Nanomechanical oscillations…

This week one of our Facebook group members posted a link to a 2013 paper entitled “Love thy neighbour: facilitation through an alternative signalling modality in plants”. The premise in the paper is that plants are capable of acoustic communication and the experiment purported to demonstrate this. (I strongly encourage you to download the article from the link above so you can read it for yourself.)

chilisBriefly, chile seeds (Capsicum annuum) were placed into petri dishes, covered to ensure darkness, and then the dishes were placed in a circle. In the middle of the circle was either an empty acrylic box covered in black plastic (the control), an acrylic box covered in black plastic containing an adult basil plant (Ocimum basilicum) called the masked treatment, or an adult basil plant without a box (the open treatment). Seeds were watered and inspected daily for germination and the petri dishes were randomly rearranged.

According to the authors, “the presence of basil positively enhanced germination rates of chilli seeds, validating the claims of many gardeners who recognise the beneficial effect of basil on the growth of chilli plants.” Their reasoning is that the open and masked treatments induced more seed germination than the control. And since there was little difference between the masked and open treatments, they claim that the phenomenon is due to some signal other than light or gas (since the black plastic-covered acrylic container would prevent this).

How does this work? Well, according to the authors, this is evidence that acoustic signals are “generated in plants by biochemical processes within the cell, where nanomechanical oscillations of various components in the cytoskeleton can produce a spectrum of vibrations.” Never mind that the experimental design and methodology was laden with opportunities for experimental error. In particular, opening the petri dishes to water and count germinated seeds every day is deeply flawed. The easiest and least error-prone method would be to have the petri dishes sealed with parafilm to prevent water loss and inspected ONLY after the experiment was over. That is the standard method for testing for germination rates. Moreover, opening the dishes to count and water seeds every day really screws up the “covered to ensure darkness” part. In fact, chile seeds germinate better with light – which is what they got every day when they were opened. Was each dish exposed to light for exactly the same time every day? Exposure to light converts the seeds’ phytochrome to what’s called the active form, and phytochrome plays a crucial role in seed germination. The longer the light exposure, the more phytochrome is converted.

Now, plant scientists would know these things when they were designing their experiments. But as neither of the authors have degrees in plant sciences, it’s understandable. What’s not understandable is how this article got through peer-review. Unless none of the reviewers were plant scientists, either.

For those of you that belong to a university journal club or some other science discussion group, I think this would be a great article to discuss.

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Someone recently posted a scientific article on our Facebook page which purportedly demonstrates that Roundup can be damaging to earthworms at concentrations that would typically be used in a field situation. Wow. Scary. I mean really, if we’re damaging earthworms when we apply Roundup, then that lends fuel to the emotional fires that rage against this pesticide. But is that really what this article shows?

It’s unfortunate, but most of you will not be able to see the article that I’m writing about because you won’t have access to the journal in which it was published. Here’s the abstract though.

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11270-014-2207-3

Basically what the authors did was to place worms in small pots, expose the pots to different concentrations of a commercial formulation of Roundup, and measure how the worms fared over time (about a month and a half). Unsurprisingly, the worms not exposed to Roundup performed better than the worms exposed to the Roundup.

After reading the above paragraph you might think that this is an open and shut case. Roundup is bad for worms, potentially leading to “local extinction” of these animals in agricultural fields (that’s the authors’ wording).

It’s not that simple. The authors are stretching well beyond the data, and the research has some issues, most of which could be cleared up by better, more thorough reporting.

First, let’s take a look at some of the problems that this paper has in terms of reporting its materials and methods. You may think this is picky, but it’s not. It’s fundamental to figuring out how valid the reported results are. From the materials and methods as they were written it is impossible to figure out exactly what was done in terms of watering the pots (we know soil moisture was kept at 80%, but we don’t know how. Watering? With what?). We don’t know what the ground plant materials were that were added to the pots (Lima beans?). We know that pots were placed into 1m X 1m X 0.60 m containers, but we don’t know how many pots were placed into each container or whether pots were randomized by treatment within each container. Sure, we could make assumptions – but in a well written scientific paper we shouldn’t have to. Would knowing these things affect how the worms performed in the Roundup treatment versus the no Roundup treatment? In a word, yes. The watering regime in particular might very well alter the results of this study.

That’s enough of that. Now let’s take a look at my BIG PROBLEM with this study. Six worms were placed into small (28cm X 14cm), half-filled pots and treated, or not treated, with Roundup.

