Posts about plants

Open Source Seeds

I find the current status of government granted patents to be very flawed, including patenting life.

Plant Breeders Release First ‘Open Source Seeds’

A group of scientists and food activists is launching a campaign Thursday to change the rules that govern seeds. They’re releasing 29 new varieties of crops under a new “open source pledge” that’s intended to safeguard the ability of farmers, gardeners and plant breeders to share those seeds freely.

Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, helped organize the campaign. It’s an attempt to restore the practice of open sharing that was the rule among plant breeders when he entered the profession more than 20 years ago.

Good for them. This needs to be supported. The crazy practices of seed companies shouldn’t be legal but they pay lots of cash to politicians and the corrupt politicians (which seems to be an awful lot of them) write bad policy and encourage bad regulation.

Even those administrators taking control of universities have subjugated the search for knowledge and improvement to seek monetary gain instead of what the universities used to prioritize. It is a shame and those that have distorted universities so much should be ashamed.

Initial efforts that lead to the bad place we find universities in now were to promote the adoption of university research. To do so they partnered with business in sensible ways. Then administrators saw money was being made and turned the priority into making money and if that meant restricting the benefits to society of university research so be it. This has created universities that have lost ethical foundations and have destroyed a big part of the value universities used to provide society.

Related: Open-Source Biotech (2006)Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Prevent Research (2009)The A to Z Guide to Political Interference in ScienceArduino: Open Source Programmable HardwareMoney Is Corrupting Our Political Process

Refusal to Follow Scientific Guidance Results in Worms Evolving to Eat Corn Designed to Kill The Worms

An understanding of natural selection and evolution is fundamental to understanding science, biology, human health and life. Scientists create wonderful products to improve our lives: vaccines, antibiotics, etc.; if we don’t use them or misuse them it is a great loss to society.

There is also great value in genetic enhanced seeds and thus plants (through natural human aided processes such as breeding and providing good genetic material over a wide area – distances that would not be covered naturally, at least not in a time that helps us much). Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO) food, in which we tinker with the genes directly also holds great promise but has risks, especially if we forget basic scientific principles such as biodiversity.

Voracious Worm Evolves to Eat Biotech Corn Engineered to Kill It

First planted in 1996, Bt corn quickly became hugely popular among U.S. farmers. Within a few years, populations of rootworms and corn borers, another common corn pest, had plummeted across the midwest. Yields rose and farmers reduced their use of conventional insecticides that cause more ecological damage than the Bt toxin.

By the turn of the millennium, however, scientists who study the evolution of insecticide resistance were warning of imminent problems. Any rootworm that could survive Bt exposures would have a wide-open field in which to reproduce; unless the crop was carefully managed, resistance would quickly emerge.

Key to effective management, said the scientists, were refuges set aside and planted with non-Bt corn. Within these fields, rootworms would remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. By mating with any Bt-resistant worms that chanced to evolve in neighboring fields, they’d prevent resistance from building up in the gene pool.

But the scientists’ own recommendations — an advisory panel convened in 2002 by the EPA suggested that a full 50 percent of each corn farmer’s fields be devoted to these non-Bt refuges — were resisted by seed companies and eventually the EPA itself, which set voluntary refuge guidelines at between 5 and 20 percent. Many farmers didn’t even follow those recommendations.

Using extremely powerful tools like GMO requires society to have much better scientific literacy among those making decisions than any societies have shown thus far. The failure of our governments to enforce sensible scientific constraints on such use of genetic engineering creates huge risks to society. It is due to this consistent failure of our government to act within sensible scientific constraints that causes me to support efforts (along with other reasons – economic understanding – the extremely poor state of patent system, risk reduction…) to resist the widespread adoption of GMO, patenting of life (including seeds and seeds produced by seeds).

Wonderful things are possible. If we grow up and show a long term track record of being guided by scientific principles when the risks of not doing so are huge then I will be more supportive of using tactics such as GMO more easily. But I don’t see us getting their anytime soon. If anything we are much less scietifically minded and guided than we were 50 years ago: even while we bask in the glorious wonders science has brought us on a daily basis.

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Another Bee Study Finds CCD is Likely Due to Combination of Factors Including Pesticides

Abstract of open access science paper funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Crop Pollination Exposes Honey Bees to Pesticides Which Alters Their Susceptibility to the Gut Pathogen Nosema ceranae:

Recent declines in honey bee populations and increasing demand for insect-pollinated crops raise concerns about pollinator shortages. Pesticide exposure and pathogens may interact to have strong negative effects on managed honey bee colonies. Such findings are of great concern given the large numbers and high levels of pesticides found in honey bee colonies. Thus it is crucial to determine how field-relevant combinations and loads of pesticides affect bee health.

