University of Manchester

#AdventBotany Day 10: Have yourself a microscopically Merry Christmas

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At this time of year, there is always that one person who is impossible to buy a gift for. What do you get a botanist who has everything? Well, how about some microscope slides?

As we’ve been working our way through Manchester Museum’s 15,000 microscope slide collection, I can’t help but imagine some of these as presents.  For starters, there’s all that beautiful paper; no gift is complete without the careful wrapping. Early microscope slides were wrapped in paper to keep the coverslip in place on top of the specimen. Other methods for attaching the coverslip were developed, but some slide preparators continued to use the papers for decoration.

Just imagine the fun your botanical friend could have looking at the finer details of the fruit and veg and sharing their findings over the Christmas dinner. While the word ‘fruit’ in English is used for many sweet-tasting plant parts, its use is much more specific in botany. There are a considerable number of ways by which any aspiring botanist can learn to describe their fruits and distinguish one kind from another. They might offer a slice of soft, juicy, pickled pepo (cucumber) with the cheese, warn fellow diners to take care with the hard stone in their delicious drupe (date), join in the struggle to break into a true nut (walnut) and, my personal favourite, uncover the zesty heperidium (tangerine) at the bottom of their Christmas stocking.  Not forgetting, of course, there is always the chance to put people off their dessert by explaining the intricate way that the highly specialised fig flower structure is visited by wasps and develops into the culinary fruit (technically known as a synconium; I wonder if that would get a good score in Scrabble?) .

A set of slides could be an opportunity to escape another round of charades and escape to some quiet contemplation! Perhaps of the Christmas tree in extraordinary detail. Just imagine the pleasure getting lost for hours in the patterns created by slicing the timber in different directions, with or across the grain. Or maybe a close investigation of a local nativity scene – is that really hay in the manger? Or is it a much scratchier bed of straw?

The fortunate recipient of your microscopical gifts can follow in the footsteps of Mr George Wilks, who was clearly snipping bits off the decorations in 1903. Perhaps he needed to test out a new microscope from Santa.

Ivy: https://blogs.reading.ac.uk/crg/2014-botanical-advent-calendar/

 

Further reading

Fruit: https://awkwardbotany.com/2014/10/04/22-botanical-terms-for-fruits/ and

https://botanistinthekitchen.blog/2013/02/04/pomegranates-and-the-art-of-herbivore-attraction/

Microscope slides http://www.victorianmicroscopeslides.com/history.htm

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#BotanicMonday

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A few images from the herbarium recently

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Archives and labels are a gold mine of information in Herbarium collections #botanicMonday @Nat_SCA

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It’s #BotanicMonday and also #chocolateweek! Here’s a German teaching poster of the plant that produces the cocoa bean

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Plant models aplenty #BotanicMonday

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106 years old and still living up to its name – Showy pink oregano (Origanum sipyleum) #BotanicMonday

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Joanne B Kaar‏ @Joannebkaar Oct 15
More back rooms of @McrMuseum in herbarium @Aristolochia
photos from my recent research visit
packaging
labels
#lichen
I’m inspired

Unlocking the vault: making the most of scientific collections

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Manchester 26-27th June. Kanaris lecture theatre, Manchester Museum

Science and natural history collections include objects, specimens, models and illustrations which  are a goldmine of useful information and inspiration. They are immensely popular with the public, but are often cared for by non-specialists who can perceive them as difficult to work with. There is a danger that these collections can be forgotten, underused and undervalued.

Join us for this one and a half day conference looking at the innovative ways in which collections are being used. Speakers from historic collections across Europe will be joining us to discuss best practise in the use of scientific and natural history collections. We will be exploring ways to connect people to collections for greatest impact.

We have an interesting programme of talks from expert speakers in three sessions: ‘Connecting collections and breaking isolation’, ‘Reaching out to new audiences’ and ‘New meanings through art, history and research’.

Dr. Tim Boon, Science Museum Group. Science Museum Group Research and the Interdisciplinary Culture of Collections’

Mark Carnall, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. ‘Not real, not worth it?’

Dr Caroline Cornish, Royal Holloway, University of London. ‘Useful or curious’? Reinventing Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany’

Jocelyn Dodd, University of Leicester.Encountering the Unexpected:  natural heritage collections & successful aging’

Prof. Dirk van Delft, Boerhaave Museum. ‘Real bones for teaching medicine

Dr. Martha Flemming, V&A Museum. Title TBC

Dr Petra Tjitske Kalshoven, The University of Manchester. ‘The manikin in taxidermy: modelling conceptions of nature’.

