Saturday, July 30, 2016

What Do You Know, I Wrote A Book!

This post has little to do with biological exceptions, but if you find the writing on this blog at all appealing, then perhaps you will like this topic as well. I have finished a book for Springer Scientific Publishing, and this book is now ready for pre-ordering and e-book sales. The book is entitled, The Realization of Star Trek Technologies: The Science, Not Fiction, Behind Brain Implants, Plasma Shields, Quantum Computing, and More.

A new Star Trek movie was just released, and September marks the 50th anniversary of the airing of the first episodes of the original Star Trek series. To mark the occasion, I have investigated just how close science is to producing all those great technologies introduced in the various Star Trek series and movies.

As I started my research, it soon became apparent that some technological goals presented in the shows have been met and even surpassed (cell phones, tablet computers, talking computers, hand held scanners, etc.). But more surprising was how far science has come in producing working versions of larger technologies.

Would you believe that lasers have been produced that can pull objects toward the source of the light. That's a tractor beam to you people less interested in Sci-Fi. Even more amazing, brain implants are on the market right now that can restore vision to the blind, a la Geordi's VISOR. They even have the ability to see beyond visible light, just like Commander La Forge could.

Perhaps the two most amazing advances are in the areas of cloaking devices and teletransportation. Engineers and physicists can render objects invisible to wavelengths of light, allowing someone to sense what is behind the object as if it weren't there at all. That's a true cloak, not a trick with mirrors or cameras. And finally, transporters may be decades away, but scientists have begun to teletransport energy, atoms and information from one place to another - without ever existing anywhere in between. The distance record is now farther than what would be needed to transport things from space to the Earth's surface.

In all, nine Star Trek technologies are discussed in the book, including how they are used in the franchise, how they are explained to function, and how prophetic the creators were - the ways things really work is so close to how they were predicted.

The hard copy, e-book, and individual chapters can be pre-ordered from Springer Scientific Publishing:

or from Amazon Books:

The hard copy of the book should be available for shipping in September.

Here endeth the commercial.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Nature Of Science Of Nature

I have judged many a science fair project in my
day. It is a learning experience, so adherence to
the steps of the scientific method taught in most
classes is O.K. But the students should realize
that there isn’t just one scientific method. This
young lady’s strategy was to take all the available
time and be the only project that got judged;
therefore, she's the winner.
A summary of the usual (but hopefully disappearing) lecture on the scientific method –
      1.     Define a problem
      2.     Research what is known
      3.     Hypothesize a cause
      4.     Test your hypothesis
      5.     Analyze your results
      6.     Support or refute your hypothesis

In the next few class periods, a few examples are identified and the class works through them. And there is always the "design an experiment to prove your hypothesis."

The question of the day:
Is this the only method to conduct science?

I don’t have room to go into all the things that are wrong with the process as it is enumerated above, but let’s hit a couple.

One big problem is the idea of supporting or refuting your hypothesis (hypo = under, and thesis = proposition; a supporting basis for an argument). True, your experiment may do one or the other, but it doesn’t have to. Many experiments end up with ambiguous results, especially if the scientist is doing his or her job.

I am using this picture because I couldn’t find a
way to work the quote into the post. But in truth,
science is like life, better results often come from
many trials. So... science is like life which is like 
The design of the experiment should minimize any confounding effects that would render the results less than explicit. But, as the old saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” The middle of an experiment is often a learning moment. It is when you get into a study that you find the things that are going to make the study useless. Then you go back and design a better experiment.

Let’s say you have designed an experiment that will have a definitive result. What result are you going for? Most will say that you are trying to see if your hypothesis is supported. But anyone can design an experiment to give a desired result. Your hypothesis says “A” should occur if you do “B,” so you design an experiment to make sure “A” occurs. It doesn’t even have to be a conscious effort, your design will just tend toward that result.

A truly scientific experiment is designed to REFUTE your hypothesis. You design an experiment to prove your hypothesis is not true. If, under those, conditions, your hypothesis is still supported, then you really have something. If a scientist tries his/her best to refute their own hypothesis and can’t, the chances that the hypothesis is correct go way up. Then you report your results and let other scientists try to design an experiment to show your hypothesis is wrong. If they can’t do it either, then you are really onto something. Real scientists try to prove themselves wrong, not right. The big idea - you can never PROVE a hypothesis, you just have data to support it. But the next experiment may refute it. You can always design another experiment to test the hypothesis, so no hypothesis is ever proven absolutely. True science proceeds when you refute a hypothesis; only then can you make a concrete change to move closer to the truth.

