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Recently in plant responses to the environment Category

A couple of years ago I spent a lovely afternoon in the huge domed glasshouses of Singapore's "Gardens on the Bay". The 'cloud forest' was my favourite - both for the concept & for the wonderful range of epiphytes on show there.

Singapore cloud forest mountain.jpg

So you'll understand that I enjoyed reading about it again on this blog, written for the New Zealand Epiphyte Network. Anyone with even a passing interest in New Zealand's native plants should drop by the site. And maybe sign up to be part of their citizen science project while you're there?

Go on, you know you want to :)

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For the last few years our Centre for e-Learning has run WCeLfest - a day of presentations & discussion around using various technology tools to enhance teaching & learning. I always find these sessions very valuable as there are a lot of people doing some really interesting things in their classrooms, & there's always something new to learn & try out myself. I offered to run a session myself this year, which is what I'm going to talk about here, but I was also asked to be on the panel for a discussion around what universities might look like in the future, and that was heaps of fun too.

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singapore conservatory dome.jpgAfter goggling (a mixture of gobsmacked & ogling) the supertrees, our little party of escapees from the day's official IBO program made our way into the Flower Dome, the first of the two great conservatories in Singapore's Gardens in the Bay. Cue more 'oh, wow!' moments as the scale of the building became apparent - this is what it looks like once you're through the doors (& into the wondrous coolness of the huge space):

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I often think it's a real pity that so many students seem to actively dislike learning about plants. Why is this? Is it because plants don't seem to 'do' anything interesting? I used some of the information described here in a test question this year - the results were a salutory reminder to spend more time working with students on how to read and interpret data sets.

One of the Biology Standards year 13 students [currently] study is called 'Describe animal behaviour & plant responses'. Now, if 'behaviour' = response to a stimulus, then that's really what plants are doing too. I guess it's just hard to think that something (usually) green, (usually) fixed in place, & with no nerves or muscles is able to behave - but plants do, & some of their behaviour is really quite subtle. You're probably familiar with plant responses to stimuli, including tropisms, circadian rhythms, & flowering in response to changes in photoperiod. But there's more: not only are there plants that actively hunt, but plants can also communicate - with each other, & in some cases with animals as well.

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When I set essays for my first-year students to write during the semester, I try to give them a scientific paper on each topic to start them off. This means that I need to do some extra bedtime reading as I need to select those papers carefully. Today’s post is based on one of those: a paper about a fascinating mutualistic relationship between marine algae and a species of isopod (the same crustacean group as the more familiar slater).

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A while ago now I discussed how some plants are able to warn others when they're under attack by grazing animals. Now it seems that these responses and interactions are even more subtle - a new paper describes how signalling chemicals in tobacco plants can be altered by the grazers' saliva (Allmann & Baldwin, 2010).

As I described in that earlier post, plants demonstrate a number of responses to grazing. They may produce chemicals that directly harm the grazing animal in some way: poisons, maybe, or substances that inhibit the animal's digestive processes. Other, volatile, chemicals allow communication with other plants - they signal the presence of herbivores and stimulate those plants receiving the signal to produce defensive chemicals in advance of any grazing attack. And it appears that some of these volatiiles can attract predators that in turn feed on the grazers.

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Your immune system is a wonderful, complex, multipartite mechanism that usually allows you to fight off the attentions of the various pathogenic organisms (bacterial, fungal, and viral) that you'll meet during your life. I say 'usually' because it's not always successful on its own, and even where it is, you can be laid low for quite some time - think of flu, but also think of measles, mumps, smallpox, polio... This is where vaccination comes in: this 'primes' your immune system so that it can react far more rapidly when it encounters the actual pathogens themselves. NB for a taste of some 'alternative' thinking on this concept, try this thread over on SciBlogsNZ.

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This is a new story & potentially a very exciting one (& I must thank Grant for drawing this story to my attention!). A Nature News item (Petherick, 2010) describes the discovery of green algae apparently living within the cells of salamander embryos. I'll wait with interest for the published paper, but if this finding's confirmed then it will be the first recorded instance of endosymbiosis in a vertebrate.

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In one of our first-year biology labs the students spend a bit of time looking down the microscope at various algae & protozoa. Some of their samples come from a container of interestingly weedy water from my fishpond. Not only is the pond covered with duckweed & Elodea, but it turns out to have a wide range of tiny unicellular plants & animals, & some not quite so tiny, such as Volvox.

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The tutor running our first-year labs does a wonderful job of seeking out quirky little video clips that she can use to illustrate a particular point & pique her students' interest. But I think I might have beaten her to this one (courtesy as usual of PZ): a time-lapse sequence of germination & growth of maize.


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  • ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©: I love New Zealand's epiphytes from afar. (Spellchucker does not read more
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