Shanon Trueman

The Family Tree of Plants

Sunday September 1, 2013
More than likely, you had to make your family tree for a classroom project. You probably had branches containing your parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and maybe even relatives from earlier generations.

The family tree of a certain plant group is what the science of plant systematics tries to elucidate. You may know or at least have heard of your ancestors; plants can't communicate as to who their ancestors are, except for through their genetics or through their morphology.

Find out more about how plants make their own family trees.

Photo: Keith Weller, USDA-ARS.

The Six Day Life Cycle of Arabidopsis

Sunday September 1, 2013
Imagine if your entire life cycle - from childhood to adulthood to old age - took only six days. You have SIX days to do everything you need to do before your life is over. What would you do?

Well, Arabidopsis thaliana accomplishes quite a bit in the six days of its life cycle. It grows leaves, produces lovely, tiny white flowers, and produces fruits containing many seeds for the next generation. It also is one of the most highly studied organisms in biology. The short life cycle of Arabidopsis contributes to its suitability to be a "model system".

Find out why Arabidopsis is the most famous plant you may not have ever heard of.

Photo: Peggy Greb, USDA-ARS.

Survival of the CAMmest

Sunday September 1, 2013
Usually, we learn in school that there is only one way that plants photosynthesize. If you're a cactus, a pineapple, and even an orchid, that's just not true - you are most likely growing in a harsh, dry, unforgiving environment (well, if you're an orchid, you may be in a picture window, but you have aerial roots, most likely). Therefore, you need to conserve water as much as you can, and that includes during photosynthesis. Learn more about how CAM plants adapt in order to save water and to thrive in arid environments.

And, okay, you can stop pretending you're a cactus or a pineapple or an orchid now.

Photo: Peggy Greb, USDA-ARS.

Let's Talk About Genomes

Sunday September 1, 2013
nullGenetics is confusing, I'll admit that. It does take some study to understand it. I'm not going to use this space to explain genetics; rather, just to tell you a little bit about plant genomes. Genomics is the study of the organization and function of genes, and therefore plant genomics is the study of plant genes.

Why study plant genes? Mostly, to improve crop performance and yields, and to understand how plants work.

To learn more about plant genomics (but not so much that your head will spin; I promise), check out Plants Have Genomes, Too.

Photo: Geneticist Perry Cregan examines the soybean genome map. Keith Weller, USDA-ARS.

Don't Cough While Reading This

Wednesday July 31, 2013
Tobacco is interesting, really. Think about it - how many plants were offered to the Queen of France back in the 1500's to cure her headaches? How many plants are cultivated as annuals, but are actually perennials? And how many plants can be smoked AND perhaps even used as a biofuel?

For a nonjudgmental look at the tobacco plant, along with its botany, history, and future uses, visit here.

Photo: A plant pathologist inspecting a tobacco plant. USDA-ARS.

Corn's Anatomy

Wednesday July 31, 2013
When you hear about silks and tassels, you may think of a man playing a bagpipe, rather than a corn plant. However, a corn plant not only has silks and tassels, but ears, and at least TWO sets of roots! (Well, I guess the bagpipe player has ears, too, at the very least.)

Learn more about the anatomy of the corn plant here.

Corn silk. R. Elmore, Iowa State University Extension.

What's Happening To My Plants? Is It Nutrient Deficiency?

Wednesday July 31, 2013
I fertilized my plants very heavily with nitrate nitrogen fertilizer. It rained a lot after I applied the fertilizer. Now, my plants are yellowing - a classic sign of nitrogen deficiency. What happened? -Gardener

Dear Gardener,

It sounds as if the nitrate nitrogen leached right out of the soil during the big rainstorms. Sorry to hear that!

For more on how nutrient deficiencies can occur even under adequate fertilizer conditions, see here. It's not always the gardener's fault!

Photo: A nitrogen deficient corn ear on the right. USDA-ARS.

A Safe Place To Read About Smut!

Wednesday July 31, 2013
CORN smut, that is. Gee whiz, people, what did you think I was talking about?

Corn smut is a fungus that causes a disease of corn. The fungus usually does not kill the corn plant, but it can if the disease gets severe enough. Some farmers, however, like to see corn smut growing on their plants. No, they are not nuts - the fungal galls can actually be COOKED and EATEN. Go to a Mexican restaurant sometime and ask for huitlacoche, and you'll see what I mean.

Has anyone been adventurous and eaten huitlacoche?

Photo: USDA-ARS.

Plasmodesmata: Plant Signal Bridges

Sunday June 30, 2013
Yes, even plants talk to one another, although we as humans have a bit of trouble understanding them. (It's not even as clear as your dog "talking" to you when he wants a treat or to go outside.) However, scientists are clarifying the methods by which plant cells communicate and send signals and warnings to one another. Find out how plasmodesmata are involved in plant cell signaling and molecule movement.

Photo: Plasmodesmata in plant cells. Jackacon.

Induced Resistance In Plants: Call The Fire Department!

Sunday June 30, 2013
When a building catches fire, someone inevitably calls the emergency services so the fire department will come to put out the fire. Why? They don't want the fire to spread and cause more damage to the building.

Induced resistance systems in plants work in much the same manner. When a bacterial pathogen enters the plant through a wound, for example, the alarm is sounded, the plant signals the defense systems and they rush to the site of the attack, because the plant wants to minimize the damage as much as possible. In plants, this phenomenon is termed induced resistance.

How exactly does induced resistance work in plants? Can the induction of plant defenses be commercialized? Find out more about this technology and its potential.

Photo: A potato plant. USDA-ARS.


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