Negative results and refuted hypotheses are the basis of science; 
too bad they get a bad rap.  Can you think of another profession 
where being wrong is your goal?
This leads to the next problem implied by the process outlined above. It is usually taught that negative data is a bad thing. Even people in the profession often downplay the importance of negative data; ie. data that does not give a result that is publishable.

Editors don't get excited over studies saying we tried this and it didn't work. But, an experiment that doesn’t work isn’t necessarily bad – you can learn a lot from it and so can other scientists. Unfortunately, journals don’t like to publish this data, so those who might learn from it don’t get to hear it.

This is one reason why it is important for scientists to have meetings and talk to one another personally, not to just write journal manuscripts and funding applications. Case in point, it turns out that studies that show new drugs aren't cure-alls, that they don't do what they say or don't do it as well as they say don't published. Ben Goldacre gave a recent TED talk on the subject, and has numbers to back up his assertions that negative data studies on drug efficacies hardly ever see the light of day.

In fact, negative data is the most common data and often the most useful. Refuting your hypothesis is a type of negative data. When faced with this result, you modify or discard your hypothesis and try again. You can design a thousand experiments that support your hypothesis and still not prove that your idea is the true mechanism - you may just not have thought of the experiment to disprove it yet. Like we discussed above, just one experiment that DISPROVES your hypothesis results in a step forward. Like Thomas Edison said, "If I find 1000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."

Negative data truly moves us forward, in fact failing is the only way we move forward. But this still leaves a problem with the way science is taught. Is there good data that is neither positive or negative? We tend to think of data only as that information that supports or refutes a hypothesis, but do you have to have a hypothesis?

This is the black walnut tree (Juglans nigrans).
The one in our front yard is about 70 feet tall and
produces over 200-300 kg (500-650 lb) of fruit.  
Black walnut dye comes from the husk, not the 
nut, and is yellow when immature and black 
when mature.
Consider an experiment I have been conducting for the last 13 years. We have a black walnut tree in our front yard, and I have been counting the number of black walnuts it drops every year since we moved in. I had no mechanism I was trying to define, I just wanted to know how many walnuts the tree produced.

Here is my data:
Year                        # of walnuts
2003                        3662
2004                        604
2005                        3508
2006                        368
2007                        4917
2008                        0                           
2009                        6265         
2010                        0             
2011                        6395
2012                        6
                                                                                       2013                        2140
                                                                                       2014                        159
                                                                                       2015                        1825

Now, we can ask a question and hypothesize a mechanism? What is responsible for the pattern in nut production, and why do the results keep diverging? Does that mean that my original observations aren’t science? True – you could say that I was answering a question about how many nuts the tree produces, but I did not have a hypothesis that I was trying to dispute. This is true science, but not the kind we teach in school. Is the change in the pattern during the middle years accounted for by weather? Do the fewer nuts later mean that the tree is dying?

Black walnut meats are expensive because
they are hard to get out of the shell. But the
shell is also economically important, used in
paints, oil wells, explosives, cosmetics, cleaning
and polishing agents, and jet blasting of metallic
and plastic surfaces.
Try this experiment at your school. Find a tree and start to count the nuts, or find a sapling and count the leaves each year. You can keep this experiment going over a number of years, with each class adding their data.

But the real learning is in defining the limits and possible confounding effects that could lead to errors. Did the tree lose a limb and therefore produce fewer nuts the next year? Was there an explosion in the squirrel population, and they stole all the nuts before you could count them? What was the weather over the time period you observed, could a change in weather account for a change in number? Is there another walnut tree too close, and the nuts are getting mixed up? Am I just getting better at finding and counting the nuts each year?

Squirrels are kind cute, if you forgive them for
carrying rabies. Here, he represents one source
of possible error in my black walnut counts. Can
you assume that every year they steal about the
same percentage of nuts before I can count them?
I have asked these questions and am observing multiple parameters to see if they account for the pattern in nut production. But there may also be a biologic reason, something to do with energy output versus opportunity to produce offspring. All these items can be investigated and used to better explain the observations.

