Herself's Houston Garden

Gardening for fun and wildlife at the edge of Houston's piney woods

Archive for the ‘science’ tag

How crafty is your plant?

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walnut tree
Photo credit

Allelopathy is the release of organic chemicals that help or harm plants growing nearby by a plant. What is really interesting is that these allelochemicals are not used by the plant except to influence other plants.

One of the best known cases of this happens with walnut trees. Walnut trees produce hydojuglone. When hydrojuglone is exposed to oxygen it causes anything from wilting to death in plants near the walnut tree.

While digging around the net learning about allelopathy I started to wonder just how smart plants might be and stumbled upon: Aspects of Plant Intelligence a paper published in the Annals of Botany in 2003

The more we learn about plants and the chemical signaling inside and sent out from the plant, the less like vegetables they appear to be.

The paper is very readable, you won’t need a science degree to dig through it and worth a read. You’ll not look at your plants the same way again.

See also:
The secret language of plants
Chemical war: How plants starve bugs

Written by Linda MacPhee-Cobb

December 20th, 2013 at 4:00 am

Killer grass

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tifton 85

tifton 85

It is believed that the previous two years of drought contributed to Tifton 85 grass producing cyanide gas that killed some cattle near Austin, Texas. Tifton 85 is a 1992 hybrid of Bermuda grass (Tifton 68 from Tifton, Georgia, US) and a South African grass, grown for its cold tolerance, high protein and digestibility.

The cattle died of prussic acid ( cyanide poisoning )

Cyanogenic glycosides in plants yield free hydrocyanic acid (HCN) aka prussic acid when plants are damaged.

Young plants and leaves of older plants contain dhurrin which can break down to release cyanide gas. This tends to be highest in young rapidly growing plants, especially those stunted by drought or damaged frost or other mechanical means. Heavy fertilizing with nitrogen in areas low in phosphorus is more likely to produce the gas. Treatment with 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid ( a broad leaf herbicide and pesticide ) also increases the risk.

It does decrease as plants die, decreasing slowest in drought stricken plants. The remaining acid may be concentrated in new shoots when regrowth begins. The darker the leaves, the higher the concentration.

Plants that can produce cyanide include: Apple, Apricot, Cherry, Peach, Elderberry, Flax, various sorghums, various grasses, hydrangea, lima bean, and others.

Tifton 85 Grass
Cyanide-Producing Grass Linked to Texas Cattle Deaths
Sorgums, sundangrasses for forage
effect of 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid on Edogenous Cyanide, ($)
Prussic Acid Poisoning

Written by Linda MacPhee-Cobb

September 5th, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Insect damage to plants inoculates future generations

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“We show that exposing tomato plants to some level of caterpillar herbivory will increase resistance for future plants—it’s sort of like a plant vaccine,” says Sergio Rasmann, a biologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

Rasmann isn’t the only one seeing this effect. In a similar study, Ann Slaughter of the Universite de Neuchatel in Switzerland infected Arabidopsis thaliana plants with a benign strain of the bacteria Pseudomonas syringae (PstavrRpt2). The offspring were more resistant to disease than control groups, which were not infected in the first generation.

How does pest resistance get inherited? Researchers point to epigenetic mechanisms, which regulate gene expression and can be passed from one generation to the next without any changes to DNA sequences. The studies suggest known epigenetic factors like DNA methylation and histone modification mediate these effects, and are among the first to demonstrate siRNAs act as an epigenetic mechanism in plant defense responses.

original story

Descendants of Primed Arabidopsis Plants Exhibit Resistance to Biotic Stress
Herbivory in the Previous Generation Primes Plants for Enhanced Insect Resistance

Written by Linda MacPhee-Cobb

February 29th, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Cold winters keep immigrant ant leaf cutters in check

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leaf-cutter ant
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Texas winters may seem mild to those who move here from farther north, but they can be hard to adjust to for immigrants from warmer climates. This is true not only for people but for ants too. A new study by biologists at Rice University and the University of Texas at Austin (UT) finds that the Texas leaf-cutter ant Atta texana, whose ancestors emigrated from the tropics, adapted to the relatively harsh Texas winters in an unusual way — through their food.

Like all leaf-cutter ants, A. texana cuts leaves but does not eat them.

“Leaf-cutters can’t digest the nutrients of leaves directly, so they use a fungus called Attamyces as a kind of external digestive system,” said co-author Scott Solomon, a lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology at Rice. “It’s an example of a relationship that biologists call mutualism. The ants are completely reliant on the fungus, and the fungus — which only occurs in leaf-cutter colonies — is likewise reliant on the ants.”

The new study, which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that leaf-cutter colonies in northern Texas and Louisiana, where winter temperatures regularly get below freezing, have found new ways to cope with the cold. Most leaf-cutter ant species are native to the predictably warm tropics, so the Attamyces fungus has adapted to a narrow range of temperatures. Previous studies have found the ants are attentive gardeners; they keep an ever-present watch on their subterranean gardens, and they are careful to regulate humidity in the gardens and to weed out anything that threatens the crop.

Leaf-cutters live in large colonies that contain up to 5 million members, and their subterranean nests have been found to extend almost 100 feet underground. Within these warrens, they dig thousands of tunnels that connect various chambers, where football-sized gardens of Attamyces are cultivated.

Over several years, Mueller’s team systematically mapped the range of the ants and collected samples of live Attamyces fungus from dozens of nests throughout the range. Tests in the lab revealed that the Attamyces in more northerly ant colonies resists cold better than samples from southern nests, where winters are milder. The studies also found that the ants aid the cold-tolerant fungi by moving them during the coldest months of the Texas winter into deeper garden chambers where conditions are milder.

The researchers were able to show that the fungus’s resistance to cold is based on genetic differences; this suggests that it has evolved during the several million years since the ants first arrived from the south with fungus in tow.

In addition to determining how leaf-cutter ants can survive outside the tropics, the study also found that the ants have been prevented from spreading farther north by the physical limitations of their fungal crop. According to Solomon, the finding that a species is limited by its mutualist is of particular interest to biologists.

“The range of the ants is not limited by their own tolerance to the cold but by the tolerance of the fungus,” Solomon said. “The range of one species is often influenced by the range of another — particularly harmful ones like predators or competitors — but it is really rare to find a case where a species’ range is completely dependent upon the evolution of a species that is helpful.”


Evolution of cold-tolerant fungal symbionts permits winter fungiculture by leafcutter ants at the northern frontier of a tropical ant–fungus symbiosis

Written by Linda MacPhee-Cobb

February 22nd, 2011 at 5:38 pm

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