Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 in Review

When I started this blog 12 months ago, I  envisioned a blog of short snippets about different plants, a blog of information suited for readers with borderline attention deficit disorder (like the author...) who get bored after four sentences. I also envisioned hundreds of readers would flock to The Daily Plant and be converted to veggiephilia.

So what have I learned in 12 months of blogging?
  1. While info-snippets might be educational, readers can probably find this information on their own in Wikipedia. To my surprise, the most widely read posts were the commentary pieces that I slowly started adding in. It hadn't really occurred to me that readers would be interested in my own opinion. I was wrong, and that is very encouraging.
  2. Blogging is a serious endeavor, and attracting readers is more than just adding new posts, no matter how interesting they are. I realize this sounds trite, but I was naive. As I gained exposure through the publication of WHAT A PLANT KNOWS, traffic to The Daily Plant grew as well, with site visits doubling once the book came out. And most importantly, making friends with fellow bloggers, and having them retweeting my posts, helped immensely. So THANK YOU (you know who you are)!
  3. Plant lovers are (still) a minority in this world.
So with these lessons in mind, here are the top five posts of the year:
  1. Food Security - A Multi-Disciplinary Endeavor. This was by far the most popular post of the year. Food security was a recurring theme in a number of posts, but this one trumped them all.Look for more food-scurity related posts in 2013 as this will be a major effort of the Manna Center.
  2. Screaming plants mean no more fairways? Here I learned that my readers either have a great sense of humor, or are very gullible  My sister falls into the latter category  After reading this April-fool's post, she called me, and in compete seriousness said, "I knew it! I knew plants had feelings!".
  3. Guest blog: Jonathan Gressel - Exposing anti-GMO propaganda veiled as science. Over the year several guest bloggers contributed posts, and all were very well received. But Gressel's piece against pseudoscience in the GMO debate struck a nerve and was retweeted several times.
  4. Do plants feel pain? This post is a direct response to the talks I gave about my book. Again and again I was asked if plants suffer when we cut them, or when we eat them.
  5. Peer review - enough with author-blind comments. This post was unique in that it had nothing to do with plants. I used The Daily Plant as a vehicle to write my own op-ed, after i had gotten burned by what I considered an unfair peer-review process. I am very encouraged that despite the lack of plant content, this post was so popular. This may encourage me to do this more often in 2013.
I want to thank you for taking the time to read this and other posts in The Daily Plant. You have helped me find my voice as a writer, and to learn about plants that I never considered. It has been an honor writing for you.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Merry Christmas: Frankincense grows again in the Holy Land!

OK, so despite an earlier post about frankincense being an endangered species, I found out from a friend at Kibbutz Ketura that one amazing scientist in Israel has managed to sprout frankincense in the Holy Land for the first time about 1500 years!
In Dr Solowey’s nursery at Kibbutz Ketura

Dr. Elaine Solowey, the same scientist who germinated the 2000 year-old Methuselah date palm, is at it again, this time with frankincense, myrrh and balm of Gilead. She's growing an entire crop of biblical plants, and finding amazing uses for them. Read about it here.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas tree statistics

On the one year anniversary of this blog, I take inspiration from one of my favorite books of all time is How to Lie With Statistics, a great little book from 1954 that will teach you how to take all numbers with a grain of salt. For example in the past year, this blog has been accessed 23,698 times.

With that in mind, I thought it poignant to consider Christmas trees, (considering that it is Christmas Eve tonight).1

Those of you with real trees will have spent an average of $34.87 for your tree, while the 9.5 million of you with fake trees, forked out $70.55 for your trees. BUT, 16% of those of you with real trees, actually cut it yourself, which definitely affected the average cost of the trees!

The 80 foot spruce at Rockefeller Center
Of course the trees of the latter group last more than one year, so perhaps they've made a good investment. The weakening economy though shows that people aren't thinking long term as sales of fake trees are down 67% from 2007, when more than 35% of houses had fake trees.

Each real tree takes on average 7 years to grow, which means that there are currently about 350 million evergreen trees growing for the coming years' Christmases.

While all of the real trees come from either the US or Canada, 80% of the fake ones are grown in China.

If you are worried about sustainability, this is from the National Christmas Tree Association:
It is much better environmentally to use a natural agricultural crop and recycle it after the holidays. Real Christmas Trees are a renewable, recyclable, natural product grown on farms throughout North America. Unfortunately many people have the misconception that Christmas Trees are cut down from the forest. Real Christmas Trees are grown as crops, just like corn or wheat, and raised on a farm. Once they are harvested, new seedlings are planted to replace harvested trees. These would NOT have been planted if trees hadn't been harvested the previous year.  Fake Christmas Trees however are a non-renewable, non-biodegradable, plastic and metal product.

