Phytophoenixism

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Friedrich Justin Bertuch, Bilderbuch für Kinder, 1790–1830.
Friedrich Justin Bertuch, Bilderbuch für Kinder, 1790–1830.

In biology, matters are rarely either good or bad; oftentimes they may be both at once (albeit usually for different organisms). Take for instance hydrogen cyanide, which is widely regarded to be rather bad since it is a potent poison that can kill most living things by ‘interfering’ (that’s a euphemism!) with respiration. However, it seems that cyanide also has a good side. Apart from its role in deterring would-be herbivores, Gavin Flematti et al. propose that it may also act as an important stimulus for the germination of some seeds (Nature Communications). The Australia-based group showed that burning plant material produces glyceronitrile (a cyanohydrin), which releases cyanide upon reaction with water. The cyanide in turn stimulates seed germination – maybe via reactive oxygen production (something else that is usually regarded as ‘bad’) – of Anigozanthos manglesii (which rejoices in the common name of kangaroo paw), and a ‘diverse range of fire-responsive species from different continents’. So, if the fire doesn’t kill you, the cyanide might just save you! German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim, ‘What doesn’t destroy us makes us stronger’ comes to mind. Hmm, shades of plant and superplant, maybe? Sticking with this rather incendiary topic, using ‘Bayesian Monte-Carlo–Markov-Chain procedures and calibration points from the fossil record’, Tianhua He and colleagues (New Phytologist) concluded that fire may have been a selective force in the origin of Banksia (one of Australia’s most iconic fire-adapted genera) and continued to have an impact on the direction of evolution of that taxon. Okey-dokey, so much for natural – ‘accidental’ – fires, what about ‘deliberate’ ones? Well, a more general role of anthropogenically induced fire in shaping the development of seed traits has been suggested by Susana Gómez-González and colleagues (PNAS). Studying a native annual forb, Helenium aromaticum (Asteraceae), from the Chilean matorral, they showed that fire – which is a novel, anthropogenic disturbance in that ecosystem – is shaping the evolution of seed traits such as pubescence and shape. Now, if we consider humans to be at least a bit intelligent, and they create fire usually with the assistance of tools that have been designed for that purpose, does this not now prove once-and-for-all that intelligent design and/or creation causes what others describe as evolution? Or am I missing the point here?


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