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Logo of annbotAboutAuthor GuidelinesEditorial BoardAnnals of Botany
 
Ann Bot. 2011 September; 108(3): iii–v.
PMCID: PMC3158702

Plant Cuttings

dubius research that blows you away

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Elegant research should always be applauded (or publicised, which is what I'm doing here!). And they don't come more elegant than David Greene and Mauricio Quesada's seminal study entitled ‘The differential effect of updrafts, downdrafts and horizontal winds on the seed abscission of Tragopogon dubius’ (Functional Ecology 25: 468–472, 2010). Acknowledging that many plant species enhance wind-dispersal of their seeds (anemochory: http://www.cactus-art.biz/note-book/Dictionary/Dictionary_A/dictionary_anemochory.htm) by such features as lift-promoting wings and drag-producing fibres, the pair hypothesised that evolution would also increase dispersal capacity through the development of mechanisms that promote abscission by updrafts rather than downdrafts. Using this cosmopolitan weed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragopogon_dubius), they show precisely that: a combination of morphological traits and achene orientation make updrafts much more likely than downdrafts to abscise a seed. That, and the even-more-elegant hairy pappus of the fruits, help the propagules to float away from their parent to start a new life (germination-enabling and seedling-establishment-sufficient conditions permitting!). The duo speculate – sensibly (and as all good papers should!) – that such mechanisms are common and will eventually be seen as a crucial component of long-distance seed movement for almost all wind-dispersed species. Nice work! Other species, however, use more opportunistic agents so sow their seed. For example, Kimberley Taylor and colleagues in a Montana State University Extension publication describe field studies that show the extent to which vehicles collect and disperse seeds, particularly ‘noxious weeds’' (http://msuextension.org/publications/AgandNaturalResources/MT201105AG.pdf). Amongst their findings were that more seeds are picked up when vehicles were driven ‘off-trail’ than on-trail, up to 5500 seeds per mile compared to approx. 400, respectively. The study at military sites showed many times more seeds were collected by vehicles driven under wet conditions than under dry conditions, but up to 99 % of seeds stayed attached to a truck after travelling 160 miles under dry conditions. Furthermore, tracked vehicles picked up more seeds than wheeled vehicles. Somewhat predictably (but disappointingly for us autohydrophobes), to help curtail spread of weeds into non-infested areas, they recommend … washing vehicles … frequently(!). Let us hope military vehicles returning from their various, far-flung war zones don't bring back unwelcome hitch-hikers (of the botanical – or any other – kind!)

Image: Cpl. James L. Yarboro, US Marine Corps/US Department of Defense.

Barcode Wales

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No, this has nothing to do with whales (they're fish-like denizens of the deep, and has probably already been done by some countries under the guise of ‘scientific whaling’ anyway; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaling_controversy…). Nor is it a strange and unusual instruction to implant microchips into the natives of that principality within the Untied Kingdom. It's not even a move to standardise the strange garb worn by participants at the National Eisteddfod in Wales (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Eisteddfod_of_Wales); anyway, that would be Bard-coding … And it is definitely not a way of keeping tabs on the founder of Wikipedia (Mr Assange of WikiLeaks – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikileaks – probably does that on our behalf already …). Rather, it is the name of the project – led by Natasha de Vere (National Botanic Garden, Wales), along with Tim Rich (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Wales) and Mike Wilkinson (Aberystwyth University, Wales), and a host of volunteers – whose aim is to ‘DNA-barcode’ all of Wales' native flowering plants (http://www.gardenofwales.org.uk/science/barcode-wales/). After 3 years that goal has now been achieved. Or, in more technical terms, ‘the 1,143 native flowering plants of Wales now have 5,274 DNA barcodes (3,028 for rbcL and 2,246 for MatK)’, making it the first country to have achieved such a feat. DNA barcoding uses a small section of DNA to act as a unique identifier for that species. The first step is to assemble reference barcodes for the plants that need to be identified; unknown DNA sequences can then be compared to these in order to find out what species they've come from. Probably the real significance of the technique is ‘forensic’, in that it can identify species from tiny fragments, different life stages, or from mixtures of samples. Species can be identified from pollen grains, fragments of seeds or roots, wood, faecal samples, stomach contents or environmental samples collected from the air, soil or water. Ironically, vital to the establishment of DNA barcodes is correctly identified source material in the first place, which means that every reference barcode must have a voucher specimen to verify its identity. So there will still be a need for proper plant ID skills (until entirely replaced by ‘technology’ …). Data from this project are submitted to BOLD (the Barcode of Life Data Systems), ‘an online workbench that aids collection, management, analysis, and use of DNA barcodes’ (http://www.boldsystems.org/views/login.php). This feat is no doubt a great coup, but, in the ‘good old days’ (and – perversely – if you've forgotten them, then you probably are old enough to remember them!) one went out into the field armed with an ID book and studied the whole plants that were there. Nowadays, it seems that's not good enough (too ‘old-fashioned’?); instead, you need the services of a well-equipped molecular biology lab! Is this system better? Or just designed by agoraphobic, hay-fever-suffering individuals who would really like to be proper – ‘get-your-hands-dirty-in-the-field’ – botanists but aren't genetically so disposed? I know it's difficult to remember all the plants and their diagnostic characters when one gets older, but trying to do an ID from first principles helps to keep those highly prized field skills alive (though, arguably, what's more ‘first principles’ than DNA..?).