Happy Holidays to all!


Monday, October 29, 2012

Setting the Record Straight

Geez, how a simple statement can be misconstrued!

In a recent NPR piece entitled, "Recognizing the Rights of Plant To Evolve", the author writes:
Plants display remedial types of memory and possess "anoetic consciousness" — the ability of an organism to sense and to react to stimulation — writes Daniel Chamovitz in his 2012 book, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses.
This article then goes on to question whether plants should enjoy legal and moral protection, similar to that claimed for animals.  Accordingly, in numerous blogs and talk-backs, my book has been associated with such calls for "plant rights", and I've received a fair bit of mail asking how I can support such nonsense.

A careful reading of WHAT A PLANT KNOWS reveals that I do NOT subscribe to the notion that plants are just green animals. When discussing consciousness, I wrote the following:
But as stated in a recent opinion article, 'The lowest level of consciousness characteristic for procedural memory - anoetic consciousness - refers to the ability of organisms to sense and to react to internal and external stimulation, which all plants and simple animals are capable of.'
The fact that plants may display anoetic consciousness does not imply that they have inherent rights or dignity. Indeed, as I wrote in later part of the book:
...anthropomorphism of plant behavior left unchecked can lead to unfortunate, in not humorous, consequences. For example, in 2008 the Swiss government established an ethics committee to protect the 'dignity' of plants.
Being brainless, a plant likely does not worry about its dignity!

Do you think this bush feels violated?
Indeed, my clear take on this matter is that in the absence of a brain, plants should not be included in the discussion of "dignity" and "rights". This type of anthropomorphism is just another attempt of humans to define their place in nature.

Making comparisons is apparently in our nature. As individuals we compare ourselves with other people. As an ethnic group, we often seek feelings of superiority in comparisons with other ethnic groups. As a species we seek out human-like characteristics in chimps and dogs. So perhaps these attempts at bestowing rights and dignity on plants are just another manifestation of humans coming to terms with our place in nature.

But once with attempt has been made, lets leave the plants out of it. They really don't care.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

More on Art and Biology

Need examples of how biology and art influence each other? Start here. « ArtPlantae Today <!--[if lt IE 8]> <![endif]

Need examples of how biology and art influence each other? Start here.

The links between art and science are obvious to me and to you too, I am sure. The difficulty in making this case to others who may not share our interests is providing examples of how art and science work together. Pointing to illustrations in a field guide or a textbook is easy to do, however if we do this too often, I feel we risk making the impression that science and art intersect only in academic texts. Searching for examples outside of academia requires travel to venues such as museums and art shows and, while definitely not a bad thing, time and resources limit how much traveling we can do.
Fortunately for us, Maura Flannery wrote Biology & Art: An Intricate Relationship, a wonderful article in which she features 22 artists and how they blend biology and art in their work. You can postpone your museum visits for a little while longer. Thanks to Maura, you only need to travel as far as your file cabinet for examples to help illustrate the fact that biology and art influence each other on many levels.
The artists featured in Flannery (2012) work with pencil, pen and ink, glass, clay, stainless steel, and even dung. Some keep nature journals, press plants, make prints with fish, create molecules, and use insects as art. You’ll even find examples of controversial bio-art in her article.
You may recognize the name of one of the artists Flannery writes about. Illustrator Jenny Keller made Flannery’s list because of the chapter she wrote about the value of sketching in Michael R. Canfield’s Field Notes on Science and Nature. Keller is a scientific illustrator and instructor in the scientific illustration certificate program at California State University, Monterey Bay. Keller’s sketchbooks are packed with information and are oh-so inspiring. Actually, the word inspiring doesn’t cut it. I am going to borrow the word illustrator Dorothia Rohner used this past summer at the conference of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators — “masterful”.
In keeping with our shared interest in plants, I will mention one more artist Flannery writes about in her article. Artist James Walsh discovered that many of the weeds growing in New York are native to the Arctic (Flannery, 2012). To bring attention to these plants, he collected them, studied them, pressed them and created an exhibition about his findings. A summary of the 2010 exhibition is still viewable online.
Flannery’s article is filled with fantastic examples and I recommend it as a reference to anyone whose interests are firmly planted in biology and art. Her article can be purchased online for $14 or obtained by visiting your local college library.

