Parasitic plant can control the genes of its host plant

Parasitic plants and pests are a major concern for farmers as they can damage crops and harvests.

Researchers are scrambling to create crops that are resistant to parasites, diseases, and pests, and can handle harsher environments.

However, in order to genetically modify crops to resist parasites and disease, researchers need to understand exactly how the parasite or disease in question attacks its host plant.

A new study has revealed that the dodder, a parasitic plant that wreaks havoc on crops around the world, can stop its host plant’s defense system by silencing the expression of genes that guard against parasites. The dodder is then able to freely feed off the nutrients of its host plant.

In short, the parasitic plant regulates and controls the genes of its host plant, and this is something that has never been recorded or seen before from parasite-host plant relationships.

The study was conducted by researchers from Penn State and Virginia Tech and published in the journal Nature.

The research team sequenced the microRNAs in tissue samples from the dodder plant, the host plant, and combinations of the two.

MicroRNAs are small pieces of nucleic acid, the basic component of DNA and RNA that can bind to messenger RNAs which build proteins.

If the microRNAs bind to the messenger RNA, it can halt the production of protein and silence the expression of important genes in the cells.

“Dodder seems to turn on the expression of these microRNAs when it comes into contact with the host plant,” said James H. Westwood, a co-author of the paper. “What was really interesting is that the microRNAs specifically target host genes that are involved in the plant’s defense against the parasite.”

After sequencing and comparing the genomes of the different plants and plant combinations, the researchers found dodder microRNAs in the tissue of its host plant.

The results also showed that messenger RNAs were reduced when exposed to microRNAs from the dodder plant.

The dodder can specifically target the messenger RNA that activates the host plant’s defense system and siphon nutrients from its host.

The study is important in showing how plant parasites and fungi can regulate the gene expressions of their host plant and could help future research in developing genetically engineered plants specifically able to resist this kind of attack

“So, with this knowledge, the dream is that we could eventually use gene editing technology to edit the microRNA target sites in the host plants, preventing the microRNAs from binding and silencing these genes,” said Michael J. Axtell, a fellow author of the study.  “Engineering resistance to the parasite in this way could reduce the economic impact of the parasite on crop plants.”

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Penn State University

Genetically modified cacao could stop chocolate from running out

As we reported this week, the world’s chocolate supply is in danger of running out by 2050. Climate change could make conditions unsuitable for cacao plants to thrive and chocolate production would be unable to keep up with growing worldwide demand for the sweet treat.

Every year, billions of pounds of chocolate are consumed around the world, and on average, people eat anywhere between ten and twenty pounds of the confectionary on an annual basis.

Mars, the company behind some of the world’s most recognizable brands and bars such as Snickers, M&Ms, and Twix, has big plans in order to ensure the cacao bean is safe from extinction.

In September, the 35 billion dollar corporation pledged $1 billion as part of a plan to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by 60 percent or more by 2050.

But the company is also partnering with researchers to work on genetically editing the cacao plant to withstand harsher conditions brought on by climate change.

Mars, in collaboration with the University of California Berkeley, is exploring gene editing using  CRISPR-CAS9 technology on cacao plants.

The ultimate aim is to make seedlings that can handle a warmer and drier climate.

CRISPR allows scientists to make precise cuts in a strand of DNA, removing defective or detrimental portions of the DNA and replacing it with a healthy part that bonds with the DNA strand.

CRISPR could one day eradicate genetic diseases and is also being used create crops that have a fighting chance in the face of climate change.

The Berkeley research team is headed by Jennifer Doudna, the creator of CRISPR, and the cacao plant is not the only crop that the team is working with.

If successful, gene edited crops like the cacao plant could help ease global food shortages brought on by the weather extremes, drought, and diseases that climate change is projected to cause and worsen.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Invasive species threatens crucial Jamaican biodiversity hotspot

An invasive tree species native to Australia is now endangering an important biodiversity hotspot in Jamaica.

The tree is the Pittosporum undulatum, also known as the mock orange tree because of its bright orange fruit that has seeds covered with a sugary coating.

These seeds attract birds, and so the mock orange tree is dispersing through Jamaican forests at record speeds. Hurricane damage has only helped the species spread.