Each might be considered a hypothesis – the weather affects nut production, so you try to show that different weather years had the same nut production – hypothesis refuted. The squirrel population exploded – talk to the local nature experts, if the number has been fairly constant- hypothesis refuted. There is an almost infinite number of possible confounding effects, and your class can come up and test as many as their brains can think up. Now that is a true scientific method!

Ben Goldacre (2012). What doctors don't know about the drugs they prescribe. TED MED 2012

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Take Off Your Coat And Stay Awhile

Biology concepts – thermoregulation, ectothermy, endothermy, genetic mutation 

Let me introduce you to the most wondrous animal on the surface of the Earth, or under the surface of the Earth – the naked mole rat, Heterocephalus glaber (hetero  = different and cephalus = headed, refers to the fact that it lives in a colony where different members have different jobs; glaber = smooth skin).

Why, you ask, is this pruny thumb with two eyes the most incredible animal? Its odd looks and cutsie pink color belie the fact that this rodent is the most heinous rule breaker in all the biological world. It hasn’t meant a convention it wouldn't defy or a norm at which it wouldn’t thumb its nose.

Meet H. glaber, the naked mole rat. He has teeth, pink skin, and a probable
inferiority complex. The right image shows that H. glaber is not much bigger
than the thumb he resembles.
Take for instance, its name – NAKED mole rat. It is a mammal, but it’s naked. Mammals are always covered with hair or fur, but not his guy. Even we humans, the most hairless of all the apes (except for Robin Williams, he looks like he wears a sweater into the pool), look like we’re covered in fur compared to this rodent.

Look at yourself in a mirror. There’s hair on top of your head (well at least most of you). There is fine, unpigmented vellus hair (vellus = fleece in latin) that we know as peach fuzz, on your arms and legs when young and more coarse hair when older. You see eyebrows, and nose hairs as well. There is hardly a spot on us that isn’t hairy, save the palms of our hands to increase friction for gripping, and the soles of our feet, probably to keep it from tickling when we walk.

H. glaber eschews all this hair, but even he isn’t completely naked. From the picture, you can see the several sets of whiskers protruding from the wrinkly pink face that only a very devoted mother could love. The whiskers are crucial to helping the mole rat make its way in its surroundings, and therefore have not been lost, but why on Earth is it nearly naked?

The horn of Africa, a great place not to be noticed, and hot enough
to make underground living a plus.
The reason lies in how and where the naked mole rat lives. Found only in the desert of the horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea), this rodent that is neither a mole nor a rat lives underground its entire life. It burrows to find roots to nibble on, and they can be few and far between – it’s a desert for crying out loud!

In its tunnels, body hair imparts no advantage, and can contribute to negative outcomes, such as carriage of parasites (this is why scientists believe humans lost most of their hair), overheating, or getting stuck in narrow spaces. The mole rat’s skin helps with this last problem, although it seems counter-intuitive. Defensive lineman in football like to wear very tight uniforms so that the offense has nothing to grab a hold of, and it would follow that a tight skin on the naked mole rat would also help it slide around and not get caught on anything.

But the advantage to big skin is that the rat can turn around almost completely in its uniform, and dig from any direction to move itself along. Like the owl that can turn its head 270˚, the naked mole rat can rotate its whole body to get out of a jam. That loose skin is also helpful in traffic jams; mole rats can slip past one another in a tunnel without even slowing down.

The whiskers serve to guide the mole rat around in its dark environment. It feels its way, it feels for its food, and it feels other mole rats that it may meet in the tunnels. Therefore, the hairs it has kept serve a definite purpose, and one can see why there are whiskers along its entire body, as opposed to just around its nose (see photograph above).

Other mammals might appear to hairless, some even have it in their name, but they don’t match H. glaber for nakedness on an overall basis. Rhinoceroses, elephants, pigs, they all have coarse hair on many parts of their bodies, so they can’t compete for the world hairlessness title. Even marine mammals like whales and dolphins have some hair (mostly when they are younger) and have nose hairs as well (so I’m told – I never looked up a dolphin’s nose). The Sphynx cat is supposedly hairless, but its entire body is covered in vellus hair.

Dolphins have whisker as infants, and the whisker pits help sense electrical fields. The Sphynx cat was revered by the ancient Egyptians, which was fine, because the Egyptians shaved off most of their own hair. On the right, the Xoloitzcuintli was said by the Aztecs to guard human souls in the underworld. It looks intimidating enough to be good at that.