Literature Cited

Flannery, Maura C. 2012. Biology & art: An intricate relationship. 74(3): 194-197. The American Biology Teacher

More Examples of Biology & Art

To Maura’s well-researched list, I would like to add the following resources for your consideration:
  • Symbiartic: The Science of Art and the Art of Science
  • Member Gallery of the American Society of Botanical Artists
  • The Ask the Artist list located in the column to the right of this article. This list features the wonderful guests who have shared their work and who have taught us so much. Guests such as Gary Hoyle. Gary will be taking your questions through October 31, 2012. Have a question about museum exhibits, dioramas or the realistic plant models seen in museums? Ask Gary!
Also, don’t miss Maura’s article about imagery in scientific communication.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Citron of the Tabernacles

Varieties of Citron (citrus medica)
Oranges, grapefruits and lemons, tangerines, limes and maybe even a pomelo are types of citrus fruits we eat, or juice, all the time. But how many of you are familiar with the citron?

The citron has been around for thousands of years, and when crossed with other species, gave rise to the different citrus varieties we know and love today. But aside from its fragrance, the citron does not have many redeeming qualities, especially as it is almost devoid of juice and has a thick rind. While this can be candied to make succade, the citron's main uses have been religious.

The small etrog I bought for this year's Sukkot holiday
In the Book of Leviticus it is written: "And you shall take on the 1st day (of the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkot) the fruit of beautiful trees...". The citron, known in Hebrew as the etrog, has always been assumed to be this fruit, as indeed the literal translation of the Hebrew word for "citrus" is eitz hadar, which literally translates as "beautiful tree". Because god commands us to use the etrog during the Feast of Tabernacles, the trade in citron, and especially beautiful unblemished fruit, can get competitive and expensive. The search for the perfect etrog was even the subject for an excellent movie, Ushpizin, which I highly recommend.

Happy Sukkot!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

An Apple for the New Year

"Why do we need so many kinds of apples? Because there are so many folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate taste. If he wants twenty or forty kinds of apples for his personal use…he should be accorded the privilege. There is merit in variety itself. It provides more contact with life, and leads away from uniformity and monotony." -- Liberty Hyde Baily

In the spirit of the Jewish New Year, some apple facts:
  • Origins: Khazakistan (Thanks Borat!) and surrounnding regions in Central Asia
  • # of genes (in Golden delicious): 57,000 (more than any other plant so far)
  • First eaten by: Eve
  • # of cultivars: 7,500
  • amount grown in 2010: 60 million tonnes
  • Largest grower: China
  • Largest grower in US: Washington

And lastly, for those going to a Rosh Hashana meal, here is the proper way to dip an apple in honey:

Monday, September 10, 2012

Do plants feel pain?

"Does it hurt my vegetables when I eat them?"
"Is it ok that I prune my bushes?"

These questions, and many like them, pop up whenever I've given a talk or been interviewd about the WHAT A PLANT KNOWS. Truth is, I didn't fully anticipate this take on plant senses, but it seems that the book has, so to say, struck a nerve, with many readers who are concerned for the welfare of their plants.

But indeed, the question of plant sentience is perhaps only an extension of our interest in understanding consciousness in general, and by extension, suffering.

Neuroscientist Daniel Bor recently wrote a great piece in Slate entitled When Do We Become Truly Conscious? that can help us come to terms not only with animal suffering, but plant (lack of) suffering as well.

In analyzing when a a human becomes conscious, Bor writes:
"The evidence is clear that a fetus can respond to sights, sounds, and smells, and it can even react to these by producing facial expressions. The evidence is equally clear, however, that these responses are generated by the most primitive parts of the brain, which are unconnected to consciousness, and therefore these actions don’t in any way imply that the fetus is aware."
If we replace "fetus" with "plant" and make a few edits for scientific clarity, we get:

The evidence is clear that a plant can respond to sights, sounds, and smells, and it can even react to these by changing development [many example of this in WHAT A PLANT KNOWS!]. The evidence is equally clear, however, that these responses are generated in the abscence if a brain, and thus is unconnected to consciousness, and therefore these actions don’t in any way imply that the plant is aware.

