I started off my work in Ukraine by looking through all of the Camelina specimens in the herbarium of the M.G. Kholony Institute for Botany. I was surpirsed to find very rare and old collections, the most interesting was without a doubt that of Ivan Schmalhausen, a Ukrainian born scientist who, among other endeavors, used Camelina as an evolutionary model system. As such, it was quite the honor to see his own collections of Camelina and other related species in Brassicaceae. Even better, the herbarium had several specimens from Nikolai Zinger, another early evolutionary biologist in the USSR using Camelina as a model system. Read more about these two soviet biologists in a previous post here.
Next I visited the MM Hryshko National Botanical Garden in Kiev, where many thousands of lines of various food and ornamental crops are maintained and improved in breeding programs. Among these are several lines of Camelina! I had arrived just a little too late to see the Camelina growing, but the remains of harvested plants weren't difficult to find.
Here they experiment with different winter and spring varieties of Camelina and perform hybridization and growth experiments.
I'm now in Ukraine as part of the National Geographic Young Explorers grant supporting my work on Camelina. I'm still settling in - and recovering from my jet lag, but I've had a chance to see some of the city and meet my collaborator and organizer, Sergei Mosyakin. I feel like I've already learned so much about this beautiful country and its rich history; it's hard to believe I've only just begun this journey.
The reconstruction of Ukraine's 11th century Golden Gates.
Inside the National Museum of Natural Sciences of Ukraine, I found this great exhibit of the work of Nikolai Vavilov, my hero. His work took him all over the world to collect and preserve wild progenitors of many of the world's crop plants. Despite meeting a tragic and early death, his work was impressive and his drive to understand plant diversity and improve crop production is truly inspirational.
The National Museum of the History of Ukraine. This large four-story museum extensively chronicles events and civilizations in the present day region of Ukraine, and boasts many interesting artifacts. My favorite exhibit was the history of currency in Ukraine, which sported ample examples of currencies used in the region throughout its history.
In the coming days I will meet with local scientists and botanists in Kiev, while also organizing several small field collection trips that I will embark on in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!
I'm thrilled to announce that I'm the recipient of the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant! I have proposed a field collection trip for wild Camelina species in Ukraine. My goal is to discover wild populations of Camelina that may be predecessors to the domesticated Camelina sativa oilseed/biofuel crop. These predecessors may hold the key to understanding the evolution of this emerging aviation biofuel, but also give insight into the broader context in which plants evolve and become domesticated. I will be leaving soon for Kiev, Ukraine - be sure to follow my travel blog on my site to keep up with the adventure.
Variegation in plants is a phenomena in which leaf tissue partly or nearly entirely lacks green pigmentation. Variegation can occur in different colors and shades, mostly whitish or yellowish, and often lends ornamental value to the plants in which it occurs. As such, many common houseplants are variegated. Because variegation affects the pigmentation of leaves, and localization of chloroplasts (which provide plants all of their energy), it reduces the fitness of plants in the wild. While chance mutations do arise in wild plants leading to variegation, these traits are rapidly lost in wild populations.
A few weeks ago I was working with some Camelina at the Danforth Center on a project using the Bellweather Phenotyper, and amongst the over 1,000 plants growing in the phenotyping growth house, we noticed one that looked visibly sickly from a distance. As the plants were cycled through the phenotyper, and the sickly individual got closer, I realized it was actually just variegated! It's the first variegated Camelina plant I've ever seen, and it looks awesome.
There are many known mutations that can cause variegation in the close relative and model system, Arabidposis thaliana, so I won't speculate what could be the cause, and it's yet to be seen if this is a heritable trait.
Upon the purchase of my 3D printer last year I have spent countless hours printing various board game pieces, and miniatures, but I hadn't actually got around to printing many useful items for my research. But now, the lab is now working on generating next generation sequencing libraries, and we have been borrowing much of the equipment from other labs. One piece of equipment, a plastic plate with strong neodynium magnets, is an essential component for bead purification clean-up steps. This seemingly inexpensive item sells for around $400 from the manufacturer, although it's really just some plastic and magnets. I did some snooping on Thingiverse.com and found this file for a 48-well magnetic bead separator plate - thanks to Ted Cybulski for uploading this design.
I printed a single 48-well plate and purchased magnets (5/16" x 5/16") made of strong (N48) neodymium. I then affixed the magnets to my refrigerator one by one in the correct pattern, attaching the plate to make sure they are all in the perfect orientation. Next I applied a small amount of 2-part epoxy into each of the magnet slots and placed the plastic plate over the magnets on my refrigerator. I left it this way overnight to allow the epoxy enough time to cure, before removing it. Note that simply placing the magnets in the plastic plate will not work because their magnetic force is so great that they will fly right out. Also, these magnets must be treated with extreme care, as they may interfere with electronic devices (even at a seemly safe distance), and they tend to violently seek out metal to attach to. Finally, with magnetic plate in hand, a test trial was done and it was quite effective.