We collected pollen from bee hives in seven major crops to determine 1) what types of pesticides bees are exposed to when rented for pollination of various crops and 2) how field-relevant pesticide blends affect bees’ susceptibility to the gut parasite Nosema ceranae. Our samples represent pollen collected by foragers for use by the colony, and do not necessarily indicate foragers’ roles as pollinators. In blueberry, cranberry, cucumber, pumpkin and watermelon bees collected pollen almost exclusively from weeds and wildflowers during our sampling.

Thus more attention must be paid to how honey bees are exposed to pesticides outside of the field in which they are placed. We detected 35 different pesticides in the sampled pollen, and found high fungicide loads. The insecticides esfenvalerate and phosmet were at a concentration higher than their median lethal dose in at least one pollen sample. While fungicides are typically seen as fairly safe for honey bees, we found an increased probability of Nosema infection in bees that consumed pollen with a higher fungicide load.

Our results highlight a need for research on sub-lethal effects of fungicides and other chemicals that bees placed in an agricultural setting are exposed to.

The attempts to discover the main causes of bee colony deaths and find solutions continues to prove difficult years after the problems became major. The complex interaction of many variables makes it difficult. And special interest groups pushing pesticides and the like, which have seemed to be major contributors to the problem for years, make it even more difficult (by preventing restrictions on potentially damaging pesticide use).

The challenges in determining what is killing bees are similar to the challenges of discovering what practices are damaging human health. The success of studying complex biological interactions (to discover threats to human health) is extremely limited. I am concerned we are far too caviler about using large numbers of interventions (drugs, pesticides, massive antibiotics use in factory farms, pollution…).

Related: Europe Bans Certain Pesticides, USA Just Keeps Looking, Bees Keep DyingGermany Bans Chemicals Linked to Bee Deaths (2008)Virus Found to be One Likely Factor in Bee Colony Colapse Disorder (2007)Study of the Colony Collapse Disorder Continues as Bee Colonies Continue to Disappear

Go Slow with Genetically Modified Food

My thoughts on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), specifically GM foods, basically boil down to:

  • messing with genes could create problems
  • we tend to (and especially those seeking to gain an advantage tend to – even if “we” overall wouldn’t the people in the position to take aggressive measures do) ignore risks until the problems are created (often huge costs at that point)
  • I think we should reduce risk and therefore make it hard to justify using GMO techniques
  • I agree occasionally we should do so, like it seems with oranges and bananas.
  • I agree the practice can be explained in a way that makes it seem like there is no (or nearly no) risk, I don’t trust we will always refrain from stepping into an area where there is a very bad result

Basically I would suggest being very cautious with GMO. I like science and technology but I think we often implement things poorly. I think we are not being cautious enough now, and should reduce the use of GMO to critical needs to society (patents on the practices need to be carefully studied and perhaps not permitted – the whole patent system is so broken now that it should be questioned at every turn).

Antibiotic misuse and massive overuse is an obvious example. We have doctors practicing completely unjustified misuse of antibiotics and harming society and we have factory farms massively overusing antibiotics causing society harm.

The way we casually use drugs is another example of our failure to sensibly manage risks, in my opinion. This of course is greatly pushed by those making money on getting us to use more drugs – drug companies and doctors paid by those companies. The right drugs are wonderful. But powerful drugs almost always have powerful side effects (at least in a significant number of people) and those risks are multiplied the more we take (due to interactions, weakness created by one being overwhelmed by the next etc.). We should be much more cautious but again we show evidence of failing to act cautiously which adds to my concern for using GMO.

I love antibiotics, but the way we are using them is endangering millions of lives (that is a bad thing). I don’t trust us to use science wisely and safely. We need to more consciously put barriers in place to provent us creating massively problems.

Related: Research on Wheat RustThe AvocadoOverfishing, another example of us failing to effectively cope with systemic consequences

Rubber Trees

I think rubber trees are pretty cool, dripping out nice latex is just neat.

photo of rubber trees

Photo of rubber trees in Khao Lak, Thailand

Latex is collected from trees which is then treated to make rubber. Hevea brasiliensis (originally found the Amazon basin in Brazil), the Pará rubber tree, sharinga tree, or, most commonly, the rubber tree, is a tree belonging to the family Euphorbiaceae. Gutta-percha (Palaquium) is a genus of tropical trees native to Southeast Asia. The milky latex extracted from the trees is the primary source of natural rubber. Now refining petroleum is an alternative way for creating products that required rubber previously, but rubber is still economically important.

