Study: plants can ‘hear’ running water

Plants can detect the sounds of running water moving through pipes or in the soil, a new study found.

The ability to sense the sounds of water helps plants move their roots closer to toward the water source, according to the University of Western Australia study.

Researchers used the common garden pea plant for the study, putting the plant into a container with two tubes at the base, providing options for which direction to grow its roots.

“We then exposed the plant to a series of sounds, including white noise, running water and then a recording of running water under each tube, and observed its behavior,” said lead researcher Monica Gagliano from UWA’s Centre of Evolutionary Biology.

The root systems grew toward the sound of running water, the study found.

“It also was surprising and extraordinary to see that the plant could actually tell when the sound of running water was a recording and when it was real and that the plant did not like the recorded sound,” Gagliano said.

When moisture was readily available in the soil, the plant did not respond to the sound of running water.

“From this we begin to see the complexity of plant interactions with sound in using it to make behavioral decisions,” Gagliano said.

The study can help increase understanding of plant behavior, she added.

“It indicates that the invasion of sewer pipes by tree roots may be based on the plants ‘hearing’ water and shows that their perception of their surroundings is much greater and far more complex than we previously thought,” she said.

It can also help scientists studying noise pollution, Gagliano said.

“In the animal world there is a strong call to understand how acoustic pollution adversely affects populations,” she said. “But now we know plants also need to be part of these studies.”

By: David Beasley, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: University of Western Australia

Svalbard Global Seed Vault flooded by melting permafrost

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault started life as an abandoned coal mine a little more than 800 miles from the North Pole. In 1984, it found new live as a secure seed bank.

Owned and operated by the Norwegian government, the coal mine has been converted into a top of the line facility holding more than 10,000 seed samples from all over the world.

The concept behind the $9 million vault? To protect those seeds, whether it be from a global disaster like a nuclear war or simply as “backup” in case of accidents at other seed banks around the world.

But the Global Seed Vault has been breached by floodwaters, and scientists say global warming is to blame.

One trait that drew the Norwegian government to the vault’s current location was a thick layer of permafrost. That permafrost was supposed to add an extra layer of protection to keep the seeds frozen until and unless they were needed.

Instead, high temperatures and late rainfall in the Arctic caused the permafrost to melt and flood the vault’s entryway. Fortunately, the water froze once it entered the access tunnel and was removed.

“After 9 years of operation, Svalbard Global Seed Vault is facing technical improvements in connection with water intrusion in the outer part of the access tunnel because the permafrost has not established itself as projected,” the vault’s administrators said in a press release.

Officials were quick to provide reassurance that the seeds stored by the vault are safe.

“The seeds in the seed vault have never been threatened and will remain safe during implementation of the measures,” the press release stated.

However, the melting permafrost is just one danger of climate change at the Global Seed Vault, and officials have taken steps to protect against future issues.

For example, pumps within the seed vault keep water out, but new drainage ditches and a waterproof wall will help to keep water away from the vault and protect the seeds if another flood occurs. Officials are also considering a new access tunnel to the vault.

The goal is to make the Global Seed Vault “self-sufficient” – able to run with minimal maintenance from humans.

“The effect of the measures will be continuously assessed in the coming years. If they are not sufficient, further and more extensive measures will be implemented,” the press release said.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Image Source: Bjoertvedt, Wikimedia Commons

Report: Over 1,700 new plant species discovered in 2016

In 2016 alone, 1,730 new plant species were discovered across the globe, from flowers to food to potential new medicines, according to a new report.

Eleven new species of orchids were discovered last year in Vietnam, while 29 new types of begonia were found in Malaysia, according to the second annual report of State of the World’s Plants by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

“A detailed knowledge of plants is fundamental to human life on Earth,” the report said. “Plants underpin all aspects of our everyday life — from the food that we eat, to the clothes that we wear, the materials we use, the air we breathe, the medicines we take and much more.”

Traditionally, most new plant discoveries have been announced in publications read by plant specialists, but Kew decided to make the information more widely available in its first State of the World’s Plants reports last year.

“We were overwhelmed by the global interest in this information,” Kew said.

This year’s report includes plants used for medicinal purposes, such as new species of the genus Mucuna, which are cultivated to provide a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. They contain L-DOPA, a dopamine precursor.

