On our Scoop It between January 18th and January 30th

These are links from our Scoop It page between January 18th and January 30th:

Landscapes for People, Food and Nature: a new Blog from Bioversity, FAO, UNEP et al

A new blog on Landscapes for People, Food and Nature is launched today. Fortunately, its just in time for a new University of Leicester undergraduate module Biodiversity and Sustainability. The blog is asking "How can we manage our farms and farming landscapes not just to supply food for 9 billion people over the next few decades, but do so in ways that also secure our water needs, conserve biodiversity, manage climate change, and sustain rural livelihoods?"

The blog goes on to say "many of the most important habitats for wild biodiversity, watersheds, forest products, bio-energy, and stores of carbon were located in agricultural lands—not just those “marginal lands” but in the world’s main breadbaskets and rice bowls." which happens to be one of the points I was preparing to include in my first lecture, although one before this that I would have found hard to reference.

Species identification and How can you research without knowledge?

"SCIENCE is a subject for the inquisitive. It is an exploration of all avenues of human intrigue, seeking answers by experimentation to every question, from the silly, through the mundane to the mind-bending. From ‘why is the sky blue’ to ‘which crabs are the fightiest’ through, of course, to the applied sciences, looking for solutions to disease and issues that affect us and our planet, science seeks truth in the most fascinating of questions and challenges. We are enriched by the knowledge it unveils.

To achieve this, science as a subject needs a vast base of specialists working on a wide range of models. But, of course, times are tight, funds are spread thin, and inevitably science is taking a hit. Specialists are disappearing, unable to justify funding for their work from research councils, who are, in turn, under pressure to prioritise work with human applications. The diversity of projects is diminishing and the range of organisms being observed is narrowing. Our knowledge base, consequently, is taking a hit.


Recently, the University of Birmingham announced plans to close its teaching programmes in Biological Recording, …"

Fungi-filled forests are critical for endangered orchids

When it comes to conserving the world's orchids, not all forests are equal. In a paper to be published Jan. 25 in the journal Molecular Ecology, Smithsonian ecologists revealed that an orchid's fate hinges on two factors: a forest's age and its fungi.

Roughly 10 percent of all plant species are orchids, making them the largest plant family on Earth. But habitat loss has rendered many threatened or endangered. This is partly due to their intimate relationship with the soil. Orchids depend entirely on microscopic fungi in the early stages of their lives. Without the nutrients orchids obtain by digesting these host fungi, their seeds often will not germinate and baby orchids will not grow. While researchers have known about the orchid-fungus relationship for years, very little is known about what the fungi need to survive.

Melissa K. Mccormick, D. Lee Taylor, Katarina Juhaszova, Robert K. Burnett, Dennis F. Whigham, John P. O’Neill. Limitations on orchid recruitment: not a simple picture. Molecular Ecology, 2012; DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2012.05468.x

Athene Donald on How Hard Do You Work: Women & academic career progression

Career progression and promotion require that you tick all the right boxes when panels scrutinise your CV. If you are trying to optimise your chances of advancing up the greasy pole, this requires that you know what the boxes are and the relative weightings of the different categories of activities that may be under consideration … These issues came up when I visited Leicester University last week … systematically across the country, women still feel they are less aware than men about promotion criteria, less likely to be invited to apply for the next level up and less likely to be appraised, a time when they might learn about how promotion works or ask if the time is right to put in an application. But it isn’t just a question of making sure that women (and men) know the formal rules that matters; they need also to understand what that means and be given advice, over time, about what opportunities they should accept and what it might be less wise to take on.

Outreach activities: women seem to do more. Is this wise? As one one attendee bluntly put it at the Leicester How many school visits equate to one Nature paper? … The suspicion may be, taking a stereotypical view of the ‘average’ female lecturer, that without something approximating a fair workload model, women may be being disadvantaged in ways that lie beneath the surface. If there is no quantification done, if there are no appraisals when the person concerned can vent their frustration with their ever mounting workload, the playing field may be less level than intended.

Do plants smell? Question and answer with an interested grandmother

A while back we got this question from a grandmother, and wanted to share her insightful question and our reply. Feel free to comment or pass along.


"I am Hailey (9) and Jessica (7) grandmother.. After watching the news about “bomb sniffing plants” (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_17210850), the Grandgirls would like to know “Do Plants Smell?” Do Plants Smell? Is there an olfactory-like response in the detection of explosives… like a “bomb sniffing “ dog.. or akin to a fish detecting an odor (‘sharks smell blood”) Now I’m beginning to wonder… is the question “Do Plants Smell” also the experiment??? If so, how would little kids demonstrate the experiment???