Finally, there is the Mexican hairless breed of dog, properly called the Xoloitzcuintli or Xoloitzcuintle. While some of these dogs are completely hairless, it is a mutation rather than normally occurring. Hairlessness is the dominant form of the mutation, but even most of these animals have hair on their heads and tails. It is less common that the dog is completely hairless.

Powder was a 1995 movie about a young man with alopecia
universalis amidst other issues, like psychokinesis and a lack
of sun exposure.
Humans can also be hairless, called Alopecia universalis (alopecia is Greek for “fox mange” and universalis means everywhere). The condition is an autoimmune disorder, meaning that our own immune system has decided that our hair follicles are no longer part of us and are attacked as being foreign. Many human diseases can be autoimmune in origin, including diabetes and muscular dystrophy.

But of all the animals mentioned, H. glaber takes the crown as hairlessiest! And it serves a good purpose. Along with living underground, living in a community, having smooth skin, living in a desert, and having a limited food source – these features have contributed to another decision nature has thrust on H. glaber, it is ectothermic! It doesn’t warm itself, rather it assumes the temperature of its surroundings. Is that any way for a self-respecting mammal to behave?

In the cold, hair traps air and keeps it close to the body to act as thermal insulation. However, H. glaber is communal, and they have larger chambers in which they all huddle together during sleep. Over the course of the cold desert night, the mole rats will rotate positions, so no one animal is on the outside for too long, much like penguins do in Antarctica. This keeps them warm and negates the need for hair as an insulator.

The communal sleeping is just one aspect of the social life of H. glaber. There are one of only two eusocial mammals. The have a queen and a caste system, like many bees and ants. A recent study shows that the queen is very important to the building of the tunnels, as well as all aspects of H. glaber life. 

The tunnels of each worker may be widened to form sleeping chambers or pup rearing chambers, but which. The 2012 study indicates that the presence of the queen will increase the dirt moving by all castes, while workers will work more than the others if she is not present. What is more, the odor of the queen is enough to increase the dirt moving in a particular area, so her movements do influence the geometry of the nest.

An arrector pili muscle is attached to every hair on your body. You can
see that if it contracts (shortens), the hair will stand up. Thank you,
black cat for the Halloweenish demonstration.
Hair can also act to dissipate heat. In most mammals, each hair is attached to a small muscle (arrector pilori; pili is the plural) that can stand the hair on end and release the trapped warm next to the body, cooler air will then carry the heat away from the skin and the hairs, thereby reducing the temperature of the animal. Interestingly, this same action is seen when we get scared. The fright or flight release of adrenaline causes the arrector pili muscles to contract; think of how a cat’s tail gets bushy and the hair on its back stands up when scared. The arrector pilli muscles will also spasm in an effort to produce added heat when the skin gets cold (goose bumps).

Being underground all the time means that H. glaber is protected from the most intense heat of the desert day and therefore needs fewer thermoregulatory mechanisms.  So, the naked mole rat doesn’t need to dissipate heat via the arrector pilli action.

Finally, by practicing ectothermy, the naked mole rats reduce the amount of food they have to consume; they don’t need all that energy to produce heat and maintain a constant temperature. This works out well for them, since they live in the desert where there isn’t a heck of a lot food for them anyway. Could H. glaber have ended up as anything other than ectothermic? Its design just makes too much sense for its environment. We could learn a thing or three from how nature has tweaked its design.

And we have only scratched the surface of the ways that this rodent refuses to conform to established biological norms. Future posts will introduce more aspects of this amazing animal’s physiology, including longevity, pathology (or lack thereof), social structure, senses, immunity, biochemistry, and reproduction.

But you’ll have to wait for those stories. Next time we will turn our attention to a necessity of all life, sleep. But aren’t we learning that no single characteristic applies to ALL life – there’s always an exception.

Kutsukake, N., Inada, M., Sakamoto, S., & Okanoya, K. (2012). A Distinct Role of the Queen in Coordinated Workload and Soil Distribution in Eusocial Naked Mole-Rats PLoS ONE, 7 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0044584

For additional information, classroom activities or laboratories on H. glaber, animal hair, alopecia universalis, arrector pili:

H. glaber

animal hair –

alopecia universalis –

arrector pili –

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Perils of Plant Monogamy

Biology concepts – pollination, single pollinator, co-evolution, co-divergence

What’s bugging her, it’s supposed to be a party!
Imagine the best party of the year – it’s cold outside, but hot inside. The food is great, all your friends are there, everyone is receptive to flirtations by the opposite sex, it lasts for two nights in a row where it is, and then picks up in a new location again and again. Where is it and how do I get invited?