Finally, I reprinted two of the 48-well plates, assembled them individually as mentioned above, and then applied the 2-part epoxy generously between the surfaces of the two plates. I sanded each surface with a very fine-grain sand paper in order to ensure an even contact.
In all, this 96-well plate cost about $8 in magnets and plastic filament and took a few hours of printing time and assembly.
Over the last hundred years, we have lost a huge amount of crop diversity in the form of cultivars and varieties of many crops. This 1983 study showed that nearly 93 percent of varieties in 66 crops studied had gone extinct since 1903. This bottleneck could have huge consequences on the ability for agriculture to adapt to a changing climate, but it is also a shame to have lost his diversity which undoubtedly harbored a range of flavors, shapes and colors of fruits and vegetables.
Saving and understanding as many varieties of crops as possible will serve to enhance our ability to improve them in the future. While conventional agriculture does rely heavily on monoculture, the benefit of saving the genetic diversity found in crop varieties can be leveraged in the future to introduce key traits such as drought tolerance, improved nutrition, and disease/pest resistance.
One non-profit, Native Seeds/SEARCH, works to preserve delicate cultivars of a variety of crops grown by Native American tribes in the American South-West. Their engagement with the community, local farmers, and the research community represents the gold standard of community seed-banking. This is a great way to prevent the loss of delicate crop germplasm while engaging in community building, education, and scientific advancement.
Henry De la Beche's "Awful Changes"
Professor Ichthyosaurus lectures:
"You will at once perceive... that the skull before us belonged to some of the lower order of animals, the teeth are very insignificant, the power of the jaws trifling, and altogether it seems wonderful how the creature could have procured food."
A recent acquisition of mine is a copy of Synopsis of the Natural History of Great-Britain and Ireland. This 1795 systematic arrangement of plants in Britain illustrates many of the interesting nuances of early systematic classification, and unlike other classifications of this era, it is printed in English. Coming not long after Linnaeus's original description of the 24 classes of the plant kingdom, this book includes my favorite, Tetradynamia (class 15). The characters for this class (6 stamens, four long, two short) are now used to describe the family known today as Brassicaceae (previously Cruciferae). At this time, the class Tetradynamia was split into two orders, siliculosa and siliquosa, descibed by silicle fruit type versus silique fruit, respectively. This convention is no longer used, as it is now known that fruit type is a poor character. In fact within many Brassicaceae genera, both silicles and siliques may be found.
It's interesting how useful this book is for field identification, and how the characters for the most part hold up well with those used in modern floras. For instance, here the genus Myagrum (now Camelina) is described by an entire valve apex, a character which continues to be one of the most reliable for identification of this genus. The only species listed here, Myagrum sativa (now C. sativa), appears to be the only known species found in Britain at the time. It's not clear from this description if C. sativa was grown as an oil seed crop in Britain in the 18th century, but there is a note about its weediness of flax fields.
Charles Darwin is known foremost for his work on The Origin of Species, but he wrote extensively on a variety of topics from earthworms to geological phenomena. One piece of evidence that Darwin had for his theory of evolution was that of orchids and their co-evolution with pollinating insects.
My fascination of orchids, Darwin, and books, propelled me to seek out the first edition copy of Darwin's Fertilisation of Orchids book at Washington University's Olin Library special collections. This book was the subject of a history of science video series presented by the Department of Biology's own Garland Allen - the video can be watched here. It is unique in being an original copy of Darwin's 1862 work outlining the methods of insect fertilization of orchid flowers. Accompanying the book is a handwritten note from the author (Darwin himself) to the book's recipient (British Entomologist John O. Westwood) asking for a bee specimen (see below). Within, Darwin describes an orchid species (Angraecum sesquipedale) with an exceptionally long nectar spur, hypothesizing that there must be a moth with a tongue long enough to feed from the necatary and in doing so achieve cross-pollination. Sure enough, in support of Darwin's theory a species of sphinx moth, Xanthopan morganii pradedicta, was discovered and described forty years later as the long tongued moth responsible for pollinating the orchid.
Lately, I've been distracting myself from political affairs with a little bit of macro photography. These pictures are taken from my current round of Camelina growing in the WUSTL greenhouse. I really love macro photography, but sometimes the blurry, out of focus background can distract the observer from the true subject. In order to highlight only the subject, I've been experimenting with flash falloff, a method that achieves nearly black backgrounds even in daylight conditions. This is done by engaging the flash with a very fast shutter speed. This results in a high proportion of light returning from the nearby focal subject, but very little from the more distant background. An advantage of this method is that the fast shutter speed will produce more crisp images, even without a tripod.
Camelina rumelica Velen. (Above)
Camelina microcarpa Andrz. ex DC. (Below)
Trifolium repens L. (Above)
Paspalum vaginatum Sw. (Below)