Month: March 2010

Leander has left the building… :-(

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It was a very, very sad day in the Herbarium yesterday as it was Leander’s last day at the museum before (literally) heading off for pastures new.  Leander has worked as the Curator of Botany here for the past 5 and a half years and will be greatly missed by all the staff, volunteers and students who were lucky enough to work with him.

Leander is leaving the museum to build a new life in Wales.  He and his wife and 3 children are going to live at Lammas an eco village in Pembrokeshire.  They will be leaving their house in Liverpool to first live in static caravan while they build their very own eco house out of straw bales.

In typical Leander style he arrived at work for his last day wearing his ‘vintage’ 70’s suit and platform shoes.

Leander in his 'vintage' suit

At our last morning tea break with Leander, Matt, one of our volunteers presented Leander with the gift of ‘courage’ as he had done some research and found out that it was the one thing Leander would need most for his new endeavor.

At 1pm we had a goodbye lunch (with lots of cakes) with some of the volunteers who have worked with Leander in the herbarium.  The volunteers had had a collection for Leander and the money and a card was presented to him after lunch.  The volunteers have requested that Leander and his family use the money towards the fruit and nut trees and bushes they are going to get for their plot.  After all these years caring for dead plants we all just hope that Leander can look after living plants too.  Leander then gave a short speech thanking everyone for their hard work in the herbarium and said that working with the volunteers had been one of the most rewarding parts of his job and how much he would miss them all and our morning tea breaks together.  Despite it being Leander’s leaving party, he presented Lindsey and myself each with a large and very beautiful bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates (which he had brought in from Liverpool on bike and train and foot whilst wearing the 70’s suit and in platform shoes!!) – thank you Leander.

After work we headed down Oxford Road to Kro2 where many, many friends and colleagues from the museum and the University came along to say goodbye to Leander and to wish him well on his next adventure.  Earlier in the day Henry McGhie had given Leander a card (craftily and appropriately designed and made by Steve MacCabe) and present from the staff of the Museum and I know Leander would like to say a big thank you again to everyone who contributed to his leaving gift – especially if he didn’t get chance to speak with you personally yesterday.

Leander's Leaving Card

So goodbye and good luck to you, Leander.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege working with you.

You can follow Leander’s progress in Wales on his new blog – (I have put the link on the Blogroll here too)


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£20 Bank Note issued in Manchester 21 Jan 1858. John B Dancer No.51

Whilst cataloging some of the large collection of microscope slides in the herbarium I came across some slides with intriguing labels.  One was labelled ‘The Moon”, another “Nelson Meditating His Prayer before the Battle of  Trafalgar” and another  “£20 Bank Note” – not the kind of thing we normally come across in the botany stores.  I immediately set about viewing the slides under a microscope and was amazed to actually pictures of Nelson, the moon and a bank note.  In the corner of the slides was the initial J.B.D.

The Moon, photographed from nature, March 12 1869

After a few minutes on Google, I discovered that these slides were made by the 19th Century Manchester instrument maker and inventor of microphotography, John Benjamin Dancer.  Dancer’s first example of microphotography was produced in 1839 and they soon became popular with microscopists.

“Dancer did not have any mass production method for turning out his micro-photograph slides and though it must have been very time consuming he is reported as having made many thousands. The method employed was explained by Mr.J.F.Stirling writing in Watsons Microscope Record No.45, Oct.1938, p.16. A glass negative of the photograph to be reduced was placed in a lantern illuminated by a flame. The image of the photograph was projected through a microscope objective mounted horizontally on to the sensitized collodion film supported on a glass sheet. Dancer speeded up production slightly by duplicating the contraption with two lanterns placed back to back with one illuminating flame in the space between the two lanterns, the whole assembly being covered over with a canvas tent to keep out the light. The exceedingly small piece of collodion film containing the positive microphotograph image was mounted in balsam beneath a cover glass on a standard 3 x 1 slide.” – The Microphotograph Slides Of John B. Dancer and Richard Suter by Roy Winsby

NELSON, Meditating his Prayer before the battle of Trafalgar. Painted by Lucy, Engraved by Sharpe. John B Dancer No.49

The practice of mounting microphotographs eventually became seen as frivolous by serious microsopists and their popularity waned.  However, during the Franco-Prussian War the benefits  for smuggling information on microphotographs meant that the technology developed by Dancer was given a new and very practical application.

Here is a list of Dancer’s Microphotographs.

Thanks to David Green for taking the photos of the slides.

Gene Discovery to Increase Biomass Needed for Green Fuel

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Manchester scientists have identified the genes that make plants grow fatter and plan to use their research to increase plant biomass in trees and other species – thus helping meet the need for renewable resources.

