Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where have all the British botanists gone, just when we need them?

We are desperate for new crops, drugs and energy sources but plant science graduates have become an endangered species, says Professor Steve Jones. 

By Steve Jones 

The Botanic Garden in the University of Oxford. Where have all the British botanists gone, just when we need them?
The Botanic Garden in the University of Oxford. 
Plant scientists have become an endangered species in Britain, says Steve Jones.
'I’d like to see them starving,/The so-called working class,/Their wages yearly halving,/Their women boiling grass”. Thus wrote Philip Larkin in a poem that can have no relevance to Britain today, for he was writing before the era of coalition politics. 
Boiled grass may, in fact, soon be on the menu, because of advances in a science which has revolutionised our lives and yet – at least when it comes to producing a new generation of practitioners – has almost vanished from the British scene. Botany has disappeared as an A-level subject, just 10 universities offer degrees in plant science (at least one is thinking of dropping it) and there are no more than 100 graduates each year. Most places have a grotesque imbalance between researchers using plants and using animals, humans included (a 500-to-one ratio in my own institution).
Yet plants are not just beautiful, diverse and easy to handle, but we depend upon them for food, for fuel, for drugs and (not to be forgotten) for aesthetic sensibility.
Why do students find the vegetable world so boring when without it we would perish? The United States (unlike Britain, where less than a third of our landscape is suitable for crops and we need crop-land twice the size of these islands to feed ourselves) now has enough acreage to grow all the food it might need, plus a bit over. In just 40 years, population growth, urbanisation and loss of soil mean that the amount of fertile land per head will drop by ten times. To guard against that, the Americans are pouring in billions to a plan to double maize yields in two decades. A quarter of all medicines are plant-based, or were discovered in that kingdom, and the need for sustainable fuel has led to the – unsustainable – use of food plants or oil palms to make alcohol-enhanced petrol. New crops, new drugs and new sources of energy are needed but the annual crop of British botany graduates is now so reduced as to make them an endangered species.
Ironically, the technical advances in DNA research that came from the Human Genome Project (and disappointed those who had hoped for a revolution in medicine) has transformed the study of plants. New genes for increased production (such as grass with enough sugar to make it palatable, and clovers that make far more nitrogen fertiliser than before) are emerging fast. Many of our crops, wheat included, are natural hybrids between wild species, and the hunt is on for ways to disrupt the inborn mechanisms that stop other potentially valuable mongrels from being made. Already, distantly related kinds are being persuaded to mate to generate varieties resistant to heat, salt, flooding, drought and to the other good things promised by global warming.
One escape from that problem is to use plants as fuel. Much of the biofuel market is driven by the economics of the madhouse, for subsidies make it profitable to burn crops that could be eaten. Elephant grass is a 15ft Asian giant that can grow on barren land and is four times better than maize at producing fuel. It is already being burned in British power stations, but almost everywhere just one strain is used. Expeditions to Japan and China have found wild varieties that might do the job even better. The plan is to double the plant’s yield and to have one kilowatt in every eight of Britain’s electricity generated from the crop in two decades.
In fact, all these projects are under way in one intellectual hot-house in west Wales. Here I must declare an interest, for I am on its advisory board, and have just returned from my annual visit. The University of Aberystwyth’s Institute of Biological Environmental and Rural Sciences is a world centre for the new plant science – but even there it is hard to attract school-leavers to study the subject and to find funds to pay for it.
In spite of the astonishing progress being made there and in other great research centres such as Norwich, Nottingham, Cambridge and Oxford, none of their work has more relevance for the future than does an agricultural adage from before science began: that, both for plants and for the people who study them, to eat the seed corn today will be to starve tomorrow.
Steve Jones is Professor of Genetics at University College London


Monday, September 27, 2010

Scientists prune list of world's plants

A project helping conservation work has deleted more than 600,000 species of flowering plants that were duplicated or not 'new'

