Rediscovered plant species: Telipogon jucusbambae

What is it? Telipogon jucusbambae, a rediscovered species in the orchid family.

Where was it found? It’s endemic to northern and central Peru in South America, where it grows in Andean cloud forests. Local people call the plant ushun.

And it’s been rediscovered? Yes. A type specimen was collected in 1965 by researchers from the University of Cambridge and kept in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This was the only known specimen until the species was rediscovered by Marcos Salas from Leymebamba, Peru, and identified by Carlos Martel at the University of Ulm, Germany.

Telipogon jucusbambae in the Kew herbarium
Telipogon jucusbambae herbarium specimen collected in 1965 and held at the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

What is its conservation status? The authors recommend classifying the species as endangered, having found populations in five localities.

What does it look like?T jucusbambae has dark violet flowers, and its lip (front lower petal) contains a black callus-like structure. The plants grow to around 35cm in height and are epiphytic.

Telipogon jucusbambae appearance. A a T jucusbambae plant with an open flower (right branch) and unopened buds (left branch); B a T jucusbambae flower, showing its dark violet petals; C a closeup of the lip of the flower, which is a black callus-like structure; and D an expanded view of the column, which contains the reproductive organs. Image from Check List.

Epiphytic? Some plants, including many orchids and bromeliads, grow on other plants (such as trees) and gather their nutrients and water from the humid air around them and from rain and debris on their host plant. Such plants are known as epiphytes.

Telipogon jucusbambae growing epiphytically on a tree in a northern Peruvian cloud forest (A) and a closeup view of its flowers (B). Image from Check List.

What kind of habitat does it like? It grows on trees in humid cloud forests around 2800-3300m above sea level.

What pollinates the flowers The flowers are pollinated by male tachina flies. Other members of the genus are known to mimic female flies so that male flies attempt to mate with the lip of the flower. In doing so, they collect pollen and transfer it to the next flower they attempt to ‘mate’ with. This is called sexual mimicry. It’s not clear whether this is the case in T jucusbambae.

Where can I find out more? dx.doi.org/10.15560/14.1.189

New plant species: Primula zhui

What is it? Primula zhui, a new species in the primrose family.

Where was it found? It’s endemic to the south of Yunnan, China’s most biodiverse province.

How did it get its name? It’s named after Professor Zhu Hua, a plant taxonomist, “for his great contribution to botanical research in tropical areas,” according to Yang Bin, one of the scientists describing the new species.

What is its conservation status? P zhui is critically endangered because of the effect of deforestation, which has fragmented its populations.

What does it look like? It’s a 12-20cm-tall perennial herb with leaves arranged as a spreading rosette. Its flowers are heterostylous, with five pale pink petals.

Drawings and photographs of Primula zhui, a new species found in Yunnan province, China. Images from the Nordic Journal of Botany.

Heterostylous? Yes. Many Primula and other species have morphs with sex organs in different positions in the flower. In pin flowers, the stigma (female organ) is at the top of the flower tube and the anthers (male organs) are further down. These positions are reversed in thrum flowers.

What kind of habitat does it like? It was found in a subtropical evergreen broadleaf forest around 1,400m above sea level, where it grows in the understory. This is the only place the species has been seen.

Where can I find out more? dx.doi.org/10.1111/njb.01656

Scientists in live public discussion today about what ‘natural’ really means

We’ve all seen it. Whether it’s on labels in supermarkets or in adverts on our TVs, the word ‘natural’ is often used to sell products.

Foods may be ‘naturally’ farmed or contain only ‘natural’ colours and flavours. Or you may have used a ‘natural’ remedy to help you recover from an illness.

But why do products sold in this way appeal to us as consumers? Why are we so keen for our food to be grown ‘naturally’ while we strive for technological advances in other aspects of our lives? And does ‘natural’ in this context really mean what we think it does – if anything at all?

As part of their plant science panel, the charity Sense About Science is hosting a live online discussion with scientists today. Their panel of five experts will be answering questions sent to them by the public.

And two of these scientists are from the John Innes Centre.

Mike Ambrose, head of JIC’s seedbank facility – the Germplasm Resources Unit – has a wealth of experience in crop conservation. He will be answering questions about the crops we eat and the long process of domestication by humans that has led to the successful and high-yielding varieties we use today.

Sarah O’Connor, a scientist in the department of biological chemistry at JIC and a long-term member of the plant science panel, will also be lending her expertise to the discussion. She will help answer people’s questions on the natural products we get from plants – from medicines to food additives – and how they compare to their artificial counterparts.

They will be joined on the panel by three other scientists, each with a different research background to cover different aspects of the debate.

Ottoline Leyser is the head of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge and a respected voice in the social debates around genetically modified crops. Robbie Waugh is a barley geneticist at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie, Scotland, which is currently setting up a Barley Innovation Centre. And Helen Roy is a research ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology; she will be bringing her expertise in insect ecology to the panel.

The debate will kick off at 1pm. So send in your questions on Twitter (use the hashtag #plantsci), on Facebook or by emailing plantsci@senseaboutscience.org. And follow the debate on Twitter or on the discussion’s webpage for the answers in full.

Featured image background photo: Alex Indigo/Flickr.

The wrong plant?

Many of us at the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory use the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana for our research. Its small size, simple genome and rapid lifecycle make it an ideal model in many disciplines within plant science. From leaf development to interactions with pathogens, the wealth of resources available to Arabidopsis researchers makes it an invaluable system.

But James Lloyd, a PhD student at the University of Leeds, and his supervisor, Brendan Davies, have shown there to be a slight problem in using the plant.

The group is looking at nonsense-mediated mRNA decay (NMD) – a mechanism used by animals, plants and fungi for regulating which genes are turned on and off. In animals, this mechanism relies on a protein called SMG1. But this was thought to be an animal-specific pathway: the gene that makes this protein had not been identified in fungi or in Arabidopsis.

It seems, however, that our favourite model is rather unusual in its lack of an SMG1 gene. The group managed to identify SMG1 in all the other plants that they looked at. Discussing the research, published in The Plant Journal, Davies said: “Everybody thought that this protein was only in animals. They thought that because, basically, most of the world studies one plant: Arabidopsis thaliana.”

A thaliana appears to be a complete anomaly in this respect. The protein was even found in its close relative Arabidopsis lyrata, suggesting that the gene was lost as recently as 5-10 million years ago.

Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress, was first described by Johannes Thal in the 16th century. It was first proposed as a model organism for studying plant genetics by Friedrich Laibach in 1943, and has been an integral part of plant molecular genetics work since the late 1970s.

While he looks towards examining what alternatives Arabidopsis and fungi have found to SMG1, Davies is keen not to dishearten his fellow plant scientists: “It is still a fantastically useful model. We would not be anywhere close to where we are in understanding plant biology without it.” But he warns that the research highlights the importance of using a range of models when studying plant processes. “Evolution does strange and unpredictable things,” he said.

And, of course, a diversity of model species exists already within plant science research. From Medicago truncatula’s use as a model for root nodulation to the rise of Brachypodium as a model cereal, research at the John Innes Centre certainly isn’t restricted to the humble thale cress!

More information on Professor Davies’ lab homepage (http://www.plants.leeds.ac.uk/people/groups_dav.php) and the Arabidopsis Information Resource’s guide to the plant ().

This post first appeared on johninnessvc.wordpress.com, a blog by PhD students at the John Innes Centre.