Let me offer an extreme analogy to explain why this is such a problem. Let’s say that you want to see whether shooting bullets into the ocean will kill all of the fish that live there. To test the theory you grab a 50 pound fish and you stick it in a 5 gallon bucket. The tail is hanging out, the fins are flapping, water is getting all over the place. Then you shoot the bucket. Dead fish. You do this 50 more times. Each time, dead fish. You conclude that shooting bullets into the ocean is indeed a threat to fish and may lead to local extinction. Right?

Wrong.

From this study you can conclude that bullets can kill fish. That’s an easy conclusion to make. You cannot conclude that shooting bullets into the ocean will kill all the fish there. Now, if we hired a swat team to fire bullets into the ocean and all the fish were killed, well then we could make that conclusion. Would that actually happen though? No way of knowing unless we try it. I suspect the ocean would retain its fish – but I’m just hypothesizing. (Quick FYI – high velocity bullets lose so much of their speed when they hit water that they wouldn’t be lethal to fish after traveling about 3-4 feet).

There are any number of studies out there that FORCE target organisms to be exposed to whatever chemical is being tested (that is basically what is being done here). These studies CAN show that the chemicals tested MAY affect the target organism. They CANNOT show that the target organism IS AFFECTED IN A GIVEN ENVIRONMENT. You need to test the chemical in that environment to figure that out.

To give an example of how you might test the effects of Roundup against worms in an agricultural environment: Take an acre of agricultural field, divide it into six sections. Treat three with Roundup and control weeds in the other three sections with hand weeding. Sample the sections every two or three weeks after Roundup application to see how the worms are doing.

Now, my final problems with this paper. Much of it is related to other, already published studies. This, in and of itself, is no problem. It is good that there are many studies on this topic. The problem is that most of these studies weren’t mentioned in this article. When I read a scientific article I count on its authors to put their study into context for me so that I can see where it belongs in the already existing collection of related literature. Without referencing these older papers the authors do us a disservice. I’m not going to list out all of the studies, but if you go to scholar.google.com and type in earthworm and glyphosate you’ll see what I mean.

I believe that any experiment from which data can be extracted should be published. I think that the authors of this article had every right to publish it. However, as a scientist, I think that there are enough problems with the reporting of this article, particularly the materials and methods, that, as it is currently presented, I can’t extract much of value. I certainly can’t reach the sweeping conclusions that its authors do.

Infographic with a BIG grain of salt

Infographics can be great: They’re bright colorful ways to make sometimes complex concepts visual and easy to understand. Sadly, “easy to understand” does not necessarily equal “accurate” and they can also be extremely misleading.

Take this beautifully made image from National Geographic. It is an older image — first posted back in 2011, but it makes the rounds on social media from time to time, and popped up in my facebook newsfeed a couple days ago.

Look at it! Oh no! We’re loosing all of our vegetable genetic diversity!

Or not. First, it is comparing apples to oranges. This image looks a commercially available varieties in 1903 and compares it to the number of varieties in one specific center for preserving genetic diversity. What happens if we compare the same metric? If you look at the number of varieties in the National Seed Storage Laboratory, that was founded in 1958… so in 1903, at the top of the graph, the number for all these vegetables would be… zero. If you look at the present day, the current umbrella organization for all the US government funded efforts to preserve genetic diversity of crop plants is GRIN, (Germplasm Resources Information Network)  and if I do a quick search through that database using the keyword “tomato” I get… 9281 results. That is a pretty overwhelming improvement over 79 in 1983.

And what about commercially available varieties? To use tomato as an example again, in 1903, they found 408 varieties offered commercially. I just added up the varieties listed by just ONE seed company, Baker Creek Seeds, currently lists 287 different varieties of tomatoes. That is just ONE company. I have no doubt that if I added up all the varieties that are offered for sale in the giant pile of seed catalogs I get every spring it would be FAR more than the 408 on offer in 1903.

So… are we losing genetic diversity in our crop plants? Probably. There are lots of traditional varieties and land races that were never available commercially that have do doubt been lost, but to be honest, I think we’ve done a pretty good job at preserving the diversity. And certainly the USDA’s system of gene banks is an incredibly well run, impressive thing that deserves high praise indeed, for not merely preserving vast amounts of important genetic diversity but also working hard to characterize it and make it available to researchers and breeders so it can actually be put to work in the development of new and improved selections to try and feed the world.

So despite how colorful and easy to understand this infographic is, you don’t need to freak out about a massive loss of genetic diversity in our vegetable crops. Save that freaking out for all the wild species that have gone extinct or are about to go extinct thanks to habitat destruction and climate change world wide…

Conventional vs. organic agriculture – the battle continues

An article was published earlier this week comparing the nutritional content of milk from organically raised cows to that from conventional dairies. The principle finding in this report is that “organic milk contained 25% less ω-6 fatty acids and 62% more ω-3 fatty acids than conventional milk, yielding a 2.5-fold higher ω-6/ω-3 ratio in conventional compared to organic milk (5.77 vs. 2.28).” (ω-3 fatty acids are considered to be “healthy” and you’ve probably heard of them in association with fish consumption.)

