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The plant disease that's threatening your chocolate stash

Chocolate frosty pod rot is not a poorly conceived cereal brand. Instead, it's a fungus that devours cocoa pods — turning them to nasty mush while still on the branch. Quietly spreading through Central America, chocolate frosty pod rot can devastate cocoa crops, wiping out entire plantations. Maggie 11

Activists destroy GMO test plot

Golden Rice is a strain of rice genetically engineered to produce extra beta-carotene, part of a humanitarian effort to get more Vitamin A into the diets of people who subsist primarily on rice. The genes that produce the beta-carotene come from corn and a soil bacterium. On the legal end, the rice was developed using free technology licenses that allow the International Rice Research Institute to hand the rice out for free to subsistence farmers, and allow those farmers to save seeds and replant in subsequent years. Last week, anti-GMO activists destroyed a test plot of Golden Rice in the Philippines. Maggie 195

After two months of investigation, GMO wheat mystery even more mysterious than before

Two months ago, news outlets reported that an Oregon farmer had found Roundup herbicide-resistant wheat growing in his field. He hadn't planted it. In fact, nobody sells it — Monsanto tested such wheat eight years ago, but never sought federal approval for it. So what happened? After two months of investigation, here's what we do know: It doesn't seem like GMO wheat is invading the US. Testing has yet to turn up evidence of this wheat anywhere else in the country. What we don't know: Why a research plant that never went to market would pop up in a single, unrelated field almost a decade later. Experts' best guess is some kind of mix-up, where a small amount of research seed got mislabeled and later sold. Meanwhile, Monsanto is suggesting deliberate sabotage. Maggie 20

Stuff you absolutely need to know about the GMO debate

I lovelovelovelovelove this Grist series on the nuances, contradictions, and confusions surrounding the public debate over genetically modified foods. Nathaniel Johnson has done some really fantastic reporting, challenging distortions from both sides and getting you (the person might actually be buying and eating this stuff) closer to the truth than just about any other journalist I've seen. Two parts of the series you absolutely must read: A complex look at whether or not there are safety regulations for GMO foods, and an exploration of plant breeding and the differences between "natural" genetic modification and the kind that happens in a laboratory. Maggie 23

The case for flowers on the farm

South African mango farms that added patches of native, flowering plants not only attracted more pollinators than traditional, monoculture mango farms — they also produced more mangoes.

Image: Flowers Under Attack, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from suckamc's photostream

The technology that links taxonomy and Star Trek

What made Star Trek’s original tricorder a great piece of fictional technology, writes Maggie Koerth-Baker, wasn’t its sci-fi looks. It was what it did.

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A spaceship that tastes like Grape-Nuts

This morning, Marketplace Tech Report had a story on a new cellulose-based building material that could be made by genetically engineered bacteria — altered versions of the bacteria that naturally make stuff like kombucha. This tech sounds like it's got a long way to go from laboratory to the real world, but if they can perfect the process and make it large enough quantities, what you'd end up with a strong, inexpensive goop that could be used to build everything from medical dressings, to digital paper, to spaceships. Yes, you could theoretically use this stuff to make rocket casings, according to R. Malcolm Brown, Jr., a professor of cell biology at UT Austin. And if you can build a rocket from this stuff, you could also break the same material back down into an edible, high-fiber foodstuff. Maggie

World's Strangest Flowers

Sierra magazine selected "7 of the World's Strangest Flowers." Above is video of the Touch-Me-Not, native to Central and South America but now growing many other places:

You might easily overlook this herb, with its dainty pink flowers and delicate, fern-like leaves. The mimosa pudica doesn’t just look demure, though. Barely touching its leaves causes them to fold inward and droop downward—hence the flower’s species name, pudica, Latin for “shy, bashful, or shrinking,” as well as its nicknames, “touch-me-not” and “shy plant.” The leaves usually reopen in a few minutes. Other stimuli, including warming and shaking the plant, produce the same phenomenon. The leaves fold and wilt in the evening, too, but they stay that way until sunrise…
"7 of the World's Strangest Flowers" (Thanks, Orli Cotel!)

Secrets of the world's most successful tumbleweed farm

Tumbleweeds aren't a type of plant. It's more of a description — the thing that happens when the bushy above-ground parts of lots of different types of plants dry, die, and disconnect from the healthy root system below. It is then free to blow wherever the wind takes it. That's your basic free-range tumbleweed. At Prairie Tumbleweed Farms, the weeds are a bit more constrained and they're shipped, rather than blown, to customers all around the world. This podcast by Rose Eveleth is a cute, quirky piece, but you MUST listen to the whole thing. Because the backstory of Prairie Tumbleweed Farms is what makes this truly worthy of BoingBoing. Maggie

Ancient money shot, caught in chert

In a fossil of 400-million-year-old plants, the world's oldest sample of ejaculate. Maggie

Great moments in pedantry: Canada puts the wrong maple leaf on its $20 bill

Hey, that's not a Canadian sugar maple leaf! That is very clearly the leaf of the invasive Norway maple. Maggie

How plants stay warm

Plants and animals have to adapt to live in high latitudes and chilly mountain environments. With animals, we kind of instinctively know what makes a creature cold-weather ready — thick, shaggy fur; big, wide snowshoe paws. But what are the features of cold-weather plants? It's one of those really interesting questions that's easy to forget to ask.

