On a balmy Oxford summer evening in the bright lecture theatre of the Botanic Gardens, Karen Lee begins a talk behind an enticing selection of pitcher plants and insectivores. The room is just how you'd want it to be, airy and modern with suitable projectors, but sporting around three walls a petite white-painted balcony lined with cupboards and shelves stuffed full of ancient-looking specimens brought back by explorers gone by.
Lee's particular specialism is the study of how carnivorous plants grow. What natural forces drive the creation of ensnaring bladder warts and pitchers. Making an analogy to the spinning and moulding of clay pots and vases, Lee explains that in experimenting with pottery she came to a realisation that in the forming of pitchers there must too be something to push or pull them in the direction of the end product; and so started her study.
Many of the carnivorous plants in which Lee's team are interested are incredibly complex genetically and slow growing, which together are not conducive to resource-efficient research. The more primitive Arabidopsis thaliana or Mouse-Ear Cress, however, is incredibly fast growing, with very accessible genetics and is the ideal starting point for botanic research; last year alone it was featured in some 6,000 published scientific papers. This is where Karen Lee and co. began, using Mouse-ear Cress as the first test of their theory, that a tissue hormone polarity field is the main engine for the direction of botanic growth.
The results of their experiments with the Mouse-ear cress would serve as the basis for their first growth models. They were able to see that using the theory of a tissue hormone polarity field in the plant, along with the correct starting point, they could create a model of the direction and changing shape of the plant’s growth that could neatly and pretty accurately follow that of the real plant. Basically the computer graphic looked to be growing like a plant, because the scientists had given it a couple of rules to follow, that they believe are what govern plants in real life. The accurate models that they were able to produce offered encouragement that they could scale the theory to other, complex species of more particular interest.
The next step up was Utricularia gibba, a carnivorous plant with 1mm insect traps, that is fast growing, with a small genome of just 82 mega base pairs, which compares to around 16,000 mega base pairs in something like wheat, made it economically viable for genetic sequencing in research. What they found in the second stage of study was an even bigger promotion of their theory. After first creating faithful models of the gibba’s tissue polarity, they found that the physical shape and structure of some of the traps’ glands were such that remarkably they appeared to be pointing, like the needle of a compass, in the direction of the predicted hormonal pole.
This discovery has led to the cultivation of thousands of Utricularia plants in the search for natural mutants. The hope is that these will serve as the key to isolating in the genome, the part of the genetics that functions to direct and control the growth of the species, and potentially solve the query of how all of these fascinating flesh-eaters grow so perfectly into the ultimate natural static snare.
A talk so broadly titled as 'Getting Inside Carnivorous Plants' suggested perhaps a snaps and traps 101, herbaceous snuff movie or at the very least a live demonstration of their ability with a sacrificial spider. More accurately this was a presentation of some very specific advanced research, but it nevertheless served as a tiny gateway into the wonders of these nasty botanics. There was also a nice chance to poke around at the many carnivores, of all different sizes, in the Botanic Garden's impressive collection. Some we were promised were big enough to swallow frogs!
Sadly the next instance of the Summer Lecture Series has been cancelled, but you can catch the last lecture on 18th June. Katherine French whose lecture is titled 'Biodiversity on the margins' will be speaking on what lessons can be learned from foreign and historical methods of agriculture and cultivation, and their potential applications in the contemporary and future problems of food security, plant genetic resource conservation, and organic agriculture. An unusual way to spend a midsummer's evening, this is definitely something you wouldn't get a chance to see elsewhere.