The sorry state of whole plant physiology

Okay, I’m biased:  I’m a whole plant physiologist, meaning that I like to study entire plants in their environment, not just their cells or DNA in a lab.  I got hooked on plants as an undergraduate in marine biology when I took plant physiology for “fun” (translated: I couldn’t find another biology elective to fill the time slot).  Discovering why vines curl around fenceposts (thigmotropism) or how plants sense gravity (statoliths) or why bilaterally symmetrical flowers evolved (to accomodate pollinators) was fascinating, and I finally succumbed to the green side when I entered my PhD program.

The book I used as a student was Salisbury & Ross’s Plant Physiology.  There were other texts out there, but this was my bible and I used newer editions when I began to teach Plant Physiology.  Recently (as some of you know) I’ve begun to write a garden book on how plants work.  Plant physiology, of course, is the underlying science, and I needed a new text for fact checking.

Salisbury and Ross, sadly, has not been updated since 1991, so I went with Taiz and Zeiger (which has also been around a long time).  It was a shock for me to discover that plant physiology has somehow morphed into plant molecular biology.  The books is full of gene acronyms and regulatory pathways…but very little of what fascinated me as a student.

Science has been on the reductionist pathway for a long time, and there’s no denying that understanding how genes are regulated is important.  But except for the fields of human and veterinary medicine, we’re losing our understanding of how organisms work.  Faculty experts who specialized in studying algae or mosses or grasses or trees for the sole purpose of increasing our understanding of these species have been replaced with those whose research programs can generate big dollars for cash-strapped universities.  The void left by academia’s abandonment of practical plant science is quickly filled with pseudoscience and mysticism, particularly in alternative agriculture.

All I can say is that if I had been confronted with the 2010 Taiz and Zeiger text as an undergraduate I would have a PhD in marine biology instead.

6 thoughts on “The sorry state of whole plant physiology”

  1. I used Taiz and Zeiger in my second year plant physiology subjects for the Bachelor of Horticulture I did, and I have to say I found little of the content in it directly usable out in the field. And I’ve forgotten most of it even though I gained a good grade in the subjects. Such is life I guess…

  2. Thanks for articulating what seems to be a really major shift in plant physiology! Taxonomy is reflecting that shift toward using molecular/genetic information, rather than larger organism characteristics, and the resulting new plant names seem to be created mainly for the pleasure of the taxonomists. It sounds like your new book will be something of an antidote to that trend toward hair-splitting.

  3. Linda, I’ve met people who study corn but have never seen a corn plant, or who study lignin in pine but wouldn’t know a pine if they saw it. ‘Why’ and ‘how’ plants and their structures do things can get really complicated, but they can enrich the understanding of ‘what’ whole plants do. But it depends on how far down the
    rabbit hole you want to go. Petunias are long-day plants. To me, that’s a useful (but boring) fact. However, the story of florigen (FT protein), how it was discovered, and what it does is fascinating to me. Somewhere in between is probably something that more people would be interested in (and probably where your book is going to fit nicely).

  4. Deb,
    I agree that constantly changing plant taxonomy is confusing, but I also think taxonomists really know what they’re doing when they split hairs (or lump them together). They don’t need to care what a horticulturist wants to name a plant, they only need to be concerned with what molecular AND morphological data are true. From that, plants are grouped.
    For example, tomato (formerly Lycopersicon esculentum) was obviously in the Solanaceae, but renaming it Solanum lycopersicum follows the rule that says it must have the name that was first given to it if it is still biologically valid, but more practically, the name also reinforces the idea that tomato is just a different kind of Solanum tuberosum (potato).
    Don’t blame the data!
    http://ddr.nal.usda.gov/bitstream/10113/2510/1/IND20358894.pdf

  5. Sigh. Having watched a freshwater aquatic fisheries study in which student researchers were counting how many times fry “burped” out particular zooplankton, I can safely assert that there’s plenty of esoteric research, at least in freshwater biology. But I totally agree with your blog: I nod off when particularly narrowly focused formulae hit the whiteboard in my hort classes.

  6. It seems as if our ever expanding data base of information is getting us to the point where the big picture generalist may be headed for academic extinction. This will be a terrible thing because it is the generalist who can bring a wide range of information together for the most important ideas of all- the big ideas that change the game. Linda, I too look forward to the completion of your book as my interest in plants is very big picture- I want to see the entire plant in my mind and understand what’s happening from the finest threads of root and symbiotic fungus to the developing shoots at the tips of the outstretched branches.

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