At The Olive Tree blog, Tracey Switek has at least one answer. In cold places, you see more plants that grow in little mounded clumps. Of course, plants can't really rely on huddling together to create warmth. So you still have to ask, "Why is it better to grow in a mound when it's cold out?"

The dome-like shape which the cushions tend to take (made possible by an adaptation that makes all the plants in the clump grow upward at the same rate, so no one plant is high above all the others), and the closeness with which those plants grow, makes these clumps perfect heat traps. The temperature on or inside a cushion can be up to 15 °C more than the air temperature above it. The cushions are able to retain heat radiating up from the soil, as well as absorbing heat from the sun (a very dense, large, clump of green can get surprisingly warm on a sunny day at high altitude). Add to that the fact that the wind speed in and around a cushion can be cut by up to 98% from open areas, you have a perfect recipe to prevent heat loss. Many alpine cushion plants also have very hairy leaves, which trap even more heat within. This allows the plants to maintain a relatively stable, warmer than average microclimate that is resistant to sudden changes in weather and temperature outside (such as freezing temperatures at night or sudden storms). Interestingly enough, this stabilizing effect can also be a benefit when it gets too hot out, maintaining lower temperatures against baking sunshine.

Very cool!

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Via Sci Curious

Image: Michael Haferkamp, via CC

Got questions about agricultural science? Get answers!

Sense About Science is a UK non-profit aimed at making science more understandable to the public. Right now, they're hosting a virtual plant science panel, where you can submit questions directly to scientists and see them answered on the Sense About Science website. What topics are fair game? Just about anything plant-related, from "Ash Dieback disease, to GM crops, bees to pesticides, mycotoxins in food to biofuels." Some answers are up already! (Via Mark Lynas) Maggie

Plant caught

Internet users get it done fast: the identities of animal abusers, the provenance of clever media hoaxes and the details of shocking crimes are often exposed within minutes. To the galleries of summary internet justice we can add another new art: spotting, catching and exposing provocateurs who encourage protestors to break the law. [OC Weekly] Rob

Gardening on the Moon

Frycook posted this fascinating video from the Apollo era on the BoingBoing Submitterator. The basic gist: Back in the day, NASA scientists tried exposing various crops—corn, lettuce, tobacco ... you know, the essentials—to moon dust. The plants weren't grown in the dust, exactly. Instead, it was scattered in their pots or rubbed on some of their leaves. In this study, the plants that were exposed seemed to grow faster than unexposed plants.

That's pretty interesting, so I dug around a little to find out more about these studies. Turns out, growing plants in lunar soil isn't quite as promising as the video makes it sound, but it's not a ridonculous idea, either. In 2010, scientists at the University of Florida published a review of all the Apollo-era research on this subject, which amounted to exactly three published studies. From that data, we can say that the plants weren't obviously affected in any seriously negative ways by their exposure to lunar soils—which is good—but we can't really say the plants grew better their terrestrial-only cousins, either.

In the end, and as recorded in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, there were only three published primary studies of seeds, seedlings, and plants grown in contact with lunar materials. In those three cases, small amounts of lunar material were used, and the plants were relatively large. In general, the dusting of plants or the mixing of lunar fines with other support media makes plant interaction with the lunar material a small part of the plant experience. At no point were plants actually grown in lunar samples in the way that one might imagine, with the entire root structure growing through and in constant association with a lunar soil. It is no accident that the wording of most of the titles of the studies, as well as the careful discussion within the papers, refers to growth “in contact with” lunar samples—not “in” lunar samples. With only a small portion of the roots, for example, interacting with the lunar materials, it is likely that plant responses to the lunar materials were, therefore, quite attenuated due to the lack of an extensive plant/lunar soil interface. Biophysical issues, such as root penetration of dry and variously hydrated lunar sample types, were completely unaddressed. Thus, the effects of actual growth within lunar soils were simply not a part of the plant studies of the Apollo era.

On the other hand, in 2008 scientists with the European Space Agency tried growing marigolds in a medium of crushed rock—basically the much-cheaper equivalent of growing plants in moon "soil". There's no indication that the marigolds did better than those grown in real dirt, but they did grow and they did survive (even without any added fertilizer), which could be indirect evidence in support of the Moon gardeners of the future.

Watch the video on YouTube

Read a 1969 newspaper clipping about the NASA experiments

Read the 2010 review paper—available for free, in its entirety

Read a BBC story about the 2008 marigold experiment