A team of researchers from Landcare Research in New Zealand, the Universities of Cambridge, Denver, and Bangor conducted a study of forests in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park to better understand the invasive nature of the Pittosporum undulatum.

The study was published in the journal Biological Conservation.

The park is a protected preserve and a necessary home to endangered species that exist only in Jamaica, and mock orange trees pose a dangerous threat to the rare plants and animals that live there.

For example, mock oranges are endangering a group of plant species called bromeliads which grow on stems but can’t grow on the Pittosporum undulatum because the bark is too smooth.

Bromeliads are important for many insect species who rely on the plant for water, and the insects, in turn, are a food source for the endangered Jamaican Blackbird.

The invasive nature of the mock orange tree is tipping the delicate ecosystem of the protected national park forests.

The research team studied the Jamaican forests using a record of the their history that ranged 4o years. The results showed a constant increase of Pittosporum, and currently, the species accounts for more than 10 percent of all tree stems.

The study shows how important biodiversity is and how delicate ecosystems are easily threatened by invasive species.

The researchers hope their results will urge policymakers to control the spread of invasive species like the mock orange in vital Jamaican forests.

“We are sure that active intervention at this stage would be very cost effective, reducing the much greater costs of trying to restore the native forests if the invasion is allowed to spread further,” said Peter Bellingham, the lead researcher.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: J Healey, Bangor University

A new technique could help crops grow in record time

A scientific breakthrough in the world of agriculture could help crops grow in record time thanks to a new speed breeding technique.

A research team from the John Innes Centre, University of Queensland, and the University of Sydney developed a speed breeding technique that accelerated wheat growth with immensely successful results.

A full cycle of wheat took only eight weeks from seed to harvest thanks to long, intense periods of photosynthesis, artificially aided with LED lighting.  

Speed breeding could be a necessity in the coming years with growing demand for food outweighing available land for productive and sustainable crop growth.

“Globally, we face a huge challenge in breeding higher yielding and more resilient crops,” said Dr. Brande Wulff from the John Innes Centre, Norwich, a lead author on the paper. “Being able to cycle through more generations in less time will allow us to more rapidly create and test genetic combinations, looking for the best combinations for different environments.”

The researchers were able to speed up growth and breeding by creating fully controlled artificial environments with enhanced lighting. The intensified lighting sped up wheat growth from seed to harvest, aka seed to seed, in eight weeks.

This technique could produce as many six generations of wheat in a single year.

The lab environment could easily be replicated in a typical greenhouse, and the technique could work for many different vital crops.

Other breeding methods currently being used today are not nearly so successful in their application as this new process.

One exciting result of the speed breeding technique is the opportunities it presents to the field of crop genetics.

“Speed breeding as a platform can be combined with lots of other technologies such as CRISPR gene editing to get to the end result faster,” said Dr. Lee Hickey, a member of the research team.

The technique is already being welcomed by wheat breeders and has helped researchers in Australia develop wheat with a tolerance to pre-harvest sprouting, a huge problem for breeders in the country.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Unusual, blurred seasons are confusing wildlife across the globe

An annual review by the National Trust has found that “haywire seasons” are confusing for wildlife. The conservation agency explains that new weather patterns are helpful to some species yet harmful to others.

Ecologist and conservationist Matthew Oates has been at the National Trust since 1990. Oates pointed out that climate change is narrowing the divide between winter and summer.

“At times, it feels like the seasons are becoming less distinctive, and that makes it extremely difficult to predict how nature will react,” said Oates.

“Certain species are good at adapting, which is great, whereas others are struggling – some of them badly. We need to give wildlife the space, time and, where necessary, the support it needs, not only to survive, but to thrive.”

After 10 years of research, the experts are noticing certain patterns. Winters are milder, and summers are often stormier and wetter. Spring is arriving too early, and wildflowers, bees, and other species are emerging too soon as well.

“The impact on wildlife has been enormous, and at a time when many species are declining sharply as farming as other land uses intensify,” said Oates.

Oates explained that this “blurring of the seasons” means that new measures are needed to support habitats and their wildlife as they learn to cope with climate change.

“It’s hard to put any single event down to climate change but overall impact is quite staggering,” said Oates.