 “The US has set the ambitious goal of generating a third of all liquid fuel from renewable source by the year 2025. Estimates suggest to reach their goal they would need 1 billion tonnes of biomass, which is a lot,” says Professor Simon Turner, one of the University of Manchester researchers whose BBSRC-funded study is published in Development today (Wednesday 10th February 2010).

 “Our work has identified the two genes that make plants grow outwards. The long, thin cells growing down the length of a plant divide outwards, giving that nice radial pattern of characteristic growth rings in trees. So you get a solid ring of wood in the centre surrounded by growing cells. Now we have identified the process by which the cells know how to grow outwards, we hope to find a way of making that plants grow thicker quicker, giving us the increased wood production that could be used for biofuels or other uses.

 “And there is an added benefit. There are concerns that the growing of biofuel products competes with essential food production. However, the part of the plant we have studied is the stalk – not the grain – so there will be no competition with food production.”

 Professor Turner and Dr Peter Etchells, at the Faculty of Life Sciences, studied the plant Arabidopsis which does not look like a tree but has a similar vascular system, (which carries water and sugar around the plant). They investigated growth in the vascular bundles and found that the genes PXY and CLE41 directed the amount and direction of cell division. Furthermore, they found over-expression of CLE41 caused a greater amount of growth in a well-ordered fashion, thus increasing wood production.

 Professor Turner explained: “We wanted to know how the cells divided to produce this pattern, how they ‘knew’ which side to divide along, and we found that it was down to the interaction of these two genes.

 “Trees are responsive to a lot of things. They stop growing in winter and start again in spring and this changes according to the amount of light and the day length. It might take a tree 150 years to grow in Finland and only ten years in Portugal.

 “Now we know what genes are dictating the growth process, we can develop a system of increasing growth so that it is orientated to produce more wood – increasing the essential biomass needed for our future.”

 The team are now growing poplar trees in the lab – to see if they fit the Arabidopsis model. They will use these results to develop a system of increasing wood production.

Specimen of Arabidopsis collected from the Bollin Valley, Cheshire, 11 May 1867 by John Barrow. From the museum's collection of British Flowering Plants

close up of label

The paper ‘The PXY-CLE41 receptor ligand pair defines a multifunctional pathway that controls the rate and orientation of vascular cell division’ (Development) is available. Images are also available.

 For more information, images or an interview with Professor Simon Turner, contact Media Relations Officer Mikaela Sitford on 0161 275 2111 or

International Women’s Day 2010

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Today is International Women’s Day.  To mark the occasion the museum organised a short lunchtime tour and talk celebrating the pioneering work of some women associated with the Manchester Museum.

We met in the reception area of the Museum where Anna Bunney, Curator of Public Programmes gave an introduction to the tour and talked about the history of women working in the Museum.  We then went upstairs to to the Manchester Gallery where the work of some of our pioneering female botanists is showcased.  Andrea Winn, Curator of Community Exhibitions, gave a great talk about why Lydia Becker, Kathleen Drew-Baker, Marie Stopes and Jessie Heywood were so important not just to the advancement of rights for women but also for their contribution to the advancement of science.

Finally we took the group up to the herbarium where I had laid out some more information and specimens collected by these women.  Here the group had the opportunity to see some specimens at close range and even handle some of the more robust objects.  The group seem fascinated and interested by the tour.  However, I was especially pleased when one Phd student told me how much she was inspired and motivated by the stories of these women.   I’m sure Jessie, Kathleen, Marie and Lydia would be delighted to know that their hard work is still having a positive effect on women of the 21st Century – thank you ladies!

Unusual Trees to Look Out for (2)

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Pinus aristata (Pinaceae), Bristlecone (Rocky Mountain) Pine 165/026

Aristata means bristle-tip, referring to the cone segments.  The genus contains three species, including the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva, which is thought to be the oldest living tree in North America.  A ring count from a core sample gives an age of 4,700 years.  The third species is Pinus balfouriana, or Foxtail Pine.  All three are rare, and grow in the mountains of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and other western states.  It was introduced here in 1863; the oldest known dated British tree is at Kew.  It was planted in 1908 and in 1972 was 20’ x 1’-7”.  Our three photographs are of a specimen aristata in Wythenshawe Park, Manchester.

“It differs most conspicuously from the two other bristlecone pine species in that the needles usually have only one, (only rarely two) resin canals, and these are commonly interrupted and broken, leading to highly characteristic small white resin flecks appearing on the needles. This feature, which looks a bit like dandruff on the needles, is diagnostic of Pinus aristata; no other pine shows it.” –Wikipedia

Ancient Bristlecone pine at 3000m on Wheeler Peak in the Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Unfortunately, my digital camera can’t cope very well with chiaroscuro contrasts, but I can assure you the white flecks are copiously present on the Wythenshawe Park tree’s needles.

Grindon Herbarium sheet with history of discovery of P. aristata

-Daniel King