Of course, the popular press has had a field day with this, with such headlines as “Study finds organic milk is more nutritious.” This of course is nonsense, because the researchers didn’t study the health effects on people consuming the milk. But for argument’s sake, let’s assume this might be true and move on to the study itself.

What researchers actually found was that cows who feed primarily on pasture grasses and other forages (the “organic” cows) had elevated ω-3 fatty acids compared to those receiving a primarily grain-based diet (the “conventional” cows). This isn’t new information – other studies (such as this one) have consistently demonstrated this.

Grazing_Dairy_Cattle,_near_Wood_Hayes,_Staffordshire_-_geograph.org.uk_-_459881
The problem with this newest paper is the inaccurate terminology used to describe the study. It really has nothing to do with whether the cows are raised organically or conventionally – it has to do with what they eat. A better experimental design would have included multiple comparisons among “organic” cows (who by default are grass-fed), “conventional” cows that are fed a grain diet (typical with large operations), and “conventional” cows that are pasture-raised (common with smaller farms that don’t want to jump through the organic certification hoops). I’m betting that the milk from this last group of cows wouldn’t be much different from the “organic” cows.

The upshot of using such imprecise terminology is that the message is lost amid the furor of the ongoing organic vs. conventional agriculture battle. Readers erroneously jump to a  value-based conclusion – i.e., organic is “better” than conventional.

In my opinion, there’s no excuse for this. The experts who reviewed this article should have pointed out the loaded language and insisted on a change in terminology. (You might be interested to follow the comments on this article, one of which alludes to misleading terminology.)

For Mulch

Posted by Bert Cregg

Just a quick note up front that today’s post is a little data heavy, so if you’re still adjusting to this weekend’s time change; be advised.

A few weeks back Jim Urban wrote a post entitled ‘Against mulch’ on the Deep Root blog. The principle reasons he cited for his position were: 1) Mulch floats and can clog drains and releases “lots of phosphorus” as it breaks down, and 2) work by Gilman et al. that suggest that mulch does not reduce evapo-transpiration. We discussed the Gilman et al. paper ad nauseum here already so I’ll stick to the other points.

Most organic mulches float, it’s true. However, if mulch is repeatedly washing from a bed into a drain this suggests a problem with the design as much as anything. Second, I’m not sure what constitutes “lots of phosphorus”. Branch and stem tissue of hardwood trees is about 0.1% P. If we use just the bark as mulch, the P concentration is about 0.2 to 0.3%. Is that ‘lots of phosphorus”? I don’t know. I suppose if you put enough it down and allow it wash into a drain it could be.

So let’s stick to what we do know about landscape mulch. Linda has written the most comprehensive review of mulch out there and it demonstrates the benefits of mulch. Nevertheless I’d like to add some recent observations of my own to the discussion. These come from follow-up measurement on some studies that we have already published on shrubs and conifers. But I think our new data are important because they demonstrate the long-term benefits of much on tree and shrub growth.

2006 Conifer study. In 2006 we installed a trial to compare several different weed control strategies for newly planted conifers. Weed control, either by hand, Vis-pore mulch mats or 3” of coarse wood chips, dramatically increased tree survival.
swmrec mulch survival

After 8 growing seasons, trees that had the wood chip mulch or mulch mats had significantly greater caliper than trees that were not mulched.
swmrec mulch caliper

2004 shrub study. In another trial we compared the effect of various mulch types (wood chips, pine bark, hardwood bark) on growth of common landscape shrubs (golden globe arborvitae, Runyan yew, ‘Tardiva’ hydrangea, cranberrybush viburnum, and arrowwood viburnum). We re-measured heights of the shrubs study a couple of weeks ago (nine growing seasons after installation). To keep things simple here I’ve lumped the mulches together and simply compared mulched vs. un-mulched.

After nine years mulching increased height growth for all shrubs except the arborvitae.
mulch 2013 ht

Even more interesting is that the growth benefit of mulch extends beyond the establishment phase. If we start at age 4 and look at the relative growth rate for the past five years (i.e., growth increment for past 5 years / height at 4 years) we see that mulch continues to provide a growth advantage for all shrubs except the arbs.
mulch RGR

As I said at the outset, a little data heavy today but I think this is an import point. There is a lot of discussion these days about proper planting techniques but I think after-planting care often gets overlooked and mulching is an important part of that. That’s why I’m for much.