“It’s not just on land, it’s sea, it’s the ocean warming and what turns up here on our shores, Portuguese man o’ war, jellyfish, bluefin tuna, minke whales, which also suggests it’s not just a terrestrial issue.”

Oates is recommending that citizens adopt local monitoring strategies to keep scientists informed on what changes are taking place in their own backyards.

Experts at the National Trust say they will do everything they can to reverse population declines in nature. The organization plans to dedicate 62,000 acres of land to wildlife conservation by 2025.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

The new year brings legal recreational marijuana to California

Recreational use of marijuana will officially become legal in California on January 1st, and USA Today is referring to the event as the state’s “new gold rush.”

According to Matt Karnes of GreenWave Advisors, the black market for pot in California is currently worth 13.5 billion dollars and entrepreneurs are expected to generate 5.2 billion dollars of pot revenue in the first year of legal sales.

Business owners that are licensed for marijuana sales are fighting the clock to comply with the state’s new regulations, including packaging which is not transparent and restrictions on THC levels.

Marijuana products will not be allowed in public areas such as restaurants, and landlords may ban smoking on their properties as well. In addition, smoking pot and driving will be classified as Driving Under the Influence (DUI).

Some local governments are outlawing the recreational use of pot, but this is not the case in Los Angeles, which is now the largest city in America to approve retail pot sales.

The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Proposition 64, was passed on November 8th, 2016. The implementation of retail marijuana sales will be a gradual process across the state of California, as only 42 licenses have been issued so far.

Some news outlets are reporting that at least 150 additional applications will be reviewed this weekend and thousands of licenses are expected to be ultimately approved.

According to Proposition 64, adults who are 21 or older will be allowed to possess up to one ounce of marijuana or up to eight grams of concentrated cannabis. Adults over 21 years of age will also be permitted to grow up to six marijuana plants per household.

Many pot-related crimes that were previously classified as felonies could now be reduced to misdemeanors under Proposition 64. Individuals who are incarcerated could potentially receive shorter sentences or be released from jail.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization which supports human rights, estimates that over one million people convicted of marijuana-related offenses in California could petition to have their charges reviewed and “redesignated” under the new legislation.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

College in Michigan offers a degree in marijuana

Northern Michigan University has introduced “medical plant chemistry” as a new major. The program, which is focused on marijuana, was developed in response to an enormous demand for trained analytical chemists in the marijuana industry.

Brandon Canfield is an associate professor of Chemistry at the college.

“This area is just exploding. I mean, you see Washington, Colorado, Oregon, California with full legal recreational marijuana,” Professor Canfield told CBS Detroit. “You’ve got over half the states with medicinal legal, and with all of that has come a huge need for these trained analytical chemists.”

The legal marijuana industry currently employs as many as 230,000 Americans, and that number is expected to grow. Professor Canfield pointed out that there is no other undergraduate program like this in the country.

“I predict that the graduates from our program are going to have among the highest immediate job placement of any of our programs,” he said. “People are either going to go out and get jobs or they might go out and start their own business in the industry.”

A total of 12 students were enrolled in the program for its first semester, and Professor Canfield said that number will likely double or triple by next year.

“The need for this is so great. You go to some of these cannabis industry conferences and everyone is talking about how they need labs, they need labs,” he said. “Or the bigger operations are trying to set up their own labs in house and they need trained analysts. And the skill set required to perform these analysis is perfectly matched with an undergraduate level education.”

The curriculum includes classes such as chemistry, plant biology, and business entrepreneurship. The students will not be working directly with marijuana plants – at least not yet.

“We’re not going to be actually growing anything on campus,” explained Canfield. “Maybe following the 2018 Michigan election, maybe we’ll revisit that depending on the outcome and what ballots are present on that election. But for now, we’re not going to be growing any cannabis. We’ll be practicing extraction and analysis techniques on other plant systems.”

As of September 30, 2016, there were 218,556 patients in Michigan with medical marijuana cards. A committee called The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has collected over 350,000 signatures in an effort to let voters have the option of legalizing recreational marijuana on Michigan’s 2018 ballot.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Photosynthesis in plants may have started 1.25 billion years ago

Scientists at McGill University have dated the world’s oldest algae fossils back one billion years. As a result, the team estimates that the basis for photosynthesis as it is known today started 1.25 billion years ago.