Obviously in philosophical debates such as these, semantics play a key role. Bor and I don't use the word aware  in the same way.In WHAT A PLANT KNOWS I posit the thesis that plants are indeed aware of their environment. But they are not conscious, at least not in the way that Bor uses awareness and consciousness:
"In adult humans, for normal consciousness to occur, it is now generally agreed that two sets of regions need to be intact, functional, and able to communicate effectively with one another: the thalamus, a kind of relay station in the middle of the brain that connects many regions with many others; and the prefrontal parietal network, our most high-level, general purpose section of cortex. If either the thalamus or prefrontal parietal network is substantially damaged, the patient is likely to enter into a vegetative state, with virtually no sign of consciousness."
Psychologists, physicians and neurobiologists alike have come to a consensus that suffering, which is subjective, is located in the prefrontal cortex, while pain centers are located deep within the human brain that radiate out from the brainstem. The International Association for the Study of Pain meshes pain and suffering and defines pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” So if suffering from pain necessitates highly complex neural structures and connections of the frontal cortex, it follows that plants obviously don’t suffer – they have no brain.

So munch away on your celery stalks; take pride in your ability to chop tomatoes; and prune your oak so that it doesn't obstruct a path. Your plants may "know" what's happening, but frankly my dear, they don't give a damn.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Buckshorn plantain: the strange green stuff on the top of a salad

Steamed hake with buckshorn plantain, reedmace and
sorrel butter. Taken from here

I never heard of buckshorn (pronounced bucks-horn) plantain , until Jeremy Cherfas posted about it on Facebook. But I've unknowingly eaten it as the unidentified green stuff garnishing sophisticated salads. While native to the Old World, this salad green has been grown in the United States for several hundred years. Today, buckshorn plantain (Plantago coronopus) is often known as “minutina” or “herba stella”. The plant’s common name is derived from the shape of its leaves: narrow, spiky and antlerlike Buckshorn plantain can be harvested as a wild salad, or bought in higher-end vegetable markets. Read more about buckshorn plantain here.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Guest blog: Jonathan Gressel - Exposing anti-GMO propaganda veiled as science

Danny: The following is a public letter written by my colleague Prof. Jonathan Gressel at the Weizmann Institute, in response to talk from an ecologist decrying the use of transgenics in agriculture. I edited the letter, shortening it for use here. I should point out that Dr. X. is a zoologist at a well known university. As the gossip is less important than the content, I decided to leave her anonymous as "X" here.   I should also point out that no response was received from "X" to this letter.

Dear Dr X,

I was rather disturbed by some of the disinformatory remarks that you made yesterday at the symposium [Genetic Engineering in Agriculture - Dream or Necessity?], especially in relationship to transgene flow. You categorically stated that there have been no studies on this (or any) area of ecology/population genetics of transgenics in Israel. My students, colleagues, and I have published over 40 papers on the subject since 1999 demonstrating that you have hardly done your homework  - or in the parlance of journal editors - this is an ethical defect known as "citation amnesia".

You also made dire warnings about gene flow (via pollen or seed) to the wild, and claimed in a slide that there was evidence for this. A careful reading of the data behind the slide would have led you to a different conclusion. Competent ecologists distinguish between agro-ecosystems, ruderal (human-disturbed) ecosystems, and wild ecosystems. There is no published evidence that there has been gene flow to any wild ecosystem, and as you should know, there are exceedingly few instances of crops growing anywhere near wild interbreeding relatives. The real issue is gene flow to weeds in agroecosystems, which is controllable, and regulators should assure that there are transgenic failsafe mechanisms installed to prevent such problems.

You implied that organic agriculture is incompatible with transgenics - I strongly suggest that you read the book co-authored by a professor of organic agriculture, and head of the program at UC-Davis, who rather considers otherwise [Tomorrow’s Table: organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak].

You also implied that there was a consensus among ecologists that transgenics were highly dangerous (I believe you put it as "all the ecologists I talked with"). There are highly competent ecologists (including the only ecologist among the founders of Greenpeace) who argue strongly for transgenics as being an exceedingly invaluable tool for protecting the environment [Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist].

Indeed many meta-analyses performed by ecologists have shown the distinct environmental benefits of transgenics over current conventional agricultural practices (and even moreso over organic agriculture).

Thus, it is hard to conclude that you presented an impartial review of the ecological implications of transgenics that would have been expected of an academic ecologist at an important university.

This is very unfortunate.


Prof. Jonathan Gressel
Plant Sciences
Weizmann Institute of Science
Rehovot, Israel 76100

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Invading garlic

Allirai petiolata (garlic mustard)
Garlic mustard is native to Europe, western and central Asia, and nothern Africa. As a biennial, in the first year of growth, plants form clumps of round shaped, slightly wrinkled leaves, that when crushed smell like garlic (hence the name...). The next year plants flower in spring, producing white flowers that release seeds in mid-summer.