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

… this month's most tenuous plant link?

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Warning for the zoophobic: this item is about Caenorhabditis elegans – a free-living, transparent nematode {‘roundworm’ – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caenorhabditis_elegans – sometimes known as ‘the Arabidopsis of animal biology’ [that's Arabidopsis (frequently described as ‘the fruit fly of plant biology’) and fruit fly – Drosophila – which in its turn is occasionally referred to as the ‘maize of zoology’ …]}. Enough, already! The point I'm trying to make is that each biological discipline has its own ‘model species’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Model_organism), which its devotees believe will illuminate the whole of biology (or something ambitious and worthy like that). As botanists we are used to stories about Arabidopsis thaliana (tales cress as they are known) – our own general-purpose, all-singing, all-dancing, technicolor, typical flowering plant. Well, in the interests of broadening botanists' appreciation of non-plant disciplines, I thought it useful to mention the worm-like creature that is serving as a model for many facets of animal biology. However, although generally a good model, C. elegans also poses puzzles. For example, it is known that it could protect itself from viral attack using RNA interference (RNAi; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RNA_interference), but, since no natural virus capable of infecting C. elegans had ever been described, why does it have innate antiviral defences? Well, seek and ye shall find: lo and behold, Marie-Anne Félix et al. have just described natural viruses that will infect this model nematode (PLoS Biology 9: e1000586; doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000586), which should permit identification and study of other host mechanisms that counter viral infection. So, what's the French … err plant … connection? The viruses were isolated from … an apple in an orchard (near Paris). Which proves the old adage that ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor at play’. From a ‘rotten’ apple to a good one now. Steven Kunkel and colleagues have discovered that ursolic acid (3-β-hydroxy-urs-12-en-28-oic acid, also known as urson, prunol, and malol) reduces muscle atrophy (‘muscle wasting’) and promotes muscle growth in mice (Cell Metabolism 13: 627–638, 2011). Furthermore, ursolic acid (UA) – a pentacyclic triterpene (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursolic_acid) – also reduces fat, blood sugar levels, cholesterol and triglycerides, which led the team to suggest that it may also be useful for treating human metabolic disorders such as diabetes. Intriguingly, delving deeper on the Wikipedia site for the compound one finds that UA ‘has been found to reduce muscle atrophy and to stimulate muscle growth in mice’. Which isn't to say that the Kunkel et al. paper isn't news, it's just that Wikipedia cites that article for that statement (emphasising how up-to-date Wikipedia can be). More surprisingly, a co-citation for that claim is a Science Daily news item, itself probably based upon a press release about the Cell Metabolism paper. But, and even more surprising, is the statement about large amounts of UA being present in apple peel (hence this Plant Cuttings item), which is attributed to the UK's Daily Mail, a so-called tabloid newspaper (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabloid_journalism), in its item about … the Kunkel et al. article. It all gets a little circular (which is probably what newspapers ‘evolved’ from in the first place), but is an argument for caution in the use of Wikipedia as a primary source. Not to be outdone, CSIRO Plant Industry (Australia) scientists Ming-Bo Wang and Neil Smith have made a breakthrough in understanding how viruses infect plants (http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-07-major-breakthrough-viruses-infect.html). They find that the distinctive yellowing that accompanies infection by Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cucumber_mosaic_virus) is due to a special type of viral particle (a ‘satellite’) ‘slicing a gene that makes chlorophyll’. This work should help us better understand how viruses cause diseases in plants – and potentially in animals and humans (and even model nematodes..?).

Image: André Karwath/Wikimedia Commons.

