Monday, June 25, 2012

Plant Stress Response in the News... Sort of

Photo from USDA

So, you may have heard that a bunch of cattle died in Texas as a result of eating GM Bermuda Grass.  Well that was not entirely accurate.  Yes, the cattle did die and yes they died from eating Bermuda Grass, but the Bermuda Grass was a traditional hybrid Tifton 85, not a GM crop.  Tifton 85 was bred to be cold tolerant and have high forage production.  

What went wrong when the rancher opened the gate to that beautiful field of fresh grass?  Why did 15 of Abel's 18 cattle die?  They died of "Prussic Acid" aka HCN poisoning.  The field of Tifton 85 was producing Cyanide.  Tifton 85 is a polyploid offspring; one of the parental species is Cynodon nlemfuensis African Bermuda Grass or Stargrass.  Stargrass is a known cyanide producer, though it does so rarely.  

Why do plants produce Cyanide?  Plants produce all sorts of Secondary Metabolites under stress.    Plant Stress Response  occurs as a result of either biotic or abiotic stressors.  Of course a major biotic stressor is grazing, so production of toxins is not surprising.  Different plants produce different secondary metabolites but many produce cyanogenic glycosides that can result in cyanide poisoning if consumed.  The Bermuda Grass in question has just survived several years of a severe drought- that stress may have been the cause of this poisoning.

If you read the review article on  Plant Stress Response, you will see that many of the plant secondary compounds that are produced in response to stress are the very phytochemicals that we are learning are so important in our diet because they act as antioxidants.  Many modern varieties of crop plants have lower levels of these phytochemicals than varieties that were common just a few decades ago.  Furthermore, conventionally grown crops tend to have lower levels than organically grown.   One possible explanation for this difference is that conventionally grown plants are subject to less nutrient and grazing stress, therefore they do not produce as many secondary metabolites as organically grown crops.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Looking for some fun in Boston?  Why not visit Morticia, the corpse flower.  This plant Amorphophallus titanum produces the largest flowers known and the flower smells like rotting meat.      Amorphophallus is in the Araceae, so what looks like a giant flower is really a large inflorescence.     The flowers are found on the spadix which is surrounded by a modified leaf, the spathe. This is a primarily tropical family, but skunk cabbage and Jack-in-the-Pulpit are local representatives.  The plants actually generate excess heat (it is thermogenic) through a modification of the respiratory pathway called Cyanide Resistant Respiration.  The extra heat helps disperse  volatile compounds to attract pollinators,  the heat also helps prevent freezing damage when skunk cabbage flowers in early spring.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Telomeres and Older Fathers

Interesting story about the effect of paternal age on telomere length.  Do you find that telomeres generate a lot of discussion and interest among your students? Does anyone have any interesting activities to share?   Anytime you can bring in aging and cancer, the kids really seem to get engaged.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Turtle Monitoring

Are you looking for a way to collect some valuable long-term ecological data with your students?  This turtle monitoring project might be a good opportunity.  The timing might work for an end of the year project, data on sex ratios and age structure could be used in a discussion of demography.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Project Lead The Way

    Project Lead the Way

Save the Date
Monday, October 15, 2012
8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)
Salisbury Laboratories
Worcester, MA

Conference is open to current PLTW schools as well as schools considering PLTW implementation.

Registration and agenda information will be available by early fall at

Please feel free to share this with interested colleagues.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Two upcoming opportunities for teachers and students.

From the CT Invasive Species Working Group:

"The Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group (CIPWG) will be holding its biennial Invasive Plant Symposium on Thursday, October 25, 2012 in Storrs, on the campus of the University of Connecticut.  As a part of that symposium, CIPWG will be hosting a poster display area. 

The theme of this year’s symposium is Getting Real About Invasive Plants: Prioritize, Strategize, Mobilize.  Posters may be developed around research projects, examples of invasive plant field projects, successful programs relating to invasive plants, or other initiatives that will be instructive to those in attendance at the symposium.  Typical attendance at CIPWG symposia has been in the vicinity of 400 people.  The audience tends to be highly diverse, and includes everyone from practicing landscape professionals to enthusiastic invasive plant volunteers to university researchers, students and professors.  The symposium is an important learning crossroads where ideas and information are exchanged among a broad group of people. 

They are particularly interested in encouraging the participation of students at the high school, college and graduate school level."

See their website at for more information.

From Forest Watch:

"Forest Watch, is holding four three-day teacher professional development courses in New England this summer. FOREST WATCH is a proven program with students conducting basic and applied research on forest ecosystems in New England while learning biology, chemistry, and physics concepts.  In addition to impacting students and teachers, FOREST WATCH has made a number of important scientific findings over the past 20 years.

For more information about FOREST WATCH go to:

The Forest Watch program is funded in part by the New Hampshire Space Grant Consortium, located at Univ. of New Hampshire Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space."

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Welcome to the new web site of the Massachusetts Association of Biology Teachers.  We will use this site to share upcoming events and interesting biology news.