Garlic mustard leaves are a great addition to wild salads, providing a mild flavour of both garlic and mustard. Garlic mustard was once used medicinally as a disinfectant or diuretic, and was sometimes used to heal wounds.

In the late 19th century garlic mustard was introduced in North America as a culinary herb, and since has gone on to become a very problematic invasive species. The success of garlic mustard, like that of other invasive species, is due to its lack of native competitors. Garlic mustard produces a variety of compounds that reduces its palatability to herbivores. Interestingly, in its native habitats, some herbivores have co-evolved to feed happily on the plants. But these insects and fungi that feed on it in its native habitats are not present in North America, and this leads to more garlic mustard seeds, allowing it to out-compete native plants. Even white-tailed deer, the scourage of many Eastern woodlands, don't eat the garlic mustard, preferring neighboring plants, which frees even more space for the garlic mustard to spread.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Harbinger of Summer's End

Sea squill (Drimia maritima)
My favorite plant is easily the sea squill, which in Hebrew is called hatzav (with a hard "h" like your clearing your throat). The sea squill is wondrous because it grows and flowers like a Swiss clock in August in Israel, heralding the end of the summer and the approaching fall. Out of nowhere, the hatzav sprouts and rapidly grows a two-to-three-foot stalk with hundreds of little white flowers. The flowers open over several weeks progressively from the base to the tip, resulting in a very impressive floral display.

How does the hatsav know when August has arrived? It knows this because of the lengthening nights. The sea squill is what's known in scientific terms as a "short day" plant, which is a misnomer, as they are actually "long night" plants. "Short day" plants like sea squill and tobacco flower when the length of the night surpasses a threshold specific for that plant. This is as opposed to "long day" plants like carnations and oats, which flower when the night gets shorter than a set threshold.

Plants "know how long the night is thanks to a group of photoreceptors called phytochromes. In a simple model, phytochromes are activated by red light, and are turned on in the morning; they are deactivated by far-red light, the long waves at the end of sunset, so are turned off as night begins. Plants measure the time the phytochromes are turned off, and use this information to determine season.

Sea squill leaves in winter
Getting back to the seq squill, its floral stalk has no leaves, so where does this plant get energy from photosynthesis? The sea squill has two different life cycles. In the summer and fall, it flowers, but in the winter, when there's pleanty of water for to support photosynthesis and growth it produces large green leaves. Theses leaves produce the sugars that are stored underground in a large bulb. As the dry season starts these leaves wilt and dry up. But the bulb uses these stored sugars as energy to produce the flowering stalk in August.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What's an individual?

We expect then that within our bodies, each cell has the same genetic code, the same sequence of DNA, since all of our cells originated from the same fertilized egg. We understand that children are novel genetic combination of their parents, that twins share the same genetic code, and that individuals differ genetically one from the other. Overtime, these genetic differences provide the basis for evolution.

How strange then is the recent report that different parts of the same tree have different DNA sequences!

Ed Yong, reporting from the Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting , tells of the results from the laboratory of Brett Olds, where they determined the DNA sequence from different parts of the same black cottonwood. They found differences in thousands of genes between the topmost bud, the lowermost branch, and the roots.

As Olds told Yong, “This could change the classic paradigm that evolution only happens in a population rather than at an individual level.” 

The differences in the DNA sequences between the branches could conceivably lead to advantageous characteristics. Perhaps different branches of the same tree compete with one another for light, nutrients and pollinators, and this competition leads to Darwinian selection, whereby the most fit branches out-compete their neighboring branches.  The differences in DNA sequence would then be more likely carried on in the next generation by the branches that produced  more or heartier seeds.

Of course the caveat is that this is a blog reporting on a report of a report. i can't wait to see the research article, and for this paradigm to be tested by additional labs using other tree species. If it holds up, we'll have to rewrite some of our textbooks!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Peer review - enough with author-blind comments.

I want  to diverge from the normal content of THE DAILY PLANT for a post on a different subject - peer review.

First a disclaimer: I am an Associate Editor of Plant Molecular Biology, and on the Editorial Boards of several other journals, all of which work on the classic model of peer review. I have published over 50 articles following peer review, and got to where I am academically thanks to peer review.

THAT BEING SAID, I too have come to the conclusion that something is majorly wrong with the current state of peer review.