Last week we learned that the Philodendron selloum flower becomes endothermic for a 2 day period each year in order to facilitate its pollination. In this state, it attracts a single species of beetle, which parties down inside the flower and then takes the pollen to the next party - sort of BYOP.

The heating of the P. selloum spadix evaporates and spreads a pheromone that attracts male Cyclocephala beetles. Pollination by beetles (cantharophily) is not one of the most common mechanisms for the spread of pollen to ovules; pollination by bees (melittophily), butterflies (psychophily), or even the wind (anemophily) is more common. In most cases of cantharophily, the flowers are big, white, strong-smelling, and the male flowers are usually eaten but the ovaries are protected. This is exactly the scenario in P. selloum.

When the male beetles enter the flower, the angle of the spadix makes the male flowers available to be eaten, while the covering of the spathe discourages the beetles from leaving the pit. The nectar, pheromone, and flowers help draw the beetles in, but it is really the atmosphere and the company that keep them there.

Female beetles are drawn to the warm temperatures as well, as this affords the beetles the ability to feed and mate through the night, when the ambient temperature outside the flower would require them to slow down their activity (being ectotherms).

The Cyclocephala beetles, but there are other examples.
Orchids are famous for finicky polli beetles follow the
pheromone back to the flower, and after partying, the
flower closes down and kicks them out.
As the party winds down in this first P. selloum, the temperature is reduced and the spathe starts to close down on the spadix, forcing the beetles out – it’s closing time, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here (lyrics by Third Eye Blind). As the beetles leave the flower two things happen, first they pass the viscidium, which coats the beetles with a sticky substance, and then they pass by the pollinia, which covers them with pollen grains.

The next night, a new P. selloum is ready to open its doors for the party. When the previous night’s revelers show up with their coating of pollen, they head directly to the nectar bar at the bottom of the pit, right where the female flowers are located. While getting their first drink of the night, they deposit the pollen on female flowers that reside there and pollinate the plant. The beetles do the work, but their rewards (increased mating time, increased food) are as important to them as the pollen is to P. selloum.

Pollinators can various animals.Non-animal 
pollinators work in some cases too,
such as wind and water.
This is one type of pollination party, but not the only one. Most plants invite a variety of different pollinators, or a plant might self-pollinate. In some orchids of colder regions where pollinators are particularly rare, self-pollination can be a last resort. If the flower is not visited by any pollinator, the caudicle (the stalk on which the pollen resides) will shrivel up in a particular shape, dropping the pollen directly on the stigma (containing the eggs).

Most plants invite pollinators of different species.  One bee may be a particularly effective pollinator of a particular plant, but that plant is probably also visited by a fly, a butterfly, a bird, a beetle, etc.  Few plants have a single pollinator, but P. selloum is one exception. While Cyclocephala beetle may pollinate other plants as well, it is the only species that pollinates P. selloum.

Single pollinators provide advantages to the plant. The need to attract only one species reduces the energy a plant must expend to attract multiple pollinators. Some pollinators are attracted to color, some to different scents, some to different UV patterns, some to different nectars. To draw different pollinators the plant will have to have many attractants, and this costs energy. 

The more pollinators a flower depends on, the more energy the plant must spend on attractants. For instance, some flowers use color and UV patterns, as on the left. Some flowers use nectar and visible light patterns, as with the pitcher plant. The red flower is rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. It smells like rotting flesh to attract flies. Some flowers use mimicry, like the bee orchid on the right, it looks like a female bee and attracts males that will try to mate with it.
Another advantage is seen after the pollen is gathered on the pollinator. In order for a pollination to be successful, the pollen must be delivered to the female organs of a plant of the same species. If a pollinator species has developed a relationship with a certain plant (attracted by a specific odor or color, etc.) then the chances are higher that it will visit another plant of the same species after gathering pollen. This increases the chances of cross-pollination.