Four new relatives of Aloe vera, widely used in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries, were identified in southern Africa.

In Gabon, five new species of the legume tree Paubrasilia, for which the country of Brazil was named, were discovered. The wood of the tree is highly valued for for the production of violin bows.

Six new species of Salvia – commonly known and used as the herb sage, but also contains species with horticultural and hallucinogenic uses – were found from China, Iran and Mexico.

Among the most important newly discovered species with potential for new food sources were 11 Brazilian species of Manihot, known variously as cassava, garri, manioc or tapioca which  is a staple food for millions of people in the tropics. Nigeria is the largest producer.

It is third in global importance after maize and rice, and offers more food security than cereals because tubers can be left in the ground until needed, Kew said.

By: David Beasley Earth.com Staff Writer

Source:  Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Genetic research aims to improve tomatoes and expand production

With the human population on the rise, every day there are more mouths to feed. This means that agriculture and the science behind it need to keep up with the growth of our population. Scientists around the world are constantly working on how to maximize the growth and production potential of our crops, so that we can produce more food with less land. In a new study published in Cell, researchers have found a way to use two formerly detrimental genes in tomatoes to actually work together and increase yield.

The two genes in question were found to cause extreme branching of the plant and reduce fruit yield when they are both present. One of these genes causes the green leafy “cap” on the top of tomatoes to grow larger. The other (known as Jointless2) causes the plant to have a smoother stem and firmer attachment to the fruit.

The Jointless2 gene is known to make tomatoes easier to harvest, which has caused it to be a desirable gene in these plants. However, the presence of both of these gene mutations in one plant results in the plant excessively branching out and flowering. These flowers later turn into the tomato fruit, which seems like it would be a desirable outcome, but senior author Zachary Lippman explains why this is not the case:

“…More branches and flowers doesn’t always translate to more fruits,” says Lippman, a plant geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “In order to make those fruits, the plant has to pump a lot of resources into the young fruits as they start to grow. But plant can’t handle that imbalance of having too many fruits, so the fertility is quite low.”

The research team hypothesized that there might be a happy medium; where low levels of branching would produce more flowers than a non-branching plant, but not so many that the plant wastes its resources. To test this theory, they began to analyze the genes responsible for flower-bearing branches and these growth patterns.

One of their first discoveries was mutations in two closely related genes, which they deemed “strong branching” mutants. Both mutations played a role in initiating flower growth by turning genes on and off in plant stem cells. While the first gene was the already established Jointless2 gene, the second gene was unknown.

Lippman and his colleagues wanted to determine how the second gene worked when Jointless2 was gone. Using the infamous CRISPR “gene editing” technology, they created a tomato with a mutation in the unknown gene. For these plants, the researchers noticed that the mutants grew larger sepals – which are the small leaves at the base of a flower that eventually become part of the green cap to the tomato.

The researchers still aren’t sure what the benefit of larger sepals and a larger leafy cap would be, but the mutation exists in more than 85% of modern tomatoes. This means that it’s hard to breed a jointless tomato without creating a plant that also has excessive branching.

“In the 1970s, breeders wanted to use Jointless2 so much that they said, ‘We’re going to find a way to use the genetics to our advantage, and we’re going to find other genes to suppress the branching.’ So they knew they had this extreme branching, but they didn’t know which gene was mutated,” says Lippman. Previously, the goal had been to suppress branching and bring the plant back to the unbranched state, which they had achieved. But Lippman believes scientists had missed the opportunity to initiate weak branching – which could be more beneficial.

Using natural mutations and CRISPR, the researchers engineered several different tomato plants with varying levels of branching, including one with weak branching but a high fruit yield. Lippman believes that the results of this study may be useful for not just tomato breeders, but for related crops as well.

“The more we understand about basic plant biology, basic mechanisms of plant growth, and plant development, the more we have at our fingertips the knowledge and tools to rework the system or tune the system and exploit the system,”  says Lippman. And when it comes to feeding a growing world, we’ll need all the help we can get.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: Cell Press

How carnivorous plants fought evolution to remain carnivorous

We often think of plants as immobile, generally unexciting flora that – despite their inaction – play a pivotal role in preserving our planet. But plants can be more than just static bundles of photosynthesizing cellulose. For example, the carnivorous humped bladderwort (does the name have you excited yet?) is actually a practiced predator. It lives in swamps and ponds, surviving by sucking prey into tiny traps in its walls at speeds of under a millisecond.