What many people may not be aware of is that not only are reviewers anonymous in giving the author critiques of the manuscript (and rightly so perhaps), they can ding a manuscript by comments to the editor that the author never sees!

Case in point, I got the following email recently:
Your manuscript entitled "Biochemical and Biophysical Studies of (bla bla)" was reviewed by the Editorial Board. Unfortunately, the manuscript was found to be unacceptable for publication in the Journal of Good but not Top Science in its current form. The reviewers felt the work is of interest. There were some specific concerns with the manuscript, however, including the lack of specific data elements and the absence of functional supporting data. The deficiencies noted by the reviewers are sufficient to preclude acceptance of the manuscript. However, we encourage you to address the concerns, provide additional data, and submit a revised manuscript to the Journal. 

Both reviewers basically asked for the same things about five changes in the figures, all concerned with presentation of controls. All valid critiques.

So why was the manuscript rejected? Because of, according to the Editor's letter, "the absence of functional supporting data". But none of the reviews supplied to us asked for this! We therfore wrote the editor the following query:
It would be most helpful if you could clarify a clause in your email over which we are puzzling. You wrote "There were some specific concerns with the manuscript, however, including the lack of specific data elements and the absence of functional supporting data." From the reviewers' comments, we can easily identify the "lack of specific data elements" which we will rectify. However, their comments do not indicate or specify what you meant by "the absence of functional supporting data" in your decision summary. We would be most grateful if you could provide some further explanation so that we do not prepare a revision lacking the requested material, resulting in frustration by all parties. 

The Editor's response:
I will consult with the reviewer who used the term "absence of functional supported data" so that we can clarify exactly what was meant. I will get back to you after that. 
In other words, the Editor had no idea why he was rejecting the manuscript, likely had not read the entire manuscript, and was apparently basing his decision on an author-blinded general comment to the Editor!

What is the role of anonymous peer review if a reviewer can use top-secret comments to the Editor to kill a manuscript, without ever having to justify this to the authors? If the reviewer (and we don't know if it was #1 or #2) had criticisms of our science, we have the right to read them - that's what review is, and we also have the right to argue a rebuttal. But author-blind comments are just another form of reviewer tyranny, giving anonymous reviewers undue licence to critique without being held responsible by the author. I call on all journals, including the ones I'm involved with, to cancel the option of author-blind comments so that authors can at least be presented with all the criticism of their work.

The postcript of this is, that it took the Editor two weeks to get an answer for us as to what "functional supported data" is, at least what it is according to the reviewer. Now presented with the critique, we can decide which experiments to do, rebutt the critique, or send the manuscript elsewhere. (We've opted for a mixture of options 1 and 2).

And I feel better having ventilated!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Berry-Go-Round, July 2012

This month's Berry Go Round features an eclectic collection of 11 posts from 10 contributors. 

1. Kathryn Turner at Alien Plantation gives a great overview of the recently published banana genome. I agree with her that the Venn diagram in this article is one of the best, or at least most original, ever.

2. Hollis from In the Company of Plants and Rocks has two interesting posts this past month. What's an old oak for? discusses the variation in oak morphology, and wistfully remembers swings hung from old oaks.

3. Hollis's second post describes her recent jaunt to the Black Hills of South Dakota, in an attempt to make a comprehensive inventory of the mountain meadows originally described by none other than that known humanitarian, Lt. Col. George A. Custer back in 1874. Sadly only about 10% of the meadows surveyed appeared to be undisturbed by invasive species.

4. The Berry-Go-Round has a new contributor this month, Kathryn Kostka de Tanzi.  Kathryn was born in Memphis, and has lived in Costa Rica for over 35 years. She contributes this striking photograph:
It was a rainy day in the mountains near the Turrialba Volcano in Costa Rica.  I was up early to observe the foraging birds, to watch tip-toeing clouds passing through, and to savor the crisp fresh air.  Along my walk I came across a beautiful Callistemon laden with bushy crimson  flowers and heavy with raindrops.  A variety of Hummingbirds, Blue-Gray Tanagers, and and migratory Orioles decorated its branches and it was a splendid sight.

5. Molly Day from All the Dirt on Gardening teaches us a thing or two about using plants to attract butterflies.

6. Yuval Sapir this month explains how plants move. No, plants haven't learned to pull up their roots and migrate. But their seeds are very mobile when they hitch onto Yuval's sock!

7. Phil Gates from Beyond the Human Eye uses a microscope to show the rough world of aphids navigating trichomes, in his post Aphids in a Savage Landscape.