The dependence of a plant on a specific pollinator amplifies the plant’s vulnerability if there is a decrease in the pollinator numbers. It has no second option for pollination. This is one reason why cross-pollination is preferred to self-pollination. Evolution does not anticipate the future; it proceeds as if the pollinators are present in good numbers. The plant needs the greatest diversity of gene mutations and rearrangements in order to adapt to unanticipated changes in pollinator number, behavior, or preference. This diversity is provided by cross-pollination with another plant, not by reiteration of existing gene patterns by pollination with the plant’s own genome.

The disadvantage of employing a single pollinator is becoming more obvious. Recent years have seen large decreases in wild pollinator populations. Honeybees have experienced colony collapse disorder, and 2011 figures indicate that 10% of American bumblebee species are near extinction. More than 40 species of pollinating insects in the US are endangered, and even more shocking, 1200 vertebrate species of pollinators are termed “at risk.” If this many pollinator species are in decline, even plants pollinated by multiple species might feel the pinch. Can you imagine how many plants that rely on a single species of pollinator might be in danger of extinction?

Many orchids use a single pollinator. Orchids are the most 
diverse flower group, as show by the Dracula orchid, 
the spectacle orchid, and the small tongue orchid, left to right.
P. selloum is an interesting exception to the rule of multiple pollinators, but there are other examples. For instance, orchids are famous for finicky pollination. There are >25,000 species of orchids, the largest group of plants (in contrast, all birds represent only ~10,000 species), and single pollinators are responsible for the propagation of thousands of them. In South America and South Africa, the number of single pollinator species is quite high, including many orchid species. (Why? I have no idea.)

The specific interactions between the single pollinator and the plant it pollinates are often a result of co-evolution. In technical terms, this means describes the reciprocal natural selection and evolutionary change that occurs between two species by exertion of selective pressure on each other. The two species could be trying to outfox one another, like a parasite and its host, or could be working together, like the pollinator and pollinated.

As the two interacting species interact, they may evolve so that they rely solely on each other for that particular interaction. This could also lead to each species diverging from its closest relatives. This particular type of co-evolution is called co-divergence.

Co-divergent speciation can be seen in the host parasite relationship between the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, and humans. When humans and chimps diverged (about 4-7 million years ago), some P. falciparum evolved to infect only chimps, while others followed human evolution and became specific for humans.

The Darwin hawk moth wasn’t known when the star orchid
was first described. Charles Darwin just predicted it must exist.
Predicting the existence of a moth with 35 cm tongue didn’t win   
Darwin many fans, but he was right.

In similar fashion, there are numerous plants that have co-evolved with a pollinator. The Angraecum sesquipedale orchid (star orchid) is a classic example. Charles Darwin was sent several examples of this flower and described them in an 1862 publication. Darwin noted that the nectar of this flower was located deep within a hollow spur. To reach the nectar, a pollinator would bump into the pollen and it would stick.


However, the tube was so narrow, that no known insect could have been considered a pollinator of this plant. Darwin predicted that an insect with a 30-35 cm proboscis (tongue-like appendage) would be found pollinating A. sesquipedale. He was ridiculed for such a bold proposition, but 40 years later, just such an insect was discovered, the Xanthopan morganii praedicta moth (named for Darwin’s prediction).

Nature is full of exceptions to the rule of multiple pollinators, including snapdragons that need a bee of specific weight to trip the opening mechanism of the flower. Several orchids that use the same single pollinator place the pollen on different parts of the pollinator’s body, so that female flowers of the same species will come into contact with the correct pollen. These are still exceptions, as the vast majority of plants use multiple pollinators – they just aren’t as interesting.

We have seen a plant that can become endothermic in order to pollinate. Next time we will look at a mammal that has gone the other direction, but for the same reason - survival.

Chupp AD, Battaglia LL, Schauber EM, & Sipes SD (2015). Orchid-pollinator interactions and potential vulnerability to biological invasion. AoB PLANTS, 7 PMID: 26286221 Whitehead MR, & Peakall R (2014). 

Pollinator specificity drives strong prepollination reproductive isolation in sympatric sexually deceptive orchids. Evolution; international journal of organic evolution, 68 (6), 1561-75 PMID: 24527666

For more information, classroom activities and laboratories on P. selloum, pollinators and co-evolution, see:

P. selloum

pollinators –

co-evolution –

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Is It Hot In Here Or Is It Just My Philodendron?

Biology concepts – thermoregulation, pollination, tropisms, flower structure, plant communication

In many ways, plants are “smarter” than people (forgive the anthropomorphism). We can change our environment to suit our needs or move to a better environment. But plants can’t flip the light switch, can’t buy a bottle of water to quench their thirst, can’t turn on the air conditioner, and can’t hire a truck and move all their stuff to a better place.

