Plant Biology: Growth Industry
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
take visitors to the homepage of Biodiversity International. Here they will find
materials on agricultural biodiversity and links to online databases.
The second link
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
leads to a website from the American Phytopathological Society that
presents a helpful list of resources in introductory plant pathology.
The fifth link
take interested parties to a very fine plant evolution timeline created at the
University of Cambridge.
The final link
users away to a set of fact sheets that deal with common diseases of plants
provided by Professor Gary Moorman of Pennsylvania State University.