The AMSER Science Reader Monthly aims to provide educators with a useful package of information about a particular topic related to applied math and science by combining freely available articles from popular journals with curriculum, learning objects, and web sites from the AMSER portal. The AMSER Science Reader Monthly is free to use in the classroom and educators are encouraged to contact AMSER with suggestions for upcoming issues or comments and concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This month's AMSER Science Reader Monthly topic is Plant Biology.
Plant Biology: Growth Industry
Article by Alison Abbott
Synopsis and resource annotations by Max Grinnell
Not many research relationships in chemical ecology, the study of the chemical signals between plants and other organisms in the environment, start with a pack of dogs chasing down a young scientist's VW bus, but that was how things began between scientist Ian Baldwin and rancher Herb Fletcher in 1988. This article, from Alison Abbott in the December 15, 2010 issue of Nature, begins by discussing Baldwin's 1988 trip to the Utah desert, and his experience encountering a gang of ferocious dogs and a machine gun wielding Herb Fletcher, while searching for a native species of the tobacco plant. As it turns out Baldwin found a kindred spirit in Fletcher with a shared interest in natural history, plants, and ecology, and the encounter created a firm friendship that began a new era in Baldwin's research. The article continues with an examination of the chemical language of plants, the research conducted by Ian Baldwin over the past two decades, and the challenging research environment of chemical ecology.
After his encounter with Fletcher, Ian Baldwin discovered the native tobacco plant Nicotiana attenuate in Utah, and it was the spark that helped him continue his research into the world of chemical ecology. It turns out that because they can't run away, plants have evolved ingenious chemical methods to repulse their enemies, including the ability to generate noxious chemicals in their leaves and emit complex bouquets to attract those predators that will take out the plant's attackers. Baldwin hopes that his research will lead to the deciphering of this chemical language, and that the research will eventually allow scientists to modify plants' signals to give them stronger protection from within. Additionally, future scientists may be able to develop environmentally friendly mimics of natural signals so that herbicides will no longer be necessary.
Baldwin works in Jena, Germany where he is one of the directors of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology. There, he and his colleagues develop powerful genetic tools to knock out (or knock down) genes involved in making these chemical signals. Some of his lab's more recent work demonstrated that plants, when nibbled by herbivorous insects, can change the ratio of isomers of their signaling molecules to attract predators of the leaf-eaters. Baldwin's largest lab is back in Utah, where his team plants thousands of seedlings over a vast, remote area. Here, Baldwin's research on genetically modified plants can continue uninterrupted, but he notes that the work can be backbreaking and perilous due to the danger of snakes, brush fires, and perhaps even an occasional gun wielding rancher and his pack of dogs.Found below is a list of useful resources that will illuminate and enhance understanding of the topics found within this article. The first link will take visitors to the homepage of Biodiversity International. Here they will find materials on agricultural biodiversity and links to online databases. The second link leads to the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research website, which contains podcasts, videos, and lesson plans related to plant biology. The third link includes teacher resources from the PBS American Field Guide that deal with the interaction between pollinators and flowering plants. Moving along, the fourth link leads to a website from the American Phytopathological Society that presents a helpful list of resources in introductory plant pathology. The fifth link will take interested parties to a very fine plant evolution timeline created at the University of Cambridge. The final link whisks users away to a set of fact sheets that deal with common diseases of plants provided by Professor Gary Moorman of Pennsylvania State University.
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