Henry McGhie, Manchester Museum. ‘Beyond ‘natural history’: museums for the 21st century’

Dr. Laurens de Rooy, Museum Vrolik, Medical and natural history collections as historical objects: a change of perspective?

Dr. Marjan Scharloo, Teylers Museum. Title TBC

Dr. Cornelia Weber, Coordination Centre for Scientific University Collections in Germany. ‘Back to the Roots: University Collections as Infrastructure for Research and Teaching

Prof. Yves Winkin, Musée des arts et métiers.  An amateur director, professional curators, and a desire for a cabinet of curiosities

The conference is part of the programming to support Object Lessons, our upcoming exhibition celebrating the scientific model and illustration collection of George Loudon. Each of these finely crafted objects was created for the purpose of understanding the natural world through education, demonstration and display. This exhibition combines Loudon’s collection with models from Manchester Museum and World Museum, Liverpool. The conference is generously supported by Wellcome. Book your place on mcrmuseum.eventbrite.com or call 0161 275 2648.

India, December 2016

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Menaka shares some of the sights from her recent trip to India……

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Last December, Stephen Welsh (Curator of Living Cultures) and I went on a research trip to India for the Courtyard Project, focusing on the South Asia Gallery – a partnership gallery with the British Museum. Neither of us had visited India before, although we were familiar with other parts of South Asia. It was an exciting and hectic schedule and in two weeks we visited Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Kochi – so more or less each compass point of what is an amazing country. The focus of our visit was to meet with museum professionals, artists and to get a real feel for both the historic and archaeological wonders, as well as the contemporary culture of a country that is fast becoming an emerging global superpower. We were joined in Kolkata and Kochi (where we attended the Kochi-Muziris Biennale) by Manchester Museum Director Nick Merriman.

It…

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The Poison Chronicles: Cyanide -Cassava’s Built in Pesticide

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Guest Post by Laura Cooper

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Manihot esculenta leaf sewn onto this Herbarium sheet.

I remember hearing as a small child the rumour that swallowing a single apple seed would kill you. Whilst I later learnt that this was false, it is true that the cyanide in apple seeds means that theoretically, chewing a large number could cause poisoning.

Cyanide is a simple chemical produced by many organisms, often as an unwanted by-product. But cyanide is found in relatively high levels in many plant species, including the seeds of many common food plants, such as peaches, almonds, and legumes.

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Manihot esculenta tubers, sold as cassava or yuca. Source.

The cyanogenic plant I will focus on here is cassava, Manihot esculenta, also known as yucca. It’s tubers are a major carbohydrate source throughout the tropics due to its drought tolerance and ability to thrive in poor soil. It is probably most well known in the UK in the form of tapioca pearls in puddings.

Cyanide is a general defence against herbivores, as at the right dose it can kill anything that respires.  There is variation in the levels of cyanide in fresh cassava tubers, “sweet” strains have as little as 20mg/kg whilst “bitter” strains have up to 1g/kg. It has been suggested that when early farmers selected plants with the best insect resistance, they were inadvertently choosing plants containing small amounts of cyanide. This means that sometimes the decision to grow (potentially) dangerous food is not a straightforward one, and higher cyanide cassava is often preferentially planted due their greater pest resistance and drought tolerance.

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Manihot esulenta in the form of tapioca pudding. Source.

One of the founding principles of toxicology is an adage derived from Paracelsus: it is the dose that makes the poison. But the case of cyanide in cassava root goes to show that it is not only the dose that matters; the ability of the host to deal with the dose can be the difference between life and death.

The lethal dose of cyanide has been reported as 1mg of cyanide ions per kg of body weight, but it is difficult to ingest this from cassava. At lower levels, chronic cyanide poisoning can have serious effects, especially in people who are already malnourished. For those with diets low in Sulphur containing amino-acids, the body cannot add the Sulphur to cyanide to make it safe. They therefore struggle to remove cyanide at amounts a healthy person could do easily, so cyanide becomes cyanate, which is associated with neurodegenerative diseases. Severe cyanide poisoning can lead to a permanent paralysis of the limbs known as Konzo, which can be fatal. Unfortunately, the hardiness of cassava means it does become relied on when other crops fail and the population is already malnourished.

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This Herbarium sheet states that “natives eat the roots”, but so do  many people around the world.

