of the ancient Maya polity of Copan, Honduras. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(3), 1017-1022. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0904760107
Ford, A., & Nigh, R. (2009) Origins of the Maya Forest Garden: Maya Resource Management. Journal of Ethnobiology, 29(2), 213-236. DOI: 10.2993/0278-0771-29.2.213
Bristlecone pines are famous as a candidate for the title of the oldest living things (it depends on what you count as a lifetime). The oldest is over 4,500 years old. That’s an awful lot of tree rings, but by measuring the width of each ring, we can see how much the tree grew that [...]... Read more »
Salzer, M., Hughes, M., Bunn, A., & Kipfmueller, K. (2009) Recent unprecedented tree-ring growth in bristlecone pine at the highest elevations and possible causes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(48), 20348-20353. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0903029106
Ants disperse the seeds of several ‘ancient woodland species’ in the UK, such as dog’s mercury. These are woodland plants that take a long time to arrive when a new wood forms, so you tend to only find them in old woods. In the tropics, ‘ant plants’ take it even further: they house and sometimes [...]... Read more »
Pfeiffer, M., Huttenlocher, H., & Ayasse, M. (2009) Myrmecochorous plants use chemical mimicry to cheat seed-dispersing ants. Functional Ecology. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2435.2009.01661.x
Rising CO2 levels might reduce the damage from another source: nitrogen pollution.
Between the conference in Copenhagen and those e-mails that were leaked recently, carbon dioxide, the major culprit for global warming, has been getting even more press than usual. But ecologists are familiar with another human pollutant that’s already having huge effects on ecosystems, even [...]... Read more »
Reich, P. (2009) Elevated CO2 Reduces Losses of Plant Diversity Caused by Nitrogen Deposition. Science, 326(5958), 1399-1402. DOI: 10.1126/science.1178820
The first flowering plants evolved more than a hundred million years ago, while dinosaurs were still on the scene. Since then, they’ve come to dominate the world, largely outcompeting the plants that were there before, such as conifers, cycads, and ginkgoes. With some exceptions (particularly the taiga, the coniferous forests of Russia and Canada), the [...]... Read more »
Ren, D., Labandeira, C., Santiago-Blay, J., Rasnitsyn, A., Shih, C., Bashkuev, A., Logan, M., Hotton, C., & Dilcher, D. (2009) A Probable Pollination Mode Before Angiosperms: Eurasian, Long-Proboscid Scorpionflies. Science, 326(5954), 840-847. DOI: 10.1126/science.1178338
Competition is a powerful force in biology. The image of ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ calls to mind animals fighting over food or mates, and plants sucking up nutrients, or overshadowing their neighbours. But, particularly where the environment is harsh, it’s known that living things can actually give each other a boost. The most [...]... Read more »
Chu, C., Weiner, J., Maestre, F., Xiao, S., Wang, Y., Li, Q., Yuan, J., Zhao, L., Ren, Z., & Wang, G. (2009) Positive interactions can increase size inequality in plant populations. Journal of Ecology, 97(6), 1401-1407. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2009.01562.x
A number of mass extinctions punctuate the fossil record, dealing a sharp blow to life on Earth. The best known (although not the biggest) is the one that did for the dinosaurs, some 65 million years ago. Unlike some mass extinctions, there’s at least one smoking gun: a damn great rock crashed into the planet, [...]... Read more »
Sepulveda, J., Wendler, J., Summons, R., & Hinrichs, K. (2009) Rapid Resurgence of Marine Productivity After the Cretaceous-Paleogene Mass Extinction. Science, 326(5949), 129-132. DOI: 10.1126/science.1176233
This one’s an old bit of research, but a favourite of mine. It’s not groundbreaking science, but when I first heard about it, I just went ‘oh, wow’, in amazement at what natural selection can come up with! In short, it’s a flower shaped to reflect sonar so that bats can find it.
Flowers can be [...]... Read more »
von Helversen, D., & von Helversen, O. (2003) Object recognition by echolocation: a nectar-feeding bat exploiting the flowers of a rain forest vine. Journal of Comparative Physiology A: Neuroethology, Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology, 189(5), 327-336. info:/10.1007/s00359-003-0405-3
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