In 1876, Henry Wickham gathered thousands of para rubber tree seeds from Brazil, and these were germinated in Kew Gardens, England. The seedlings were then sent to India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Indonesia, Singapore and British Malaya (now Malaysia). Malaya was later to become the biggest producer of rubber. In the early 1900s, the Congo, Liberia and Nigeria also became significant producers of natural rubber latex.

photo of a rubber tree seed

Rubber tree seed from near Fraser’s Hill, Malaysia, by John Hunter.

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Europe Bans Certain Pesticides, USA Just Keeps Looking, Bees Keep Dying

For years the bee colony collapse disorder has been showing the difficulty of the scientific inquiry process. And that difficulty often becomes more difficult if interests with lots of money at stake want to block certain conclusions.

One-Third of U.S. Honeybee Colonies Died Last Winter, Threatening Food Supply

Multiple factors — pesticides, fungicides, parasites, viruses and malnutrition — are believed to cause the losses, which were officially announced today by a consortium of academic researchers, beekeepers and Department of Agriculture scientists.

“We’re getting closer and closer to the point where we don’t have enough bees in this country to meet pollination demands,” said entomologist Dennis vanEngelstorp of the University of Maryland, who led the survey documenting the declines.

Beekeepers lost 31 percent of their colonies in late 2012 and early 2013, roughly double what’s considered acceptable attrition through natural causes. The losses are in keeping with rates documented since 2006, when beekeeper concerns prompted the first nationwide survey of honeybee health. Hopes raised by drop in rates of loss to 22 percent in 2011-2012 were wiped out by the new numbers.

Most losses reported in the latest survey, however, don’t actually fit the CCD profile. And though CCD is largely undocumented in western Europe, honeybee losses there have also been dramatic. In fact, CCD seems to be declining, even as total losses mount. The honeybees are simply dying.

“Even if CCD went away, we’d still have tremendous losses,” said entomologist Diana Cox-Foster at Pennsylvania State University. “CCD losses are like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The system has many other issues.”

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The Wonderful Coconut

One of the treats of living in a tropical climate is drinking coconut water. I love drinking the water from fresh coconuts. This video provides insight into the many uses of all parts of the coconut tree.

The Truth About Coconut Water by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD – WebMD

[coconut water] has fewer calories, less sodium, and more potassium than a sports drink. Ounce per ounce, most unflavored coconut water contains 5.45 calories, 1.3 grams sugar, 61 milligrams (mg) of potassium, and 5.45 mg of sodium compared to Gatorade, which has 6.25 calories, 1.75 grams of sugar, 3.75 mg of potassium, and 13.75 mg of sodium.

There are some health benefits to consuming coconut water. It’s an all-natural way to hydrate, reduce sodium, and add potassium to diets. Most Americans don’t get enough potassium in their diets because they don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables, or dairy, so coconut water can help fill in the nutritional gaps.

Beyond that, the scientific literature does not support the hype that it will help with a laundry list of diseases. “There is a lot of hype about coconut water, yet the research is just not there to support many of the claims and much more research is needed,” says Cheung.

I have tried bottled coconut water which was pitiful. I don’t know if that was just a bad type and good options exist or the fresh stuff is just much much better. But I’ll stick to fresh coconut water as long as I can.

Related: Does Diet Soda Result in Weight Gain?Can You Effectively Burn Calories by Drinking Cold Water?How do Plants Grow Into the Sunlight?Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

A single spot in the Sahara that provides huge amounts of nutrients to the Amazon

The Bodélé depression: a single spot in the Sahara that provides most of the mineral dust to the Amazon forest

About 40 million tons of dust are transported annually from the Sahara to the Amazon basin. Saharan dust has been proposed to be the main mineral source that fertilizes the Amazon basin, generating a dependence of the health and productivity of the rain forest on dust supply from the Sahara. Here we show that about half of the annual dust supply to the Amazon basin is emitted from a single source: the Bodélé depression located northeast of Lake Chad, approximately 0.5% of the size of the Amazon or 0.2% of the Sahara. Placed in a narrow path between two mountain chains that direct and accelerate the surface winds over the depression, the Bodélé emits dust on 40% of the winter days, averaging more than 0.7 million tons of dust per day.

Even understanding how connected the global ecosystem is, research like this provides amazing reminders of those connections.

Related: The Amazon Rainforest Would Not Be Without Saharan Dust (podcast interview)Ancient Whale Uncovered in Egyptian DesertNigersaurusThe Sahara Wasn’t Always a DesertElusive Saharan cheetah and Sandcat

How do Plants Grow Into the Sunlight?