Powers of the Mind

 

A couple of days ago I read a journal article which seemed to show that certain individuals could, using some sort of mind powers, called biofield treatments, influence the growth of plants.  You can read the article here.

In case you were wondering what goes through my mind when I read something like this, let me tell you:  The first thing that enters my head are skeptical thoughts.  I try to get rid of these quickly though, because I believe that, as a scientist, it is my job to critically evaluate the science behind the paper without letting my own preconceived notions influence me.  It’s also important to remember when reading a paper like this, which challenges preconceived notions, that this paper has gone through a significant review process.  This process does not guarantee that the paper is perfect, but it does mean that some other scientists somewhere have concluded that the paper is worth something.

OK, so now you know what goes through my head.  Next question, after reading the paper am I convinced that powers of the mind can actually make plants grow bigger and have greater yields?  The simple answer is no.  There are a lot of things that are going on here that are just odd and which raise questions, and without answers to these questions I find it difficult to believe that everything is occurring exactly as indicated in the article.  Yes, something appears to be going on, but whether it is due to “biofield treatments” isn’t clear.  To begin with, I’d like to have soil tests showing the nutrient status of the soil prior to the experiments.  I’d also like to see a nutrient analysis of the foliage of the plants at the conclusion of the experiment.  It is odd to have added the nutrients that the researchers added to test plots and to see no effect – unless a biofield treatment was used.  It also seemed odd to me that plants wilted when there was drip irrigation there.   And it seemed odd that the fertilizers used weren’t described better.  There were other things I was interested in knowing too, but I won’t bore you.

Another thing I noticed is that one of the authors of the article is actually a member of the foundation which paid for the research to be conducted — and is, in fact, the corresponding author (in other words, the author who you should contact should you have any questions).  This isn’t “against the law” or anything, but it is odd.

As a scientist it is my responsibility to acknowledge the possibility that these biofield treatments had some effect on plant growth, but to actually convince me that they did you need to write an article that is rock solid with no opportunity to say “But what about….”.  Right now this paper just doesn’t do that.  Too many odd things going on.

Are natives the answer? Revisited

I started to leave a comment on Linda’s Friday post regarding Seattle Public Utilities proposed building codes regarding “Healthy Landscapes” but decided I’d weigh in with a regular post.  Linda honed in on the 75% native requirement but there are lots of things to make one scratch their heads in the proposed codes.

Existing invasive plant species shall be removed and no invasive species planted.
No mention of how invasive plants shall be removed.  Heavy-duty herbicides? Armies of school children forced into slave labor? Slow-moving ground-fire? Goats?

75% of all new plantings will be native to Western Washington.
So where did 75% come from?  Sounds like a number that was pulled out of the air.  How is 75% defined?  75% of plants? 75% of the area?  And how does this foster “Healthy Landscapes”?  If I have a 2 acre landscape and plant an acre and half of salal or Oregon grape I’ve met the requirement of 75% but have I increased species diversity or structural diversity or contributed to a “Healthy Landscape”?

A vegetation plan must be submitted for review.
By whom?  What happens if they (whoever ‘they’ are) don’t like it?

Existing native plant species shall be protected whenever possible.
Sounds reasonable but what about existing non-invasive non-natives?  Could a homeowner be required to cut down a 40-year-old red maple?

And on and on we could go.  Let me state clearly, I’m not against native plants.  Quite the opposite – I grew up in western Washington and have a passion for PNW plants since my high school days.  Since moving to Michigan I’ve written articles and given talks promoting natives here as well. http://www.hrt.msu.edu/assets/PagePDFs/bert-cregg/GoingNative.pdf

Nonetheless, I think many in the native plant movement hurt their cause by parroting the same old lines without ever critically thinking about what they’re saying.  Repeating a lie often enough times does not make it the truth.

Let’s critically look at some of the reasons for planting natives according to the Washington State Native Plant Society:

Native plants are adapted to our climate of wet winters and dry summers.
True. But so are lots of non-natives.  Adaptedness is a function of the environment in which plants have evolved; whether it’s native or exotic.  There are many climates around the world that are similar to the PNW and can produce similarly adapted plants.

Require less water than most non-natives once they are established.
Once again, adaptations such as drought tolerance are a function of the climate under which plants evolved.  There are many exotic species that are more drought hardy than western Washington natives and likely to use less water.

Resist native pests and diseases better.
Sometimes. But unfortunately the days of worrying only about native pests are in the distant past.  Exotic pests are here and they are here to stay.  Dutch elm disease, white pine blister rust, emerald ash borer, chestnut blight, Japanese beetle, the list of exotic pests is long and getting longer.  Native does not mean pest-free.