8. Mary Williams suggests we all read the paper "Interspecific RNA Interference of SHOOT MERISTEMLESS-Like Disrupts Cuscuta pentagona Plant Parasitism" which was just published in The Plant Cell. in Mary's words: "This gets my vote for 'best paper to give undergraduates'."

9. Richard Stout, a.k.a plantguy, writes in How Plants Work about plant "social networks" and companion planting.

10. The Phytoreactor examines the transparent windows in the leaves of the seaside ox-eye (Borrichia frutescens).

11. And lastly, I wrote this month about the marriage of art and GMO technology in An enigmatic petunia.

Laurent from Seeds Aside will host next month's carnival!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The war in Syria and Global Food Security

Wild barley cultivars grown in ICARDA
Of all the implications of the civil war in Syria, probably very few of us have thought about the effect of the uprising on world agriculture and food security.

While this may strike you as strange, Syria houses one of the world's foremost research institutes - ICARDA, International Center for Agriculture in Dry Areas. Among other activities, ICARDA holds seeds from over 100,000 accessions of wild and cultivated crops in its gene bank, including 55,000 cereals. As part of Fertile Crescent, Syria contains  As reported in The Independent :

"As the birthplace of agriculture – the Euphrates is only 70 miles to the east – Aleppo is also the headquarters of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (Icarda), one of the finest institutions of its kind in the world. It increases food production in Asia and Africa in an area containing a billion people, 50 per cent of whom earn their living from agriculture. Donors include Britain, Canada, the US, Germany, Holland, the World Bank – you name it. And its 500 employees are still operating in Aleppo.

Alas, its principal research station at Tel Hadya, 20 miles from Aleppo, was raided by gunmen who stole vehicles – to use them as "technicals" mounted with machine guns – along with farm machinery and computers. Mercifully, Icarda's gene bank is safe and has been duplicated outside Syria. The Syrian government moved a military checkpoint closer to Icarda's property at Tel Hadya – the Syrian ministry of agriculture was always one of the more progressive offices in Damascus – but what use this will be in the coming days, we shall see."

The uprising in Syria also reflects on a similar research center in Israel - The Institute for Cereal Crop Improvement (ICCI) at Tel Aviv University. The ICCI holds seeds from about 20,000 accessions fo barley, wild wheat and wild wheat relatives. Both Syria and Israel are located within the Fertile Crescent, the center
Resistant and susceptible wheat cultivars
infected with yellow rust
 of origin of a number of wild ancestors of major crops such as wheat, barley, oats, legumes, olive, almond and more. These wild species, still growing in this region, serve as a rich gene pool for crop improvement with tolerance to drought and salinity and with resistance to different diseases. While direct contacts between ICARDA and the ICCI are for political reasons impossible, both institutes are part of the global effort to fight wheat rust disease funded by the Gates Foundation. All efforts must be made to ensure that the collections in both institutes are immune to toe regional conflicts that plague the Middle East.

(Thanks to Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog for leading me to The Independent article)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fun with Gat

Catha edulis (gat)
Catha edulis, better known as gat or khat, is native to Yemen and the Horn of Africa.  Locals chew on the leaves, which releases small concentrations of a neuroactive alkaloid called cathinone.  This stimulates the cental nervous system, and according to gat chewers, increase endurance, gives a feeling of strength and health, suppresses hunger (which is an advantage in areas known for chronic famine) and tiredness (which is an adavantage during hard labor and long walks). Because the leaves contain so little cathinone, large qauntitites of leaves have to be cchewed to get any effect. Consequently, gat-chewing is a social experience with groups of men or women sitting around and chewing and conversing together. In Yemen gat is so popular that 40% of the county's water supply is dedicated to gat agriculture!

Hagigat in Tel Aviv
Of course western culture doesn't have time for hours of leaf chewing (or the stomachs to see people spitting out the leaves and juice, though this to me seems no different than chewing tobacco). An Israeli biochemistry student working for some shady characters isolated cathinone from gat, who then marketed it in a concentrated pill called hagigat, which loosely translates to "party gat". While initially legal, hagigat soon became abused in the local party scene, was connected to several hospitalizations due to damage to the cardiac and central nervous systems, and was added to the list of illegal drugs. 

Gat itself though is still legal in Israel and many other countries. Apparently, its difficult to abuse something that you have to chew for hours. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The chemistry of pot

We all know that THC (Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main active ingredient of marijuana. However, you may not be aware of the high-tech research going into figuring out how pot plants make THC.