Dahlia flower in full bloom. A dahlia in full bloom. 
Scientists estimate the total number of flowering plant species around the world to be around 400,000. Photograph: Harish Tyagi/EPA More than 600,000 plant species have been deleted from the dictionary of life after the most comprehensive assessment carried out by scientists.
For centuries, botanists from different parts of the world have been collecting and naming "new" plants without realising that many were in fact the same. The humble tomato boasts 790 different names, for example, while there are 600 different monikers for the oak tree and its varieties.
The result was a list of more than 1 million flowering plant species. Although experts have long known that it included many duplicates, no one was sure how many. Later this year, the study team, led by UK and US scientists, will announce that the real number of flowering plant species around the world is closer to 400,000.
The project - which has taken nearly three years - was the number one request made by the 193 government members of the Convention on Biological Diversity at their meeting in 2002. There were concerns that without this work, it would be impossible to work out how many plants were under threat and how successful conservationists were in saving them.
The information will also be vital for any organisation or researcher looking at "economically important" plants, such as those for food and nutrition or medicine, said Alan Paton, assistant keeper of the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, west London, one of the four leading partners in the project.
"On average, one plant might have between two and three names, which doesn't sound a great deal, but if you're trying to find information on a plant, you might not find all [of it] because you're only looking at one name," Paton said. "That's even more critical for economically useful plants: because they are more used, they tend to have more names."
In one example, researchers calculated that for the six most-used species of Plectranthus, a relative of the basil plant, a researcher would miss 80% of information available if they looked under only the most commonly used name. On another database, they found only 150 of 500 nutritionally important plant species using the names cited in current literature.
"By going for one name, we missed the majority of information mankind knows about that plant, which isn't too clever," said Paton. "What's really a breakthrough is we have a place which allows people to search through all the names used."
Kew Gardens joined up nearly three years ago with Missouri Botanical Garden in the US, and experts on two of the biggest and most valuable plant families: legumes, or peas and beans, and Compositae, which include asters, daisies and sunflowers.
They have since attempted to search existing plant lists and work out an "accepted" name for each species, and then list all known variations. One of the databases was originally set up using £250 left in the will of Charles Darwin. The full results will not be published until the end of the year, but so far the researchers have found 301,000 accepted species, 480,000 alternative names, and have 240,000 left to assess.
Although work will continue to assess smaller plant groups in more detail and check for missed duplications, Paton said they now believe that the true number of plant species will turn out to be "400,000 or just over".
"You can't give an absolute number of names, but we have narrowed the possibility," he said. Previous estimates, without the help of a full assessment, put the figure at between 250,000-400,000.
Most of the work of the study group was sifting and sorting different names allocated to one species, often because scientists were simply not aware of the work of rivals and colleagues who had previously "described" the plant in a scientific journal, or because of confusion caused by superficial differences such as different sized leaves in different climates. In some cases, plants thought to be the same have also been judged to be different species because of differences which have been revealed by later scientific discoveries, such as DNA.
As well as the likely 400,000-odd flowering plants, there are thought to be 15,000 species of ferns and their allies, 1,000 gymnosperms such as conifers, and 23,000 mosses and allies making up the plant kingdom. For comparison there are more than 1 million species of insects listed by science, 28,000 living species of fish, 10,000 birds and 5,400 mammals.
A meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in October in Japan is likely to declare that targets to halt biodiversity loss by this year failed and set tougher new aims to halt the problem.
This article was amended on 20 September 2010. The original said that poplars are gymnosperms. This has been corrected.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Rare butterfly sighted in Ponmudi forests

Staff Reporter

Colours of nature:The Blue Nawab, a medium-sized butterfly with black wings, can be identified from its white band laced with blue.

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: A team of nature lovers from Thiruvananthapuram have spotted the life cycle of the ‘Blue Nawab' butterfly in the forests of Ponmudi-Kallar region.
The team from nature group ‘Warblers and Waders', comprising C. Susanth, K.A. Kishore, Baiju and P.B. Biju saw the larvae of this rare butterfly amidst rock formations on either side of a stream deep in the forests. “Sighting this butterfly itself is a very rare thing. Still rarer it is to see its life cycle. We could not find the eggs. After we spotted the larvae, we returned to the location and kept watch as the butterfly finally emerged,” Mr. Susanth told The Hindu.
The study team, in July 2010, also observed the larave feeding on Scarlet Bauhinia( ‘Kaattu Mandaaram'). “The Nawab is a medium-sized butterfly with black wings. It can be easily identified from its white band laced with blue. The males can be found basking on chosen trees among rocky peaks during the hottest part of the day,” Mr. Susanth said.
The earlier studies of the life cycle of this butterfly were conducted by British lepidopterists J. Davidson, T.R. Bell and E.H. Aitken in 1896 at Coorg. “This is the first life cycle record of this butterfly in Kerala, The Kaattu Mandaram has not been previously recorded as a host plant for this butterfly,” Mr. Susanth said.
The team plans to report the sighting to the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society and to other International Journals.
Californian Lepidopterist Keith V. Wolfe, who conducted studies on host plant utilisation of butterflies and Kishen Das, US-based lepidopterist, provided the literature to Warblers and Waders on the life cycle of Blue Nawab, Mr. Susanth added.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Pea sized frog found on Borneo island

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Scientists have discovered a frog the size of a pea, the smallest found in Asia, Africa or Europe, on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo.
The frog species Microhyla nepenthicola, discovered in Borneo. Photograph: Indraneil Das/AFP/Getty Images

Adult males of the new micro-species range in size from 10.6 and 12.8 millimetres and the pea-sized amphibian has been named Microhyla nepenthicola after the plant on Borneo on which it lives, according to taxonomy magazine Zootaxa.

Dr Indraneil Das of the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak said the sub-species had originally been mis-identified in museums.
The Microhyla nepenthicola. Photograph: Indraneil Das/AFP/Getty Images

"Scientists presumably thought they were juveniles of other species, but it turns out they are adults of this newly-discovered micro species," he said.

Das published the paper with Alexander Haas of the Biozentrum Grindel und Zoologisches Museum of Hamburg, Germany.

The mini frogs were found on the edge of a road leading to the summit of the Gunung Serapi mountain in the Kubah National Park in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

The scientists said they tracked the frogs by their call, a series of "harsh rasping notes" that started at sundown.

They then made the frogs jump onto a piece of white cloth to study them.

The find was part of a global search being undertaken by Conservation International and International Union for Conservation of Nature's Amphibian Specialist Group to "rediscover" 100 species of lost amphibians (

(Reporting by David Chance; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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