How do you get a tree that produces six or seven different fruits? Grafting, of course.
The process of getting a cutting of one plant to grow on the base of another, grafting is usually used in much more mundane contexts: it’s what lets farmers grow clones of an orange tree, say, with particularly succulent fruit, for decades after the original tree dies. The vast majority of the fruit we eat comes from such clones, since letting the tree mix its genes with another might produce a totally different fruit, much less marketable than the original.
But making a tree that fruits oranges, limes, and lemons all at the same time—now that’s a work of art. At Scientific American’s Brainwaves blog, Ferris Jabr explains how such fruit salad trees, also called fruit cocktail trees, work, and points readers in the direction of a purveyor of such wonders:
The state of our forests is troubled, but maybe on the mend.
The United Nations, as part of its effort to brand 2011 the International Year of Forests, released an assessment this week about forest extent, and quality, all around the world. First, the good news: Forest destruction is slowing down, according to assistant director general Eduardo Rojas-Briales of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The 4.032 billion hectares (9.9 billion acres) of forests in the world in 2010 is down from an estimated 4.085 billion in 2000, said the FAO. But the speed at which which trees are being cut down is slowing from 8.3 million hectares a year in 1990-2000 to 5.2 million in the past decade. “There are evident signs that we could arrive at a balance in a few years,” said Rojas-Briales, adding that the deforestation rate was 50 million hectares a year 30 years ago. [AFP]
Asian countries have achieved particularly impressive results, with many adding to their total of forested territory.
“China has increased its forest by three million hectares (30,000 sq km) per year – no country has ever done anything like this before, it’s an enormous contribution,” said … Rojas-Briales. “But we can also highlight the case of Vietnam, a small and densely populated country that’s implemented very smart and comprehensive forest reform – or India, which has not controlled its population as China has and where standards of living are even lower. Nevertheless India has achieved a modest growth of its forest area.” [BBC News]
But the world is not out of the woods, so to speak, in bringing back the forest health of old.
Shrink a grape, and you get a raisin. Shrink the grape genetic tree, and you get a looming disaster for oenophiles. That’s according to scientists who discovered that our cultivated wine grapes are more closely related than previously thought.
Sean Myles, a researcher at Stanford University, created a gene chip for common grape cultivars using genomes from the Department of Agriculture. In his study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he reveals that 75 percent of our 583 kinds of cultivated grapes are either parents, children, or siblings of each other.
“Previously people thought there were several different families of grape,” Dr. Myles said. “Now we’ve found that all those families are interconnected and in essence there’s just one large family.” [New York Times]
In this grape-world equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show, wines like merlot, pinot noir, and chardonnay are all interrelated in one big incestuous mash-up. And it’s the cultivators who are partly to blame.
The reason is obvious in retrospect. Vines can be propagated by breaking off a shoot and sticking it in the ground, or onto existing rootstock. The method gives uniform crops, and most growers have evidently used it for thousands of years…. The result is that cultivated grapes remain closely related to wild grapes, apart from a few improvements in berry size and sugar content, and a bunch of new colors favored by plant breeders. [New York Times]
Humans didn’t begin major agriculture until about 10,000 years ago. But 20,000 years before that they were grinding their own flour, a new study (in press) suggests, adding more proof that our forebears were eating the beginnings of a more balanced diet while still roving as hunter-gatherers.
Anna Revedin’s team says in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they found traces evidence of flour still stuck in 30,000-year-old stones the team found in Russia, Italy, and the Czech Republic.
The flour, likely suitable for making flatbread or cakes, didn’t just give stone age people some dinnertime variety. Because it could be stored in dried form, flour would have given them greater independence from environmental and seasonal circumstance. [Wired.com]
The stones themselves appear to have been shaped for grinding, like an archaic mortar and pestle.
It’s the most delicious genetic breakthrough yet. A consortium led by Mars Inc., the company behind such treats as M&Ms and Snickers, has announced the rough draft of the cacao tree’s genome, and researchers say the information could lead to improvements in the chocolate supply.
While the scientists are just beginning to analyze the genome, understanding the tree’s innermost workings could lead to breeding programs for drought- or disease-resistant varieties, or even for trees that produce tastier or healthier cocoa. The consortium has put the data online at the Cacao Genome Database for use by any and all.