Plants can react to many physical signals. We can sense gravity, but they can
differentiate parts of themselves with gravity – roots grow towards gravity
(positive geotropism) and stems grow away from gravity (negative geotropism).
So what can plants do given these limitations? They can make their own food (photosynthesis) – they’ve got us beat right there. They can turn to face the light (phototropism) or the sun (heliotropism). These abilities were explained by none other than Charles Darwin and his son in an elegant series of experiments in 1880.

Plant stems can grow away from gravity (negative geotropism or gravitism), while their roots grow toward gravity (positive geotropism) or water (hydrotropism). Finally, plants can twist around a wire and hold on (thigmotropism). Pretty talented, wouldn't you say? 

But wait, there's more. Plants can also communicate with one another. They alter their biochemistry to become less appealing to predatory insects or microorganisms, and their responses become better with each attack. After they develop a good defense for a particular predator, they will warn nearby members of the same species via dispersed chemicals. The warned plants then generate the best defense the first time they are attacked.

Plants can also recognize kin – and be nice to them. Research shows that plants grow less aggressively when surrounded by seedlings from the same mother plant compared to when surrounded by non-kin competitors. I wish I could get my kids to act that nicely towards one another.

Plants also commune with animals. The acacia tree has an arrangement with the ants that live on it. The tree produces hollow thorns for the ants to live in, and produces food for them to eat. In exchange, the ants protect the plant from predators such as caterpillars by attacking them. The ants will also prune away dead leaves and destroy nearby plants that might compete with their tree for light.

The acacia tree provides hollow thorns for ants to live in; the tree’s wood is so hard
that the ants can’t hollow it out on their own. The acacia wood was once used as nails. 
The acacia is related to the mimosa (sensitive plant) we discussed previously.
This is a great arrangement for both ant and tree (symbiotic mutualism), but becomes tricky during pollination. The ants will attack any insect that touches their tree; even potential pollinators.  So the acacia produces a chemical at the flower when an insect lands to feed on the nectar; it says, “this guy is O.K., don’t kill him.” Amazing - I can’t get the cats to come when I call them - and I feed them! Maybe saying someone is as dumb as a potted plant isn’t much of an insult.

Plants may be “smart” about temperature as well. They don’t regulate their own heat, and are usually the same temperature as the surrounding environment. Remember from the last post that it takes lots of energy to be an endotherm, so ectothermic plants enjoy great energy savings by adopting room temperature as their own.

A few plants can spike their temperature for a short time, usually to attract pollinators, but they can’t regulate the temperature. It is like setting a fire; it burns at as high a temperature as the fuel will allow, and then goes out.

P. selloum grows in tropical environments, but can
be found as a landscape planting in Georgia, the
Carolinas, and the gulf coast. It can grow 8 meters
(26 ft) tall and the leaves can be 1 meter (3 ft) in width.
Our exception to the rule of plant ectothermy is the philodendron. Many species of this genus can raise their temperature during the period when they produce pollen, and can regulate that temperature over a short period of time (2 days). The species Philodendron selloum (P. selloum, also called Philodendron bipinnatifidum, split leaf philodendron, tree philodendron) has been the most studied and will serve as our model.

P. selloum flowers in a structure called an inflorescence. This consists of a covering spathe and a spadix in the center. The flowers are located on the spadix, with a specific arrangement of male and female flowers, making the philodendron a monoecious plant (male and female on same plant). However, the flowers are incomplete, since each individual flower has only the male (pollen producing stamen) or female (ovule containing pistil) organs.

The flower of P. selloum is about 25 cm (10 in)
tall and the flowers are plain white, as it does
not use color to attract pollinators.
The male flowers are located on the top half of the spadix, while the middle region contains sterile male flowers, and the female flowers are located at the base. This arrangement, with the sterile gap in the middle, decreases the chances that the pollinators will pollinate a female flower on the same plant (self-pollination).

Self-pollination reduces genetic diversity as the offspring are clones of the parent (we will talk more about this next time). Also to help prevent self-pollination, the male flowers produce pollen in the first evening of the anthesis; the time period when the flower is open and fully functional. The female flowers can receive pollen on the second evening.