Big (and I mean GINORMOUS) new journal

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Science has always been a ‘big’ topic – and not just those terrabucks physics projects – it asks some of the biggest questions of all: who are we? why are we here? why are you reading this? But, as technology has enhanced our ability to tackle those big questions it has also increased our capacity to generate even greater amounts of data. The trouble is, where can you publish all of this ‘stuff’, the large data sets themselves, and the increasingly important associated so-called metadata – ‘data about data’ (http://www.nbii.gov/images/uploaded/8496_1121845441408_Metadata-ITIS.pdf)? Well, just as in the olden days if you wanted to publish obscure topics you started your own journal, the 21st century equivalent – which fittingly exploits some of this new technology – is GigaScience, Giga-database and GigaBlog: ‘new resources for the big-data community’ (http://blogs.openaccesscentral.com/blogs/gigablog/entry/gigascience_giga_database_and_now). GigaScience (http://www.gigasciencejournal.com/), ‘a new type of journal’ from BioMed Central (http://www.biomedcentral.com/) and BGI (http://www.genomics.cn/en/index.php), is now taking submissions with the ‘goal of addressing many of the issues surrounding “big-data” ’. GigaScience aims to ‘revolutionize data dissemination, organization, understanding, and use. An online open-access open-data journal, we publish “big-data” studies from the entire spectrum of life and biomedical sciences. To achieve our goals, the journal has a novel publication format: one that links standard manuscript publication with an extensive database that hosts all associated data and provides data analysis tools and cloud-computing resources’. In case you're wondering what qualifies as ‘big’ or ‘large-scale’ in this context, the official answer is … ‘it depends’(!). However, this move would seem to be timely as we read of a multi-institutional effort supported by the US Department of Energy (DOE) that takes many separate streams of biological information to create a single, integrated cyber-'knowledgebase' (Kbase for short; http://science.energy.gov/news/in-the-news/2011/07-07-11/). A major goal of Kbase is to ‘focus on a specific assortment of plants and microbes that the Energy Department hopes to exploit to produce biofuels, to sequester carbon in the ecosystem, and to clean up environmental pollution’. To help in expanding ecosystem research, the first part of a database, which includes ‘3 million traits for 69,000 of the world's roughly 300,000 plant species’ (http://www1.umn.edu/news/news-releases/2011/UR_CONTENT_344442.html), has been published by Jens Kattge and >130 colleagues (Global Change Biology; doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486·2011·02451.x). Amongst the ambitions of TRY (as it is known, which is not an acronym, but ‘rather an expression of sentiment’; http://www.try-db.org/index.php?n=Site.AboutTRY) are that the improved availability of plant trait data in its unified global database will ‘support a paradigm shift from species to trait-based ecology, offer new opportunities for synthetic plant trait research and enable a more realistic and empirically grounded representation of terrestrial vegetation in Earth system models’. Let us hope the team keeps … err … trying! Finally, and on a more modest scale but also contributing to large datasets, the UK's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has released its third Land Cover Map (http://www.ceh.ac.uk/news/news_archive/uk-land-cover-map_2011_44.html) for the UK. Produced at 25-m resolution, land cover was derived from ‘more than 70 satellite images’ and contains spectral information that corresponds to different ground surfaces and vegetation types in both summer and winter. An automated classification process was used to assign a land cover type, based on an existing Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiversity_Action_Plan) Broad Habitats, to approximately 10 million land parcels, which are widely used in monitoring and reporting on the UK countryside. The new map reveals UK land cover as comprising mainly ‘Arable and Horticulture’ and ‘Improved Grassland’ habitats (25 % each). Aah, such a green and pleasant land … so best not to dwell on how much ‘Semi-natural Grassland’, ‘Mountain, Heath and Bog’, and ‘Broadleaved Woodland’ might have disappeared since the previous maps in 2000 and 1990.

Image: Alan C. Green, ca. 1940/State Library of Victoria, Australia.

Rice finally makes impact!

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The Springer-published, peer-reviewed, economically entitled research journal Rice (http://www.springer.com/life+sciences/plant+sciences/journal/12284?cm_mmc=AD-_-Journal-_-BIO14511_V1-_-0), which is devoted to … err … rice, has received its first Impact Factor (a metric by which journals are evaluated and ranked – rightly or wrongly! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_Factor) for 2010 of 2·9. However, Rice, which offers ‘the world's only high-quality serial [not cereal? – Ed.] publication for reporting current advances in rice genetics, structural and functional genomics, comparative genomics, molecular biology and physiology, molecular breeding and comparative biology’, will still have some way to go to compete with the Impact Factors of other plant taxon-specific titles such as ‘Arabidopsis’ (alternatively entitled The Plant Cell) or ‘Arabidopsis-lite’ (more usually known as The Plant Journal). [We're only jealous – Ed.]

Image: US Department of State.

Cite as: Chaffey N. 2011. Plant Cuttings, September. Annals of Botany 108(3): iii–v.


Articles from Annals of Botany are provided here courtesy of Oxford University Press