Plants are extremely competitive in gaining access to sunlight. A plant’s primary weapon in this fight is the ability to grow towards the light, getting just the amount it needs and shadowing its competition. Now, scientists have determined precisely how leaves tell stems to grow when a plant is caught in a shady place.

photo of a forest

Hole in the Wall trail, Olympic National Park, Washington, USA by John Hunter

The researchers discovered that a protein known as phytochrome interacting factor 7 (PIF7) serves as the key messenger between a plant’s cellular light sensors and the production of auxins, hormones that stimulate stem growth.

“We knew how leaves sensed light and that auxins drove growth, but we didn’t understand the pathway that connected these two fundamental systems,” says Joanne Chory, professor and director of the Salk’s Plant Biology Laboratory and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator (HHMI provides huge amounts of funding for scientific research). “Now that we know PIF7 is the relay, we have a new tool to develop crops that optimize field space and thus produce more food or feedstock for biofuels and biorenewable chemicals.”

Plants gather intelligence about their light situation—including whether they are surrounded by other light-thieving plants—through photosensitive molecules in their leaves. These sensors determine whether a plant is in full sunlight or in the shade of other plants, based on the wavelength of red light striking the leaves. This is pretty cool; I love to learn about the brilliant strategies that have evolved.

If a sun-loving plant, such as thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), the species Chory studies, finds itself in a shady place, the sensors will tell cells in the stem to elongate, causing the plant to grow upwards towards sunlight.

When a plant remains in the shade for a prolonged period, however, it may flower early and produce fewer seeds in a last ditch effort to help its offspring spread to sunnier real estate. In agriculture, this response, known as shade avoidance syndrome, results in loss of crop yield due to closely planted rows of plants that block each other’s light.

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Flavonoids Reduce Instances of Parkinson’s Disease in Men

Men who eat flavonoid-rich foods such as berries, tea, apples and red wine significantly reduce their risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, according to new research by Harvard University and the University of East Anglia.

The findings add to the growing body of evidence that regular consumption of some flavonoids can have a marked effect on human health. Recent studies have shown that these compounds can offer protection against a wide range of diseases including heart disease, hypertension, some cancers and dementia.

This latest study is the first study in humans to show that flavonoids can protect neurons against diseases of the brain such as Parkinson’s.

Around 130,000 men and women took part in the research. More than 800 had developed Parkinson’s disease within 20 years of follow-up. After a detailed analysis of their diets and adjusting for age and lifestyle, male participants who ate the most flavonoids were shown to be 40 per cent less likely to develop the disease than those who ate the least. No similar link was found for total flavonoid intake in women.

“These exciting findings provide further confirmation that regular consumption of flavonoids can have potential health benefits,” said Prof Aedin Cassidy of the Department of Nutrition, Norwich Medical School at UEA.

“This is the first study in humans to look at the associations between the range of flavonoids in the diet and the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and our findings suggest that a sub-class of flavonoids called anthocyanins may have neuroprotective effects.”

Prof Gao said: “Interestingly, anthocyanins and berry fruits, which are rich in anthocyanins, seem to be associated with a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease in pooled analyses. Participants who consumed one or more portions of berry fruits each week were around 25 per cent less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease, relative to those who did not eat berry fruits. Given the other potential health effects of berry fruits, such as lowering risk of hypertension as reported in our previous studies, it is good to regularly add these fruits to your diet.”

Flavonoids are a group of naturally occurring, bioactive compounds found in many plant-based foods and drinks. In this study the main protective effect was from higher intake of anthocyanins, which are present in berries and other fruits and vegetables including aubergines, blackcurrants and blackberries. Those who consumed the most anthocyanins had a 24% reduction in risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

The findings must now be confirmed by other large epidemiological studies and clinical trials.

Parkinson’s disease is a progresssive neurological condition affecting one in 500 people. There are few effective drug therapies available.

The result is far from conclusive and even if the result were confirmed the 24% reduction is hardly huge. But since berries are yummy there seem little reason to not tilt toward more berries in your diet.

Related: Full press releaseThe Beneficial Phytochemicals in Vegetables Help Us Lead Healthy LivesBlack Raspberries Alter Hundreds of Genes and Slow Cancer

Photosynthesis: Science Explained

Another very good webcast on a science topic from Crash Course. It is packed with info, thankfully you can pause and rewind as much as you need. Well normally you can, YouTube decided to not let me do that just now :-(

Related: Exploring Eukaryotic CellsScience Summary: PhotosynthesisTen Things Everyone Should Know About ScienceGamers Use Foldit to Solve Enzyme Configuration in 3 Weeks That Stumped Scientists for Over a Decade

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