The tree, known officially as Theobroma cacao (meaning “food of the gods”), contains about 420 million DNA units, represented by the letters A, C, G and T. That is fairly small for a plant. The human genome has about three billion units. [New York Times]
It’s a classic David and Goliath story, except there are 90,000 Davids and they all have stings. On the African plains, the whistling-thorn acacia tree protects itself against the mightiest of savannah animals – elephants – by recruiting some of the tiniest – ants.
Elephants are strong enough to bulldoze entire trees and you might think that there can be no defence against such brute strength. But an elephant’s large size and tough hide afford little protection from a mass attack by tiny ants. These defenders can bite and sting the thinnest layers of skin, the eyes, and even the inside of the sensitive trunk. Jacob Goheen and Todd Palmer from Kenya’s Mpala Research Centre have found that ants are such a potent deterrent that their presence on a tree is enough to put off an elephant.
80beats: Parasite-Infested Zombie Ants Walked the Earth 48 Million Years Ago
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Image: flickr / ebrelsford
If you’re a tobacco hornworm caterpillar, your own spit can come back to bite you: That plant you tried to eat for dinner can use your own saliva to summon larger animals that might like to make you their dinner.
When a leaf is wounded, plants immediately release a “bouquet” of distress chemicals known as green leaf volatiles (GLVs) into the air. GLVs are formed when long fatty acid chains in the cell membranes are chopped up into six-carbon molecules as a result of damage. These molecules can exist in two different shapes, or isomers, depending on the position of a double bond between two of the carbons [The Scientist].
After mashing up rock and algae chunks known as stromatolites, researchers have found a new type of chlorophyll, the pigment in plants that takes in light and provides energy for photosynthesis. Unlike its known cousins, this chlorophyll uses infrared light–that’s a surprise to some researchers, who doubted that lower frequency infrared had enough energy to split water for photosynthesis’s oxygen-creation.
“Nobody thought that oxygen-generating organisms were capable of using infrared light… ,” says Samuel Beale, a molecular biologist at Brown University whose work centers in part on chlorophylls [but who was not involved with the study]. “I think what they found here is a new modification of chlorophyll that shows the flexibility of photosynthetic organisms to use whatever light is available.” [Scientific American]
Last week, we described the plight of the Russian Pavlovsk Experimental Station: Plans for a housing complex threaten some 5,000 rare plants, including varieties found nowhere else on the planet. A court judgment last week meant that only the president or prime minister could save the plants, which scientists said would take years to relocate. Now government telegrams and a presidential tweet hint that the plants might have a chance.
Twitter campaigns and a petition led by The Global Crop Diversity Trust appear to have caught the attention of the Russian Civic Chamber which monitors parliament and the government. As The Guardian reports, the Civic Chamber sent a telegram to President Dimitry Medvedev to request a protective appeal and Medvedev updated the world via Twitter:
[N]umerous supporters of the research station have made their feelings felt on Twitter (using the #pavlovsk hashtag). On Friday, following a week of lobbying Medvedev tweeted back: “Received the Civic Chamber’s appeal over the Pavlov Experimental Station. Gave the instruction for this issue to be scrutinised.” [The Guardian]
The outcome of the Medvedev-ordered investigation is far from certain, but advocates for the botanical gene bank have promised to keep up the pressure and say they hope Pavlovsk station will yet be saved. For all the details on the station and its valuable collection, check out Andrew Moseman’s previous 80beats post.
80beat: “Living Library” of Fruit Plants May Fall to Russian Bulldozers
DISCOVER: The Numbers on Seeds, From the Largest to the Oldest to the Safest
DISCOVER: The “Doomsday Vault” Stores Seeds for a Global Agricultural Reboot
DISCOVER: The Banks That Prevent–Rather Than Cause–Global Crises
DISCOVER: Beautiful Images of Strange Fruits (photo gallery)
Image: Wikimedia Commons (N.I. Vavilov, institute founder)
The Pavlovsk Experimental Station, near St. Petersburg, Russia, was founded in the 1920s. About 90 percent of the plants grown there occur nowhere else, making the collection an island of agricultural biodiversity. And the station soon may be knocked over to make way for a housing development.
The station’s operators at the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry lost a court ruling this week, so the land upon which all those plants sit will be given to the Russian Housing Development Foundation. The plant scientists bought themselves an extra month with an instant appeal, but the situation looks grim.
“We expected to lose,” agrees Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, who has spent months campaigning against the station’s destruction. “Our real hope lies with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, who could both override the decision of the courts. At least the higher appeal will give us time to mobilize more people and hopefully get through the gates of the Kremlin,” he adds [Nature].