The spadix can reach and hold temperatures of 45 ˚C (113˚F)
and is most concentrated in the sterile male flowers. The female
flowers don’t produce heat, as this would damage the ovules.
P. selloum raises the temperature of the spadix, specifically the male flowers. The attractant is a female beetle sex pheromone that makes male beetles of a specific species think that potential mates are on this particular flower. To maximize the effect of the pheromone, the increased temperature of the spadix volatilizes the chemical (evaporates it into the air) so it can spread a greater distance. The beetles just follow their nose back to the correct plant!

The heat comes from a special reaction within the plant. Photosynthesis is actually an endergonic (energy consuming) reaction, it eats up heat, leaving the plant cooler. But respiration (creating ATP from the carbohydrates of photosynthesis) is exorgonic (heat releasing). These two processes are basically a wash, so P. selloum needs another way to generate the heat for the spadix.

Moreover, the P. selloum heat production must correlate to the time when the pollen is mature, must be localized to the spadix, and must be regulated. To do this, the philodendron has independently evolved the same trick that human babies use to stay warm!

Babies have a big surface area compared to their volume, so they tend to lose heat rapidly. This is why parents dress babies warmer than they dress themselves. To generate more heat, babies have brown fat (brown adipose tissue or BAT). BAT has more mitochondria than regular adipose (fat) tissue, and the iron in the mitochondria make this fat appear almost brown in color. The increased mitochondrial number helps to generate more heat as the fat is metabolized.

Fat is metabolized to generate heat instead of carbohydrates because it has more energy. Fat carries almost 9 kcal/gm, while carbohydrates contain only 4 kcal/gm. This is also why fat is used to store energy, it would take more than 2.5x the volume to store the same energy if it were all in the form of carbohydrate, especially since carbohydrates are connected with water when stored, while fats are not. Being fat is actually the most compact way to store energy.

Brown adipose tissue (BAT) has a centrally located nucleus and
several small lipid droplets in order to make room for the many
mitchondria. On the right, white fat cells have an offset nucleus
and are completely filled with a single lipid droplet.
To really up the heat ante, the mitochondria have an uncoupling protein (UCP) that disconnects the burning of fat from the generation of ATP. Instead of putting some of the energy into making ATP, all the energy is put toward giving off heat. Since babies aren’t coordinated enough to exercise to increase heat, and shivering isn’t that efficient, this non-shivering thermogenesis (NST) is their way to stay warm.

It was thought that adults didn’t have BAT, but recent studies indicate that most adults have some, and some people have a lot. BAT generation can actually help keep you thin, because the BAT is more readily metabolized –regular fat is a guard against bad times and the body holds on to it tightly, but BAT it is meant to be burned. New research suggests that chronic cold can stimulate BAT development, so forget your winter coat and just freeze your way into that size two.

P. selloum has developed BAT as well, an excellent example of convergent evolution (unrelated organisms develop similar characteristics). Plants use the alternative oxidase protein to uncouple fat metabolism from ATP generation instead of UCP, but the process is nearly the same. Using non-shivering thermogenesis, P. selloum can raise the temperature of the spadix to 104-113˚F and hold it there.

More amazing, P. selloum can somehow sense the ambient temperature and keep the spadix temperature 20-30˚F above that of the environment during that first evening. During the second day, the temperature is held around 80-95˚F, but is not controlled so stringently. The second evening sees a slow, regulated decrease in temperature to ambient by the third morning. It's a complex mechanism, but the payoff is survival of the species.

The whole thing is pretty smart for a plant, or for any organism. Next time, we will investigate the relationship between the pollinator beetle and P. selloum, and how limiting pollination to one species of beetle breaks a rule.

Ito K, & Seymour RS (2005). Expression of uncoupling protein and alternative oxidase depends on lipid or carbohydrate substrates in thermogenic plants. Biology letters, 1 (4), 427-30 PMID: 17148224

Dötterl, S., David, A., Boland, W., Silberbauer-Gottsberger, I., & Gottsberger, G. (2012). Evidence for Behavioral Attractiveness of Methoxylated Aromatics in a Dynastid Scarab Beetle-Pollinated Araceae Journal of Chemical Ecology, 38 (12), 1539-1543 DOI: 10.1007/s10886-012-0210-y

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For more information, classroom activities, or laboratories on tropisms, pollination, plant communication, or P. selloum:

Plant tropism –

pollination –

plant communication –

P. selloum