I learned today that my postdoctoral advisor and friend Ian Sussex has died. He was an important figure in my life and in the world of plant science, and I wanted to share three important lessons I learned from him.
For me, coming from a background where plants were often considered green yeast, the biggest lesson I learned from Ian was that plants have a different ethos. They’ve been doing things their own way for a couple of billion years, and it’s hard to understand them without first shedding our animal biases. Ian’s encyclopedic knowledge and powerful intellect gave him an unparalleled intuition about plants. As he described to me and in his autobiographical sketch, published in 1998 in Annual Reviews of Plant Biology, his curiosity about plants stemmed from his childhood and the freedom he had to wander and explore in his mother’s garden and beyond, “I was born and grew up in a semirural suburb of Auckland ...we had access to pastures, salt marshes, mud flats, beaches, and native bush. It was easy in this environment to develop an interest in plants.” One of the biggest challenges in teaching plant science is to help students who grow up without such easy access to the natural world to find their plant curiosity and to develop their plant intuition.
“Don’t ask what experiment you can do, ask what experiment you should do, and then find a way to do it”
Ian was a phenomenally good teacher, and my enthusiasm for teaching is a direct consequence of the time I spent working with him. Walking back to the lab after a seminar, he’d ask the group what we thought the next experiment ought to be. Our replies tended to focus on what the speaker could do next, whereas Ian was able to see what they should do next. A lot of Ian’s research success came about because he found ways to answer important questions, even when this meant inventing a new approach. We praise and reward students for figuring out what could be done, but it’s important to also ask them what should be done, even if at the time it seems impossible (and this applies to life as well as science!).
“Does this say exactly what you want it to say in the best way possible?”
Ian enjoyed writing and was able to bring clarity to complex ideas. I’ll never forget the moment I learned how this clarity came about. I’d written a draft of a post-doctoral grant proposal and arranged to revise it with him. I sat down beside him at his desk and he read aloud the first sentence. He then turned to me and said, “Does this say exactly what you want it to say in the best way you can possibly say it?” Indeed, we went through the entire proposal, line by line and word by word asking this question: the best lesson in how to write I’ve ever had.
Lead author Fumiaki Katagiri says they needed space for undergraduate projects so they built their own growth chambers and have been collecting publication-quality data from plants grown in them. "Our design of an inexpensive plant growth chamber will tremendously increase research opportunities in experimental plant biology" - not just for undergraduates but for anybody who needs a cheaper alternative!
Mary Williams's insight:
Fumi says, "We are working to post detailed information including videos, like how to hack a potable air conditioner, on a webpage so that many people can actually build growth chambers of this kind. The page should be ready by the end of June."
Read about how seven Netherlands universities team up to form the Experimental Plant Science group, for outstanding collaborations and graduate education. ASPB blog post written by two members of the EPS PhD council, Hanna Rovenich and Setareh Mohammadin.
In this Feature Issue we celebrate the completion of the genome of Eucalyptus grandis (Myburg et al., 2014), the first representative of the plant order Myrtales, an early diverging rosid lineage, and a species-rich genus that evolved in isolation on the Australian continent. Compared to plant genomes sequenced to date, it represents an independent evolutionary experiment on what it means to be a large woody perennial plant evolving in diverse, and often stressful, habitats. Eucalyptus contains some of the fastest growing hardwood trees and the tallest flowering plant (Eucalyptus regnans) on Earth, and also has many species adapted to extremely dry, hot, and nutrient deficient soils. It also produces a diverse array of plant-specific metabolites (including the well-known eucalyptus oils).
Here, a quantitative analysis of telomere length of single cells in Arabidopsis root apex uncovered a heterogeneous telomere-length distribution of different cell lineages showing the longest telomeres at the stem cells.
Good article by Professor MS Swaminathan in the Guardian - notable quote, "Chronic hunger does not move the media". It's true and lies at the root of a lot of problems! Wealthy, well-fed individuals need to care as deeply about the world's hungry as they do the latest celebrity....