Here's our reply:


Hiya Grandmother, What a great question!

The answer of course, Yes, and No.

The sense of smell is fundamentally the ability of a cell to perceive a chemical compound. All cells can do this – from bacteria to human to plant. Cells perceive chemicals in most cases by specific receptor proteins. The types of receptor proteins varies from cell to cell, so bacteria have a different range of chemicals they can perceive than humans or plants do. One way to think of receptors and the chemicals they perceive is like a lock and key – the receptors are similarly structured proteins that are activated only by a very narrow range of chemicals – the key. (In the case of June Medford’s work, she modified a plant chemical receptor so it would detect a different compound than it normally would – kind of like when a locksmith changes the lock on your door so that it fits a new key).


When we smell a chemical (when the chemical binds to its receptor) the receptor sends an electrical impulse through a nerve, which sends a signal to our brain. Like a giant computer, our brain receives that information and evaluates it – some smells (e.g. blood, sour milk) elicit strong negative reactions, whereas others are ignored or trigger positive reactions (baking bread, grandma’s perfume). Our brains are constantly analyzing millions of bits of information at a time. Luckily we’re unaware of most of this activity.


Humans and other mammals have concentrated most of our senses into our head, near our brain (eyes, ears, nose, mouth). We’ve also concentrated our smell receptors into a more complicated structure, with thousands of them packed together into an olfactory system.


Plants (and many animals) on the other hand distribute their sensory systems more broadly. In fact, we are learning that nearly every cell in a plant is capable of perceiving information about light, chemical environment, temperature, wind etc. The receptors that perceive information about chemicals tend to be more abundant in the roots though, because root have the job of taking up nutrients from the soil. The root system constantly explores the soil environment by changing its growth direction, and when it finds a rich source of nutrients concentrates its growth in this region. Plants don’t have nerve cells, which is one of the reasons we think they have a distributed sensory system. Each cell participates in sensing its own environment, and responding appropriately. The cells do communicate with each other though, through a slower hormonal system.


Here's a link to an experiment that illustrates the principle of how plants “smell”. (http://my.aspb.org/resource/group/a9372bf4-9ae4-4d0b-ad0c-595c9dfc3543/12labs/09_defense.pdf

It’s written up as an experiment to look at chemicals in the soil, but particularly chemicals produced by other plants. Many plants secrete chemicals from their roots that inhibit the growth of other plants. Basically they’re trying to drive away any competition for resources. It’s a simple experiment but illustrates the principle that plants monitor their chemical environment through the same process that we do – or, if you like, that plants “smell”.


Hope this helps. It’s great that you are encouraging your granddaughters interest in plants and experiments! They are lucky!

The New Agriculturist

New Agriculturist online at www.new-ag.info  provides an update on the latest news and developments in tropical agriculture for a global audience.


Keeping track of our changing environment and humanity's impact and dependence on natural cycles is a key theme of this edition. A new year also heralds new beginnings as New Agriculturist launches two new sections, supported by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR).

Flower power

Solar power stations take up a lot of room. They need either vast arrays of photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, or of mirrors, which direct it towards a boiler, in order to raise steam and drive a generator. The space these arrays occupy could often be used for other purposes. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have now devised a better and more compact way of laying out arrays of mirrors. Slightly to their chagrin, however, and somehow appropriately, they found when they had done the calculations that sunflowers had got there first.

Fungi joins fight to save trees

Fungi and microscopic worms join forces in the fight against a woodland pest which can decimate newly-planted trees.

Plant Sends Tweets for Water : Dean’s Corner

Can a plant send tweets for water? It is possible, using a "do your own biology" approach….


This could be a social nightmare if you have a passive-aggressive plant. You could go for a night out and end up with tweets like: "Glad @alun bought you a drink @suzy. It's nice to know at least one thing near him isn't thirsty."


hat-tip @arsBiotechnica on Twitter

After 12 million years, plant species at risk of extinction

Prized for their rarity and oddity and their link to the prehistoric age, cycads have become objects of fascination for a cult of hard-core collectors around the world. But poaching by organized criminal syndicates has become so devastating that many African cycad species are threatened with extinction in the wild, forcing officials to consider a ban on their trade and prompting a scientific race to catalogue their DNA so they will be harder to smuggle.