A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (affectionately known as PNAS) illustrates how some of this research is carried out.

To produce THC, cannabis employs a number of differenet enymes which work in a linear series simplified below:

hexanoyl-CoA + malonylCoA --> OA --> CBGA --> THCA --> THC

Each of the arrows is a different enzyme. A big challenge in understanding how cannabis makes THC (and maybe to be able to make it artificially) is identifying each of the enzymes. As the biochemistry behind this pathway is very complex, this has not been a simple matter.

trichomes on a Cannabis sativa leaf
The lab of Jonathan Page in Saskatchewan figures that the genes encoding these enzymes should be specifically enriched in the THC-rich trichomes, the sticky, furry things on cannabis leaves. They first identified all the genes that are expressed in these trichomes, and then, using their knowledge of enzymology, sought out particular genes that looked like a particular class of enzymes that could potentially take part in the chemistry of the first arrow. They found three candidate genes, and then put each into E.coli to make the proteins. When they added these proteins to hexanoyl-CoA and malonylCoA, the precuursors of OA, they found OA is the mixture. In other words, they identified gene encoding the enzyme for the first arrow. 

When they put this gene in yeast, the yeast started making OA. Just think of the possibilities for beer if they wold add the genes for the arrows...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

ReBlog - The Legumes of War: How Peanuts Fed the Confederacy

I found this on  Rather than summarize, I'm just showing the entire blog post. the original link is Good thing for the confederacy that peanut allergies are a modern epidemic!

April 19, 2012

The Legumes of War: How Peanuts Fed the Confederacy

Peanuts. Image Courtesy of Flickr user La.blasco.
When it came to fighting the Civil War, the South may have been rich in military leadership, but the North had superior resources, especially when it came to industrial strength. Still a largely agrarian society, the Southern states had to import most of their manufactured products, and with a poor railway system, keeping troops well-stocked was a battle in and of itself, especially when enemy blockades interrupted supply lines. Combined with inflation and scorched-earth military campaigns—such as General Sherman’s march through South Carolina—food shortages were a problem for both military and civilians. But even in those hard times, people could find relief in peanuts.
Before the Civil War, peanuts were not a widely cultivated crop in the United States—Virginia and North Carolina were the principal producers—and were generally viewed as a foodstuff fit for the lowest social classes and for livestock. When they were consumed, they were usually eaten raw, boiled or roasted, although a few cookbooks suggested ways to make dessert items with them. The goober pea’s status in the Southern diet changed during the war as other foods became scarce. An excellent source of protein, peanuts were seen as a means of fighting malnutrition. (And they still are, with products such as Plumpy’nut being used in famine-plagued parts of the world.) In addition to their prewar modes of consumption, people used peanuts as a substitute for items that were no longer readily available, such as grinding them to a paste and blending them with milk and sugar when coffee was scarce. “This appreciation [for peanuts] was real,” Andrew F. Smith wrote inPeanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea. “Southerners continued to drink peanut beverages decades after the war ended.” Peanut oil was used to lubricate locomotives when whale oil could not be obtained—and had the advantage of not gumming up the machinery—while housewives saw it as a sound stand-in for lard and shortening as well as lamp fuel.
Peanuts became ingrained in the culture, going so far as to crop up in music. For Virginian soldiers wanting to take a dig at North Carolina’s peanut crop, there was:
The goobers they are small
Over thar!
The goobers they are small
Over thar!
The goobers they are small,
And they digs them in the fall,
And they eats them, shells and all,
Over thar!
The humorous song “Eatin’ Goober Peas” also surfaced during the war wears. (You can hear the song in full as performed by Burl Ives and Johnny Cash.)
Just before the battle the General hears a row,
He says, “The Yanks are coming, I hear the rifles now,”
He turns around in wonder, and what do you think he sees?
The Georgia militia eating goober peas!
There is also an account of a July 1863 episode where the Confederate Army’s Fifth Company of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans was entrenched in Jackson, Mississippi, and burned down a mansion in order to clear their view of the battlefield—although not before saving a piano. As the Union Army drew nearer, one soldier took to the ivories, encouraging his compatriots to join in song, including a round of “You Shan’t Have Any of My Peanuts”:
The man who has plenty of good peanuts,
And giveth his neighbor none,
He shan’t have any of my peanuts when his peanuts are gone.
While the Fifth Company succeeded in keeping the enemy at bay that day, peanuts just weren’t enough to save the Confederacy in the long haul.