Improve water quality by needing less fertilizer and no pesticides.
OK, here’s where I get confused.  The reasoning in Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, is that native insects don’t feed on exotic plants, therefore if we plant exotics, native food pyramids will collapse and it will be the end of life as we know it.  So… if native insects won’t feed on exotic plants, why would exotics require more pesticide use?

Save resources and encourage a sense of Stewardship.
Ok, now maybe we’re getting somewhere.  Not sure why stewardship is capitalized here but if they mean a ‘sense of place’ or a ‘connection to the natural environment’ then I can buy it.  Many native activists, including Tallamy, run away from this argument – apparently it doesn’t sound scientific enough – but it’s one of the best we have.  Washington state has some of the most incredible plants anywhere.  They should be celebrated and promoted and planted.  In my mind, the biggest reason for planting natives – along with carefully selected non-natives – is to increase overall biodiversity.  When I mention biodiversity I am speaking broadly; species diversity, structural diversity, age-class diversity, and landscape diversity.  When we look to the future we have no idea what lies ahead. We don’t know what new, exotic diseases or insects are looming on the horizon. Most of us expect climate will change but no one can say with certainty how.  Plants cannot evolve as fast as climate will change or as fast as new pest will be introduced. The only way to deal with this uncertainly is to spread the risk through diversity – this includes natives, exotics, and even interspecific hybrids.

The Wrong Message

Every once in awhile I’ll see a new garden product that really speaks to me.  Something that promises spectacular results on some garden problem that I’ve had to deal with before and attacks it in a novel way.  Then I’ll read the advertising materials for the product and be let down before even trying it.  Such is the case for a new product called Liquid Ladybug (which, by the way, is one of the niftiest product names that I’ve ever seen — so there’s a win for the company!).

According to the manufacturer Liquid Ladybug is a spray-on product which kills spidermites, evaporates quickly from the plant, and which has organic plant oils as its main active ingredient.

So far so good — and even believable.  Plant oils can kill spider mites.  Of course simply wiping the plant with a cotton swab soaked in isopropyl alcohol can do that too — or you could easily make up a soapy spray to spray on the plant which can do the same thing.  Still, the claims don’t seem too bad so far.

Here’s the part that I have a problem with — you can, and are all but encouraged to, spray this stuff with no protection (like gloves).  See the website here .  Is this a bright thing to advertise?  Many plant oils don’t agree with eyes, mucous membranes, or beneficial insects, and let’s not even get started with allergies!  In my opinion this is reckless, foolish advertising.  Pesticides, organic or not, need to be respected.  Without that respect we inadvertantly put ourselves into bad situations. Another problem with this products is that it is likely to kill any predatory mites or other soft bodied beneficial insects just as readily as it kills bad mites.

And check out the price of this stuff!

My advice, skip this product and use insecticidal soap, or, if you’re anxious to try something new, try a beneficial insect such as the big eyed bug or minute pirate bug.

It’s That Time of Year

This time of year is tough for folks who do work with plants.  It’s the happiest time of year because the world is turning green again, but it’s also the busiest time of year because we need to be inside teaching, outside planting, and also on the road since spring talks are finishing up.  Honestly I’m having trouble finding an hour to myself to work on writing up papers and articles.

That said, let me leave you with something that’s been bugging me the last few days (based on an article I read a few years ago).  If a person were in inhale a small seed, would it grow into their lungs?

What do you think?  Real or BS?

What can CO2 do for you?!

Well, it looks like the climate change skeptics are starting to hedge their bets.  Global climate is not changing.  But if it does change, it’ll change for the better.  At least that’s the gist of a book by the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change entitled The Many Benefits of Atmospheric CO2 Enrichment”.  The book documents 55 different ways that increasing global CO2 will benefit the world.  Most of this is built on studies documenting increases in plant growth and/or photosynthesis associated with increasing CO2.  If you’re interested you can look at a preview of the book at:

http://www.co2science.org/education/book/2011/55BenefitsofCO2Pamphlet.pdf

While CO2 enrichment can benefit plants and trees in the short term, it’s less clear how they will respond over the long term.  For example, nutrition or water may soon become limiting such that the full CO2 ‘fertilization’ effect is never realized.  Also, it’s likely that certain plants will benefit more from increased CO2 than others: Will exotic invasives gain an additional advantage over natives?  And, of course, if rising CO2 results in increased global temps (which the Center denies) then all bets are off.

 

You can learn more about the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change at their website http://www.co2science.org/  There is a tab on the homepage where you can donate to support their cause.  Why not?  Exxon/Mobil already has.