The New York Botanical Garden is a museum of plants, an educational institution, and a scientific research organization. Founded in 1891 & now a National Historic Landmark, it is one of the greatest botanical gardens in the world. http://www.nybg.org/
Through exploration of the ancestral context of taste, scientists can better understand how modern humans use the sense of taste to make decisions and survive. Evolution has shaped our sense of taste to guide us to seek the food we need to survive, while steering clear of foods harmful to us. It is understandable that early humans who avoided spoiled meat and poisonous berries were able to pass down their genes, giving modern humans the ability to avoid them too. But what explains the countless humans who voluntarily consume, and even enjoy, some bitter foods? Why do we eat bitter greens? Brussels sprouts? Hoppy beers? Why do we tolerate some bitter flavors and not others? Read more…
Think you’re the end game for genetic complexity? I can’t blame you for venturing the guess, but no dice—even a lowly moss appears to beat us out at that one.
Compared to Homo sapiens, the moss Physcomitrella’s taking top honors with about 10,000 more genes than the human genome, which only tops out at just over 20,000. With its 32,000 genes, Physcomitrella’s “flagship genome”—as scientists are calling it—is now offering science hope for coping with global challenges brought on by climate change, from crop yields to drought tolerance and biofuel production.
The study of genetics is complicated enough without duplication to worry about. In the majority of animal species, an instance of polyploidy—or duplicate copies of the same DNA—is a death knell. Embryos with too much of the stuff simply don’t make it, and in the rare species that they do, anatomical errors aren’t uncommon. But not so for plants!
In plants polyploidy seems more an effective tool for speciation than an error. It’s estimated that more than half of flowering plants are polyploid, and nearly all ferns for that matter. In food grasses like rice and wheat, polyploidy appears responsible for more production of, well, the food part of that equation.
It is the first time scientists have decoded the genome of a plant pathogen and its plant host from dried herbarium samples. This opens up a new area of research to understand how pathogens evolve and how human activity impacts the spread of plant disease.
Phytophthora infestans changed the course of history. Even today, the Irish population has still not recovered to pre-famine levels. “We have finally discovered the identity of the exact strain that caused all this havoc”, says Hernán Burbano from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology.
For research to be published in eLife, a team of molecular biologists from Europe and the US reconstructed the spread of the potato blight pathogen from dried plants. Although these were 170 to 120 years old, they were found to have many intact pieces of DNA.
“Herbaria represent a rich and untapped source from which we can learn a tremendous amount about the historical distribution of plants and their pests - and also about the history of the people who grew these plants,” according to Kentaro Yoshida from The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich.
Herbarium specimens are used to describe new species and to determine species relationships. Technology is having a huge impact on herbaria, including genomics which is helping to sort out some sticky cladistic situations. And now, herbaria are providing fascinating new research materials for geneticists and historians working on the history of agriculture, disease, and human migration. Seriously good stuff. ~AR
The findings suggest junk DNA really isn’t needed for healthy plants — and that may also hold for other organisms.
Sometimes junk really is just junk. For years, geneticists have tried to determine whether the vast majority of an organism’s DNA—an assortment of so-called junk DNA that seems to serve no purpose—does indeed serve a purpose. Now, thanks to a study published in the journal Nature analyzing the genome of the carnivorous bladderwort, Utricularia gibba, researchers look set to declare the adage true. Far from playing some crucial and mysterious role in the well-being of the plant, it looks like junk DNA really is just junk.
The mystery remains however as to why some organisms have fairly bloated genomes while others have svelte, relatively junk-free ones. Research is, much like a bladderwort, a living process, so it’s entirely possible that new studies will reverse this one in due time. It’s one of the things that makes science exciting, isn’t it? ~AR
Where did the study of genetics begin? In the garden of course! In Gregor Mendel’s garden to be exact. You should remember this from high school biology class, but just in case you don’t, this little video should help refresh your memory. Man, I loved filling out Punnett squares in college! Kind of like Sodoku for science nerds … ~AR
How Mendel’s Pea Plants Helped Us Understand Genetics (now with working video!)
