MARCH 2011
A Publication of the
Applied Math and Science Education Repository

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

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

article photos

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.

Biodiversity International
This website is the homepage of Biodiversity International, "the world's leading organization dedicated to agricultural biodiversity research to improve people's lives." The site is packed with informative resources on agricultural biodiversity, including biodiversity news, downloadable publications, links to online databases, and much more. The publications library is quite a find, with a number of downloadable reports, newsletters, and online journals, available free of charge. Visitors to the site will also find a biodiversity image bank, information on biodiversity research, and much more.
Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University
Based in Ithaca, New York, the mission of the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) for Plant Research at Cornell University is "to advance and communicate scientific knowledge in plant biology to improve agriculture, protect the environment, and enhance human health." On the BTI website, visitors can learn about their research projects, check out their "News and Updates", and visit their interactive resources dedicated to the interactions between plants and humans. Educators shouldn't miss the "Educational Resources" area, which contains lesson plans, podcasts, videos, and the Jove experiments. These experiments allow visitors to gain first-hand exposure to doing everything from virus-induced gene silencing to how to set up aphid artificial diet experiments.
American Field Guide: Co-evolution of Plants and Pollinators
From the PBS-American Field Guide collection of teacher resources, this website contains three activities comprising a unit on the Co-evolution of Plants and Pollinators. The unit was designed for high school students and includes accompanying National Content Standards, extension websites, and video clips. The first lesson addresses relationships between pollinators and flowering plants. The second lesson compares butterflies and moths. The final lesson explores co-evolution between flowers and pollinators. A printable version of the unit is available for download.
American Phytopathological Society Education Center: Introductory Plant Pathology Resources
Hosted by the American Phytopathological Society-Education Center, this website presents a great collection of introductory Plant Pathology resources. The "Introductions to the Major Pathogen Groups" section contains basic information on the history, biology, survival, and much more of the major groups of plant pathogens. Also provided here are plant disease lessons, laboratory exercises, case studies, and an illustrated glossary - just to name a few. Overall this is a valuable and plentiful source of plant pathology and biology resources.
Plant Evolution Timeline
Designed for plant scientists at the University of Cambridge, the Plant Evolution Timeline website will be attractive to anyone with an interest in the development and evolution of plant life. This interactive timeline was created by Nicola Peart and Ben Roberts, and first-time visitors will want to start by looking through the "Help" section. Here they can look at a sample interactive screenshot of the timeline and also learn how to toggle various data sets on and off as they explore the entire timeline. Visitors will notice that the timeline includes information on leaf evolution, mass extinction events, photosynthesis, physiological developments, and total number of species. The organization of the timeline is well thought out and visually appealing, and it is a resource that visitors will want to pass along to friends and colleagues.
Plant Pathology Fact Sheets
This selection of online fact sheets concerned with plant diseases was compiled by Professor Gary W. Moorman, a Professor of Plant Pathology at Penn State. The concise fact sheets address "common diseases of plants frequently grown in greenhouses, interiorscapes, and in outdoor landscapes and nurseries in the northeastern U.S." The sheets are organized under categories for Woody Ornamental and Floral and Foliage Plants, as well as a General Information category. Factsheets address such diseases as Bacterial Leaf Scorch, Pythium Root Rot, Botrytis Blight, Rhizoctonia, and more. There are sheets for a wide variety of plants and trees including Iris, Tulip, Maple, and Oak, to name a few.

AMSER Science Reader Monthly is published by Internet Scout at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in conjunction with the National Science Digital Library with funding from the National Science Foundation. If you have questions or suggestions please e-mail us at