Let us cast our minds back half a billion years and look around us. We do not see a green and pleasant land. Instead, we see a barren wasteland. We see a land without plants, the landscape comprising bare rock and its erosion products – at best a mineral sludge. But it was around this time that the first land plants emerged, evolving from pond slime – an aquatic algal ancestor most likely left on the banks of a receding body of water. Unlike today's climax vegetation, the first land plants were simple. They lacked the complex anatomical adaptations characteristic of the modern flora –ramifying root systems scavenging water from deep below the surface, vascular tissues to deliver this to aerial parts of the plant, whence it evaporates via the stomatal apertures of the leaves.
Mary Williams's insight:
Great job drawing the reader into this topic, nice writing!
Scott Poethig’s group at the University of Pennsylvania has created an excellent new tool for use in genetic analysis studies of Arabidopsis thaliana. Using the “traffic lines” they have created, one can use a pair of seed-expressed green and red fluorescent transgenes that flank the mutation of interest to identify the genotype of mutants without the need for phenotypic analysis. This powerful tool cuts mutant analysis time substantially in all mutant genotypes and provides a way of determining genotype if a visible phenotype is not present. Because of the coverage of the “traffic line” insertions across the genome, one could make use of this resource in classroom studies of plant genetics to examine segregating populations as well mutant analysis. The “traffic lines” are available in both the Columbia and Landsberg erecta genetic backgrounds and can be ordered from the The Arabidopsis Information Resource center.
Mary Williams's insight:
Thanks Clint for sharing that. If any of you see a paper you want to share with others interested in plant biology education like this, drop me a line and I can share here. Also, when the new platform for plant science launches later this year we can get a nice "journal club" going with contributions and discussions.
Plant-parasitic nematodes cause significant damage to a broad range of vegetables and agricultural crops throughout the world. As the natural enemies of nematodes, nematophagous microorganisms offer a promising approach to control the nematode pests. Some of these microorganisms produce traps to capture and kill the worms from the outside. Others act as internal parasites to produce toxins and virulence factors to kill the nematodes from within. Understanding the molecular basis of microbe-nematode interactions provides crucial insights for developing effective biological control agents against plant-parasitic nematodes. Here, we review recent advances in our understanding of the interactions between nematodes and nematophagous microorganisms, with a focus on the molecular mechanisms by which nematophagous microorganisms infect nematodes and on the nematode defense against pathogenic attacks. We conclude by discussing several key areas for future research and development, including potential approaches to apply our recent understandings to develop effective biocontrol strategies.
Author Summary "The increase in average temperatures across the globe has been predicted to have negative impacts on agricultural productivity. Therefore, there is a need to understand the molecular mechanisms that underlie plant growth responses to varying temperature regimes. At present, very little is known about the genes and pathways that modulate thermo-sensory growth responses in plants. In this article, the authors exploit natural variation in the commonly occurring weed thale cress."
Mary Williams's insight:
I think it's great that the gene that helps plants thrive at high temperatures is named ICARUS :)
During the past two decades, nitric oxide (NO) has evolved from a mere gaseous free radical to become a new messenger in plant biology with an important role in a plethora of physiological processes. This molecule is involved in the regulation of plant growth and development, pathogen defence and abiotic stress responses, and in most cases this is achieved through its interaction with phytohormones. Understanding the role of plant growth regulators is essential to elucidate how plants activate the appropriate set of responses to a particular developmental stage or a particular stress. The first task to achieve this goal is the identification of molecular targets, especially those involved in the regulation of the crosstalk. The nature of NO targets in these growth and development processes and stress responses remains poorly described. Currently, the molecular mechanisms underlying the effects of NO in these processes and their interaction with other plant hormones are beginning to unravel. In this review, we made a compilation of the described interactions between NO and phytohormones during early plant developmental processes (i.e. seed dormancy and germination, hypocotyl elongation and root development).
Students have to know that you’re going to catch them before they’re willing to take a leap. They have to struggle to learn something meaningful, and learning to overcome struggle is the most valuable thing I can teach them.
Mary Williams's insight:
Good article on the important role teachers play in helping students learn
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