TED Ed takes a look back at Gregor the Monk’s pioneering genetics experiments featuring the humble pea plant. When you remember that he figured all of this out before we had even discovered DNA or the molecular idea of a gene, it’s even more amazing.
American Chestnut trees likes these used to dominate forests in the eastern US. Now they are all but extinct, due to a fungal blight. Carl Zimmer discusses the possibilities for saving them, which are unusual in that they involve changing what the American Chestnut is. The best way to save the Chestnut, conservationists have decided, is through altering its genetic make-up, either through inter-breeding with the Asian Chestnut, or inserting genes through genetic modification.
It’s possible you saw a story last year about how the American Chestnut was being reintroduced at the Garden and wondered what was going on. Now, Carl Zimmer lays it out in the best article I have seen on the topic, well … ever. Thank you Carl for so clearly explaining an unusually complex problem! ~AR
Epigenetics have been in the news a lot. Basically, epigenetics are a newly understood genetic layer that sits on top (epi from the Greek for “on top of”) of the familiar genetic sequence of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs. Epigenetic changes do not lead to permanent changes in an individual’s DNA, but they can be powerful, and may be reversible. Joseph Ecker, a plant biologist at the Salk Institute thinks that epigenetics might be one way for plants to deal with possible effects of climate change. He also thinks that epigenetic changes may be able to help reintroduce diversity into plant species that have had diversity bred out of them through decades of intense homogenization. ~AR
Cloning among plants in nature is actually a pretty common phenomenon, as in the case of the oldest living plant on Earth (thus far). But when it comes to cloning in the lab, there are a number of motivations that can come into play. The Archangel Archive just happens to be doing it for all the right reasons.
With preservation and propagation in mind, nurseryman David Milarch aims to create a library of tree DNA to preserve the world’s many species. And none too soon, considering the rate at which deforestation, development, and climate change are taking out our tall green friends. But getting this genetic info means trekking around the world, often climbing four stories to get the freshest samples from the top of a given tree. Click through for more on how Milarch’s plans to protect diversity for future generations is playing out. —MN
A bit of evolutionary history is being made in Scotland, where a new species of fertile, hybrid flower has been described. Mimulus peregrines, aka “the wanderer,” is a hybrid of two species commonly known as monkey flowers that have combined. And because of a clever genetic trick, these new flowers are fertile in the second generation (this is uncommon; especially in mammals where mules, ligers, and other hybrid offspring are not capable of reproduction). The monkey flowers were brought to the United Kingdom from the United States and South America by the Victorians, and soon escaped the confines of gardens to flourish in the wild, and apparently to make new species. ~AR
Scientists at the American Museum of Natural History, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, The New York Botanical Garden, and New York University have created the largest genome-based tree of life for seed plants to date.
"This study resolves the long-standing problem of producing an unequivocal evolutionary tree of the seed plants," said Dennis Stevenson, vice president for laboratory research at The New York Botanical Garden. "We can then use this information to determine when and where important adaptations occur and how they relate to plant diversification. We also can examine the evolution of such features as drought tolerance, disease resistance, or crop yields that sustain human life through improved agriculture."
Fascinating and scary essay from Harvey Cotten of the Huntsville Botanical Garden on Triadica sebifera, also known as the Chinese tallow tree, the popcorn tree, the Florida aspen, and the chicken tree (and previously known as Sapium sebiferum). Regardless of what you call it, Triadica sebifera is highly invasive, and for many years it’s introduction to the United States has been placed squarely on the shoulders of Benjamin Franklin! But modern genetic testing has vindicated Franklin, and the mystery of this nuisance tree’s arrival (and domination) of the southern United States remains a mystery.
This is so cool! Three high school kids used DNA extraction technology that they bought on the internet to analyze the content of 25 teas purchased around New York City. They then sent some of the samples to the lab here at The New York Botanical Garden! The results are fascinating and important. Go kids!