The discovery may finally solve the mystery of the age of the fossilized algae which were first found in rocks in Arctic Canada in 1990.

The microscopic algae, Bangiomorpha pubescens, is believed to be the oldest ancestor of modern plants and animals. Until now, the age of the organism was not dated very clearly, with estimates ranging between 720 million and 1.2 billion years.

The findings of the investigation add to a growing collection of recent research that the time frame of Earth’s history known as the Boring Billion may have not been as uneventful as what has been widely believed. This era may have actually been when the foundation was created for more complex life forms which peaked 541 million years ago with the so-called Cambrian Explosion.

“Evidence is beginning to build to suggest that Earth’s biosphere and its environment in the latter portion of the ‘Boring Billion’ may actually have been more dynamic than previously thought,” explained lead author Timothy Gibson.

The researchers collected samples of black shale from rock layers that surrounded the region of rock where the algae was retrieved. Using the Rhenium-Osmium dating technique, they calculated that the rocks are 1.047 billion years old.

“That’s 150 million years younger than commonly held estimates, and confirms that this fossil is spectacular,” said senior author Galen Halverson. “This will enable scientists to make more precise assessments of the early evolution of eukaryotes.”

Once the researchers had estimated the age of the fossils at 1.047 billion years, they used a computer model known as a “molecular clock” to calculate evolutionary events based on rates of genetic mutations. The experts concluded that the chloroplast must have been integrated into eukaryotes around 1.25 billion years ago.

“We expect and hope that other scientists will plug this age for Bangiomorpha pubescens into their own molecular clocks to calculate the timing of important evolutionary events and test our results,” said Gibson. “If other scientists envision a better way to calculate when the chloroplast emerged, the scientific community will eventually decide which estimate seems more reasonable and find new ways to test it.”

The study is published in the journal Geology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Tomatoes and fresh fruit help improve lungs of ex-smokers

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have revealed that a diet high in tomatoes and fruit can slow down the natural decline in lung function. This suggests that certain elements of these foods, particularly tomatoes and apples, may promote the restoration of lung damage from smoking.

The investigation is part of the Ageing Lungs in European Cohorts (ALEC) Study, which is funded by the European Commission. Vanessa Garcia-Larsen is an assistant professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of International Health and the study’s lead author.

“This study shows that diet might help repair lung damage in people who have stopped smoking. It also suggests that a diet rich in fruits can slow down the lung’s natural aging process even if you have never smoked,” said Garcia-Larsen. “The findings support the need for dietary recommendations, especially for people at risk of developing respiratory diseases such as COPD.”

The experts found that adults who consumed at least two tomatoes or three portions of fresh fruit per day showed a slower decline in lung function than individuals who ate less than one tomato or one portion of fruit. The protective effects were only observed in fresh fruits and tomatoes, and not in processed foods such as tomato sauce.

The research team also found a slower decline in lung function among all adults with the highest tomato consumption, including those who didn’t smoke.

For their investigation, the researchers analyzed the lung function of over 650 adults in 2002, and repeated the same tests in 2012. The link between stronger lung function and diet was particularly prevalent in former smokers. Ex-smokers who ate a diet high in tomatoes and fruits had around 80 ml slower decline over the ten-year period of observation.

“Lung function starts to decline at around age 30 at variable speed depending on the general and specific health of individuals,” said Garcia-Larsen. “Our study suggests that eating more fruits on a regular basis can help attenuate the decline as people age, and might even help repair damage caused by smoking. Diet could become one way of combating rising diagnosis of COPD around the world.”

The study is published in the European Respiratory Journal.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Increasing your salad intake may keep your brain young

It’s becoming more common these days for people to turn to improved nutrition as a way to better their health, rather than relying on simply taking handfuls of pills as they age. A healthier diet can increase your energy as well as help you lose weight, and now scientists say that it could slow the rate of brain aging.

According to a recent study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, eating roughly one serving per day of green, leafy vegetables may improve your memory and thinking skills.

The study included 960 people with an average age of 81 who did not have dementia and were observed for an average of 4.7 years. The participants had their thinking and memory skills tested on a yearly basis, and filled out a questionnaire about how often they ate certain foods. The questionnaire asked them how many servings they ate per day of three vegetables: spinach, kale, and collards.