But the tiny organisms this plant preys on don’t just provide it with the sustenance and nutrients it needs to survive. A genomic analysis of the plant published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows the added value of this carnivorous lifestyle for the plant’s evolutionary history.

A team of researchers, led by Stephan Schuster of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Victor Albert of the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, discovered how this plant repeatedly retained and enhanced the genetic material associated with its carnivorous nature – despite significant evolutionary pressure to delete this DNA.

These carnivorous genes were responsible for the trapping of prey, digestion of proteins, acidity of the traps, and transport of bits of protein from the prey between the plants’ cells. “What’s exciting is that we didn’t go in and cherry pick these genes,” says Albert. “We used bioinformatics to identify genes that were preserved and enriched in the species, and when we did that, these genes related to a carnivorous lifestyle were the ones that stood out. They were screaming out at us, telling us to look at them.”

The researchers found that the bladderwort had a tiny, gene-rich genome, which is indicative of a species that has a history of frequent gene deletion.

“The trap of Utricularia is only two cells thick, and the way it does its trapping is it creates a whole lot of negative pressure inside the trap to suck in the prey once triggered,” explains Luis Herrera-Estrella of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Mexico. For a system so tiny and precise, every part must be working properly – or the plant goes hungry.

Genome-sequencing is an important part of so many facets of research today. To be able to delve into an organism’s evolutionary history with this much detail is a privilege that scientists have only been able to experience recently, due to new advances in technology. Studies such as this pave the way for further genome-sequencing research as we continue to learn about the world around us.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: University at Buffalo

Credit: Enrique Ibarra-Laclette, Claudia Anahí Pérez-Torres and Paulina Lozano-Sotomayor

Lack of fresh produce has Alaska turning to greenhouses

Growing fruits in Alaska is a challenge due to the harsh environment and limited growing season. Although fruit trees can be grown in greenhouses, this is very costly for communities that rely on diesel as their source of power. But now, the state of Alaska has released a new handbook that will change everything. The 98-page guide teaches communities how to build greenhouses that can be heated from wood, a plentiful and renewable resource.

Officials that worked on the handbook say there is a high demand for greenhouses. This is due in large part to heightened awareness, advances in technology, and urgent need. Some parts of Alaska are so remote that fresh fruit is nearly impossible to import. Expensive vegetables and fruit that have to be flown in cannot reach some secluded communities until after they are past their prime.

The guide contains a broad range of information, including ways to fund greenhouse projects. The authors of the handbook included details on plant nutrient management in an effort to get more locally grown food into homes and cafeterias. The case studies of existing greenhouse projects are also included in the handbook.

A small school in the Prince of Wales Island community of Thorne Bay built an aquaponics greenhouse three years ago. The project was funded by the state biomass program. The school uses wood cut by the students to inexpensively heat their greenhouse year-round.

“They could never have afforded a greenhouse if they were heating their school with diesel heat,” said Devany Plentovich, manager of the Alaska Energy Authority’s biomass program.

The students use live fish such as goldfish and koi to provide nutrients for lettuce, kale, and other crops. Although tilapia is ideal for an aquaponics greenhouse, the state of Alaska has a ban fish farming which prohibits the use of edible fish. The students are licensed to sell their crops, and the leftover produce goes to the school cafeterias. They even run a small café where their produce is on the menu.

Students at another school, Coffman Cove, maintain a 7,000-square-foot greenhouse that has 10,000 plants and 2,000 fish. The students are responsible for everything from planting the crops to feeding the fish and checking the water. The older students are in charge of loading the boilers and burning the wood. Students over age 16 get paid to cut and stack wood.

Colter Barnes is the school district’s greenhouse manager. He said, “It’s been fantastic. Kids love to eat, and kids love to make money. They are engaged in it – way more engaged than any worksheet or textbook.”

People of these communities say the produce from the greenhouses is much better than what they are used to. In addition to generating superior fruit, the greenhouses proposed in the handbook are environmentally friendly. They have a second combustion chamber that prevents most of the pollution from escaping into the atmosphere.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: AP