However, cyanide can be removed from cassava by proper processing. Cassava stores cyanide as a chemical called linamarin, which released cyanide when hydrolysed. This occurs which can occur in the gut if ingested, or when the cassava is soaked and mashed. If done thoroughly, processed cassava is safe to eat. However, if it is done by hand, the person preparing it can inhale a considerable quantity of cyanide gas. Additionally, the water by-products of cassava processing are rich in cyanide so can be an environmental hazard.

A genetically engineered strain of cassava lacking cyanide would be a valuable crop to large agricultural companies, as it would cut down on processing time. However, for small scale farmers with poor soil, drought and no pesticides, the cyanide in cassava acts as a built in pesticide and allows cassava to thrive when little else can. This shows perfectly that poisons are not always villains, but if dealt with carefully can be a vital part of a crops’ survival tool-kit.

For more information, see this excellent article on cyanide in food plants.

 

contemporary photography – ferns 2

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Hi I’m Megan Jones current student, I previously posted about a project where I was granted access to photograph a section of the extensive herbarium collection at the museum. https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/contemporary-photography-ferns/ As promised  I have an update on the project now it has come to an end, after visiting the museum I took my images and wanted to experiment more with them.

I decided to experiment with screen printing for those who aren’t aware of this process, your image is transferred onto a ‘screen’ you then place a piece of paper underneath the screen placing ink at the top of the screen you spread the ink across the screen and this causes the ink to be pushed through creating a copy of your image on to the paper. I repeated this with all of the most successful images from my visit at the museum until I had a great collection, I then bound these into a handmade book using a long stitch wrap around style. Included in this book was my images once they had been processed with the screen printing technique and also some information on global warming as this was the theme at the museum during my visits, I felt it necessary to include some information in the finished project as this is where my inspiration seemed from at the start.

 

Thank you for taking the time to catch up on the development of my project.

Megan Jones

The Poison Chronicles Festive edition: Poisoner and matchmaker – the joys of mistletoe

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Guest blog by: Laura Cooper

Viscum album spirit collection

Whilst many species of plants are referred to as mistletoe, the icon of Christmas is the European Mistletoe Viscum album. Mistletoe has a varied reputation; it is a symbol of Christmas and druidic ritual, a poisoner and a matchmaker.

The plant itself belongs to the Santalacea or sandalwood family. It is found throughout much of Europe, but in the UK is localized to the central south. V. album lacks its own trunk and instead grows in the crowns of host trees including apple, lime, hawthorn and poplar when its seeds are dispersed by birds smearing the sticky fruit and seed from their beaks onto the bark of the host. V. album is not a true parasite but a hemiparasite. This is because whilst the seedling sends its haustorium from the roots through the bark of the host to induce the host’s xylem vessels to supply it with water and nutrients, V. album makes its own sugars through photosynthesis. A heavy infestation of mistletoe can take over the entire crown of a tree preventing the host photosynthesising and building its own tissue which can lead to the death of the host.

V. album owes its toxicity to large amounts of the alkaloid tyramine throughout the plant, which is also present at lower levels in foods including cheese. As with most toxins, it is the dose that makes the poison, not the chemical. Whilst little research has been done on the effects of consuming V. album, it has been reported that consuming enough of the leaves or berries can result in nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea and death. However, the well-known risks of mistletoe means poisoning cases are very rare. As the Poison Garden argues, artificial mistletoe is likely more dangerous as a choking hazard to children than live mistletoe is as a poison.

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4 year old Mistletoe seedlings on a branch

Whilst mistletoe is commonly linked with druids, the only account of a druid ceremony involving mistletoe comes from Pliny the Elder. He details a banquet and ritual sacrifice where a druid would climb an oak tree, cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle and drop it into a cloak to prevent it touching the ground and losing its power. The link between druids and mistletoe was picked up in the revival of druidry in the 18th century and today druids carry out a similar ceremony, without the human sacrifice! The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas is not a Christian tradition but also derives from the association of mistletoe with fertility in druidic mythology. Christianity has a less favorable relationship with mistletoe, as according to tradition mistletoe wood was used to makes Christ’s cross and ever since could not grow upon the earth so was condemned to parasitic life.

Mistletoe has also been used as a medicine historically, including as an epilepsy treatment. Today, injection of extracts of mistletoe has been used as an anti-cancer treatment in alternative and complementary healthcare. Whilst it has been shown to kill cancer cells, the few trials done were inconclusive or poorly done, and the NHS advises that there is currently no reliable evidence that mistletoe is effective at treating cancer.

 

For more mistletoe information, see:

https://mistletoematters.wordpress.com/

http://mistletoe.org.uk/homewp/