Plants in the News, September 4 2015

Welcome to Episode 4 of our weekly feature, Plants in the News. These stories are selected to provide educators with interesting and accessible news from the world of plant science. Although some of the stories we feature are based on articles with restricted access, we also provide links to news summaries that are available without restrictions. If you have a timely suggestion for this Friday feature, let us know during the week and maybe your story will be included!


It’s official: Three trillion trees top our world

A new paper out in Nature uses a variety of methods to get the most complete estimate yet of the number of trees on earth. You’ll find 46% of those trees in tropical/subtropical forests, 24% in boreal regions and the remaining 20% in temperate regions. The objective of the survey is to enable better tree management, starting with a couple of sobering facts: “Over 15 billion trees are cut down each year, and the global number of trees has fallen by approximately 46% since the start of human civilization.” Here’s a nice summary of it in the Conversation and also a nice video animation. Crowther et al., (2015) Mapping tree density at a global scale. Nature. (In press). doi:10.1038/nature14967.

 Teaching? Check out great resources for plant science!

Kids learn best when they are actively involved, and there is no better way to teach about plants than through hands-on activities and experiments. The American Society of Plant Biologists and others have developed resources to support teachers teaching plant science. Here are a few resources: Inquiry-based activities for the 12 principles of plant biology (ASPB-developed hands-on activities for ages 10 – 13); (teams of children carrying out projects of their own design are partnered with scientist mentors); Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS; curated practicals, teaching guides and videos to support plant science inquiry in schools); Fast Plants (protocols and materials for a wide-variety of plant science and genetic explorations); It’s All in the Touch (learning about plant biology with hands-on activities, for ages 10 – 13, from UC Berkeley).

 Continuing success with climate-adapted “push-pull” system of agriculture

In “There’s a new sustainable ag technique in town, and it’s cleaning up,“ Grist author Nathanael Johnson highlights the latest results from the push-pull agricultural system, published by Midega et al., in Field Crops Research. Push-pull uses companion cropping to “push” insect pests away from maize crops (by the repellent nature of desmodium), and “pull” the pests towards a more attractive plant, Napier grass. Desmodium also suppress striga, a parasitic weed that is a chronic problem in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The original push-pull system was only successful in wetter regions, but now drought-resistant plants have been identified that confer the benefits of push-pull even in dry regions and up to three-fold improvements in crop yields. And if you don’t think that’s exciting, read the article; this advance can mean the difference between success and failure to struggling farmers in Africa. Midega, C.A.O., Bruce, T.J.A., Pickett, J.A., Pittchar, J.O., Murage, A. and Khan, Z.R. (2015). Climate-adapted companion cropping increases agricultural productivity in East Africa. Field Crops Research. 180: 118-125.

Ants as tools in sustainable agriculture

You’re probably familiar with the interesting mutualism between ants and myrmecophytes (“ant plants”), in which the plant provides nectar and domatia, (little shelters for the ants) and the ants protect the plant from herbivores (here and here are clips showing the defending ants). A new review article by Joachim Offenberg describes how farmers are harnessing the power of ants to protect their crops from herbivory; a nice example of how lessons from nature can be applied towards sustainable food production. Elizabeth Pennisi summarizes this work in Science News, and Lyndsey Gilpin in Grist. Offenberg, J. (2015). Ants as tools in sustainable agriculture. J. Applied Ecology. In Press. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.12496

History: A celebration of Julius Sachs’ ground-breaking work

One hundred and fifty years ago, in October 1865, Julius Sachs published “Handbuch der Experimental-Physiologie der Pflanzen”, also known as “Experimental Physiology of Plants”. Read about Sachs’ ground-breaking exploration of plant physiology in this essay by Ulrich Kutschera, published by Nature Plants, and read Sachs’ work online courtesy of the BioDiversity Heritage Library here. Kutschera, U. (2015). 150 years of an integrative plant physiology. Nature Plants. 1: 15131.

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