The participants’ scores on the thinking and memory tests declined over time at a rate of 0.08 standardized units per year. However, the rate of decline for those who ate the most leafy greens was slower by 0.05 standardized units per years compared to those who ate the least. This difference is equivalent to being 11 years younger in age.

These results still hold true when factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, education level, and amount of physical and cognitive activity are taken into account. However, the authors do note that this study does not prove that eating leafy green vegetables slows brain aging, it only shows that there is an association. Nevertheless, unless you’re deathly allergic to spinach, kale, or collards, it won’t hurt to have more of those leafy greens in your diet.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Life on Earth got a jumpstart thanks to an unlikely source

Scientists are uncovering more and more about how the Earth was first formed, but there are still many variables left unknown. Now, researchers from the University of Leeds may be one step closer to understanding how life on Earth got its start, and it turns out fungi were major players in creating the optimal environment for life to thrive.

Scientists believe that the Earth developed an oxygen-rich atmosphere about 400 to 500 million years ago, in part due to early plants photosynthesizing carbon dioxide.

According to the new study, it was fungi that helped these early plants succeed in their photosynthesis process by ‘mining’ phosphorus from rocks and transferring it to plants.

Early plants would have depended on fungi to provide nutrients because there was no mineral-rich soil in early Earth’s wholly different ecosystem.

As fungi grow across rocks, they produce organic acids that break down rocks and mineral grains in a process called biological weathering.

Millions of years ago, fungi would have transferred the nutrients from biological weathering to plants, and in turn, benefitted from the plants’ photosynthesis.

To prove that this symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi could have established the atmosphere necessary for life to thrive hundreds of millions of years ago, the researchers conducted several lab experiments.

The team grew plants and fungi in a lab mimicking an atmosphere similar to ancient Earth and observed how the fungi transferred phosphorous to the plants and the change in atmosphere to a more oxygen-rich one.

“The results of including data on fungal interactions present a significant advance in our understanding of the Earth’s early development,” said Dr. Benjamin Mills, a member of the research team. “Our work clearly shows the importance of fungi in the creation of an oxygenated atmosphere.”

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Ancient bear had a sweet tooth, researchers say

A team of scientists have found 3.5 million-year-old fossils of an ancient bear, and its teeth showed it loved sweets.

The fossils include the skull, teeth and partial skeletal remains of two individual bears from the species Protarctos abstrusus, previously known only from a fossilized tooth discovered in Idaho. Scientists from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Canadian Museum of Nature studied the new fossils, and made an interesting discovery: cavities in the teeth.

The ancient bear was a close relative to the ancestor of modern bears, the researchers also discovered.

“This is evidence of the most northerly record for primitive bears, and provides an idea of what the ancestor of modern bears may have looked like,” said Dr. Xiaoming Wang of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the study’s lead author

P. abstrusus was slightly smaller than today’s black bears, with a flatter head and different dental profile, the researchers said.

However, one characteristic is similar to many modern bears. The ancient bear ate a high-calorie, sugary diet – possibly to prepare for winter hibernation.

“This is the first and earliest documented occurrence of high-calorie diet in basal bears, likely related to fat storage in preparation for the harsh Arctic winters,” Wang said.

The bones were discovered at a fossil site called the Beaver Pond, part of a rich prehistoric site on Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Nunavut province. Peat deposits at the site have helped scientists reconstruct life 3.5 million years ago, with fossils including fish, beaver, three-toed horse ancestors, deerlets and small carnivores.

Plant fossils have revealed the region as a boreal-type wetland forest that would have seen about six months of snowy winter each year. Fossil berries might have been the same sugary plants that gave the bears their cavities, the researchers said.

“The Ellesmere bear is important because it suggests that the capacity to exploit the harshest, most northern forests on the planet is not an innovation of modern grizzlies and black bears, but may have characterized the ursine lineage from its beginning,” Wang said.

The researchers looked at fossils of other ancient bear species to identify the Canadian skeletal remains and place them in an evolutionary context.

The researchers have published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Image credit: Art by Mauricio Antón based on this paper; with input on plants from Alice Telka