Today is the second year of ‘International Fascination of Plants Day’ and over 50 countries are celebrating events and activities. Anne Osterrieder and Martin Austwick join in by sharing their thoughts on what fascinates them about plants.
I often feel that I am not as fascinated by plants as I should be, having been a plant biologist for almost ten years now. I enjoy planting pretty flowers and seeing them go to full bloom. I love Gingko trees and Weeping Willows. But there are tons of plants which I, as most people, ignore as I pass by them (there is even an official term for this ‘plant blindness’). I am sorry, plants! I’ll try to do better.
I am deeply fascinated by structure and plants are really good in making nice structures. Whenever I go outside with my makro lens, I find myself getting deeply lost in a new world of symmetrical petals, anthers and stamina. A slightly embarrassing confession follows: Every time I use these terms, I need to google them again to make sure I am using them correctly, as I just can’t seem to remember them.
I have however no difficulties at all to remember the names of all proteins needed to make a vesicle in a cell. Vesicles are small membrane spheres which transport protein cargo through a cell. They are like a shuttle bus which picks up a bunch of passengers at an airport at Terminal 1 and unloads them into an airplane. Only that Terminal 1 might be the endoplasmic reticulum and the airplane the Golgi apparatus.
Making a vesicle is a bit like making a sausage (yes, I do enjoy metaphors). The sausage skin is the membrane. You squeeze the stuffing into it and once it reached a certain size, you tie it and cut it off. Because cells lack a sausage making machine, they instead have a protein machinery which helps to curve the membrane, sort cargo into the vesicle and cut off the finished vesicle from the membrane. To me it is utterly fascinating how cells manage to make myriads of vesicles and direct them all to their correct destinations. A lot of these processes, especially in plants, are still not fully understood. There is also still a lot controversy about how much protein transport happens through vesicles or via tubes or other mechanisms.
I think my love of repetitive structures explains my fascination for the plant Golgi apparatus. Every plant cell has dozens of Golgi bodies. Every Golgi body looks like a stack of pancakes. I have been studying the plant Golgi for more than eight years and there is still so much we don’t know yet. How do cells manage to produce a bunch of nearly identical Golgi bodies, all with the same architecture? I hope that cell biologists will unravel the full processes behind this mystery in my lifetime, and that I’ll be able to contribute to this as I go along.
Plant Golgi bodies (high-pressure freezing and electron microscopy) — Plant Cell Biology Group, Oxford Brookes University
(This is the song I wrote for the inaugural Fascination of Plants Day in 2012 — feel free to listen as you read)
I’m not very fascinated by plants, or I never used to be until Anne made me agree to write a song about them. The fact is, the inaugural International Fascination of Plants Days falling on my birthday was the only reason I agreed to write a song at all. As it got closer and closer, I started to panic. “I’m not very interested in plants. I’m not sure I can write a whole song about plants. Anne is going to be so disappointed — she really likes plants”. All these unwelcome anxieties.
And then I remembered a trip my wife and I had taken as part of our honeymoon back in 2011; travelling down the Olympic peninsula in northwest USA, we came across a beach not far north of Astoria, where the Goonies was filmed. The beach was covered with mile after mile of full-size tree trunks, each dozens of feet long, bleached white by the salt water. They’d evidently fallen into the sea after storm or subsidence and eventually fetched up here, in a veritable elephant’s graveyard.
This was pretty fascinating.
I started thinking about the scale and age of these trees, and the giant redwoods and sequoias we’d seen in Olympic National Park and further down the coast in California. That’s when I discovered that the oldest single tree in the world (or as it was believed at the time) was the Methuselah tree, in the mountains around Death Valley, was a shade under 5,000 years old.
Five. THOUSAND. Years.
This tree was young when stonehenge was being built. The bibilical Methuselah lived a shade under 1000 years. So let’s say the Methuselah tree is old, even in tree years — let’s say 100 tree years — then the biblical Methuselah lived for 20 tree years. Most people live less than two tree years.
Prometheus was even older. This tree was nearly 5000 when it was cut down over 50 years ago. That’s a human lifetime ago, nearly, but only one tree year. Pando, the colony of aspens in Fish Lake, Utah is 80,000 years old.
EIGHTY. THOUSAND. YEARS.
That means it started growing tens of thousand of years before human beings ever visited North America. Several of the lifetimes of even the Methuselah tree. Of course, even that is a very fleeting timescale compared to the geological scales on which the rocks they stand on ebb, flow and erode; but millions of years is a scale too awesome to contemplate. Having historical events and tree years helps to understand these scales a bit better, at least for me; knowing that Methuselah is as old as Stonehenge, and one Methuselah year is 50 person-years or longer; one Pando year is 16 Methuselah years (800 person-years); and a rock-year is probably 100 or more Pando-years.
There’s a risk of this turning into a Douglas Adams-style “Space is big” monologue; but for me, the astounding thing is that these are living things. It’s not as astounding to me that a bit of rock can stay in the same place for 5,000 years without becoming dust, if it’s sufficiently hardy; more impressive is how something could live for that long.
Closer to home is the Llangernyw Yew, which in North Wales, and is estimated to be at least 4,000 years old. I’ve been intending to drop in there next time I’m in Wales; maybe rather than hugging it, I can sing a song to it.