Friday, September 08, 2006

New developments in biofuels

Syngenta is working on a genetically engineered corn variety which contains amylase, an enzyme required to break starch down into sugars, a necessary step in fermenting corn into ethanol. Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred are looking at ways to develop corn varieties which are better for ethanol production.

Despite this interest, corn is unlikely to meet the fuel needs of the US. Instead of starch, many people are looking to cellulose as a source of feedstock for ethanol production. Ceres and the Noble Foundation are looking at switchgrass in Oklahoma, while Mendel Biotechnology is looking at Miscanthus, a Chinese grass. (Read article)

Plant defense against bacteria

Usually thought of as unwitting participants in the infection of plants by bacteria, it appears that stomata actually play an active role in fighting bacterial infection. New work by Maeli Melotta and Bill Underwood in the lab of Sheng Yang He at Michigan State University shows that stomata close when bacteria are placed on the leaf surface. However, bacteria which infect plants produce coronatine, a phytotoxin which forces the stomata to open (read press release)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Did pollination evolve before flowers?

It has generally been assumed that pollination originated with flowering plants. However, a study by Nils Cronberg et al. suggests that the process of having animals act as intermediaries in plant reproduction may have arisen long before flowering plants. Not only do springtails and mites move sperm between antheridia and archaegonia, fertile plants attract five times as many of these microarthropods and do sterile ones. (Read article in Science News, or original paper in Science)

Biologist charged with destroying non-native plants

Biologist Robert van de Hoek is charged with six misdemeanours for killing non-native plants (a Ficus tree and Myoporum shrubs) in one of the largest coastal wetlands in Southern California
To prosecutors, Robert "Roy" van de Hoek is a vandal with pruning shears. To supporters of native California shrubs and trees, he's a martyr. Once again, he's in court.

"Trimming and landscaping isn't done without authorization from government agencies," said Frank Mateljan of the city attorney's office.

(Read article)

New tallest living thing

A new contender for the title of "tallest living thing" has been discovered in Redwood National Park near Eureka, California. Standing 378.1 feet (115 m) tall, the Coast Redwood nicknamed Hyperion stands 8 feet (2.4 m) taller than the previous champion, the Stratosphere Giant, in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. (See article)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How to grow plants on Mars

Plants that could grow on Mars would need to be able to tolerate conditions outside the range experienced by plants on Earth. One source of such genes is extremophiles living in Antarctica and in deep ocean vents. University of North Carolina plant physiologist Wendy Boss and microbiologist Amy Grunden propose that transfering stress-tolerance genes from extremophiles to plants may allow them to grow in Martian conditions (See article).

Barcoding algae

In a paper in the August issue of the American Journal of Botany, Robba et al. discuss the use of mitochondrial cyctochrome c oxidase subunit 1 (cox1) for barcoding Red alge, which are difficult to indentify solely on the basis of morphology. They found that they were able to discriminate species on this basis, and suggested that it might be a useful tool. (See article)

Miracle tree in Haryana

While neem is often considered a "miracle tree" for all its useful products, but a neem tree in Jagadhri in Harayana is being seen as miraculous for another reason. The tree is oozing a milk-like substance which people believe will cure them of their ailments. (Read more)

Bt brinjal

The Indian Genetic Engineering Approval Committee has set up a panel to review health and environmental concerns related to Bt brinjal (otherwise known as eggplant, aubergine or melongene). These crops express genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, making them toxic to certain lepidopteran and coleopteran species. (Read more)

Jack Fisher, Botanist

The St. Petersburg Times has a nice little bio on Jack Fisher of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. (Read more)

Bringing back extinct plants from herbarium specimens?

Forgotten inheritance: The 150-year-old herbarium of the University of Namur in Belgium is being catalogued for the first time. Among the discoveries is a specimen of Bromus bromoideus, Brome of the Ardennes, a grass endemic to Belgium which went extinct in the 1930s. The European Native Seed Conservation Network is apparently trying to bring the plant out of extinction using stored seed. The article doesn't make it clear whether they expect to get viable seed from the 1852 specimen. (Read more)

Asian Soybean Rust

Soybean Rust worries farmers: Despite the title of the article, apparently farmers in Indiana aren't worried about Asian Soybean Rust yet, and it doesn't pose a threat at this point in time. However, there's potential for it to spread north if there is a wet spring and summer in the Gulf states, where Asian Soybean Rust currently exists. (Read more)

Forensic Botany

A nice little article on Forensic Botany from the Nueces County Record Star.
"Botanical evidence has been used as early as the 1930's but is often not used to its full potential because the area of botany is overlooked by many people," said Galloway. "One of the earliest cases using botanical evidence to solve a crime was the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial, where a ladder found at the crime scene was traced back to the suspect. One of its rungs was matched with wood found in the suspect's shop. Tool marks found on the wood also corresponded with the suspect's tools."

Corridors and plant species richness

Corridors Increase Plant Species Richness at Large Scales: The utility of corridors in fragmented landscapes has has been controversial since the 1980s. They became popular elements of landscape management plans, but there is little empirical evidence supporting their utility. A recent study in Science found that:
habitat patches connected by corridors retain more native plant species than do isolated patches, that this difference increases over time, and that corridors do not promote invasion by exotic species.
This supports the idea that corridors have conservation value (see Damschen et al.'s paper)

Understanding auxins

Auxin begins to give up its secrets: While the actions of auxins have been known for over 100 years (Charles and Francis Darwin wrote about its action in 1880), and IAA was identified in the 1930s, it's only within the last few years that researchers are beginning to understand the mechanism of auxin action (read more)

Sea slugs with chloroplasts

Plant wannabes: Reef-building corals have algal symbionts that help them gain enough energy to build reefs. Certain sea slugs do it too - algal cells or chloroplasts are kept in the digestive glands of the sea slugs, which feed off carbohydrates or lipids produced by photosynthesis. In the latest issue of Science, Elizabeth Pennisi reports on recent recent studies have used molecular techniques to investigate this symbiosis.

Apparently algal cells or chloroplasts can for months in the sea slugs, and one species has acquired algal genes. According to Ingo Burghardt of Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, the sea slug Phyllodesmium keeps zooxanthellae alive that it gets from the soft corals it eats A slug with algal symbionts can survive 260 days without food. The article also reports on the even more interesting case of Elysia chlorotica which acquires chloroplasts from the alga it feed on as a juvenile. Juveniles which don't acquire chloroplasts don't survive. (see article)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

News about plants

The aim here is to report news related to plant biology.