The University of Manchester

Studying biodiversity in the Italian Alps

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by Rachel

Rifugio Tita Piaz
Rifugio Tita Piaz

I’ve spent the last two weeks on a field course with 25 undergraduates from the Faculty of Life Sciences studying Alpine Biodiversity and Forest Ecology. We stayed at the wonderful Rifugio Tita Piaz in Passo Pura in the Carnic Alps and made use of the facilities at the field centre of Baita Torino.

Baita Torino

We were really lucky to have Professor Nimis, Professor of Systematic Botany at The University of Trieste and renowned lichenologist, come to talk to us at the beginning of our stay. He explained how the biodiversity of the area arose after the last ice age. Some plant species survived in patches where the mountains rose high enough above the local glaciers to provide a refuge for life (known as nunataks). Others arrived after the ice melted, migrating into the region from the Baltic, Siberia or Southern Italy.

Wildflowers on a glacial moraine
Wildflowers on a glacial moraine

Prof Nimis also introduced us to his excellent key to the flora of this region. Produced as part of the Dryades project from the University of Trieste, it is now available translated into English, either online or as an Apple app. This was a great tool for students to use for their project work investigating aspects of the environment around them.

Diverse grassland
Grassland with Briza media
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Our green pledge at The Firs

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As part of our green pledge work in the museum five of us from the Collections team went  to The Firs (The University of Manchester’s experimental garden).

repotting economic plants at The Firs

Our job was re-potting the economic plants from a display in one of the greenhouses.  Above, Henry and David mixing compost in the potting shed.

Platycerium bifurcatum - staghorn fern

We explored the greenhouses while we were there, and came across this impressive staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum).  Below, carnivorous plants Venus Flytrap and a sundew, and the cactus house.

Venus fly trap and sundew

the cactus house

Being away from the workplace and out in the sunshine (although it was very, very cold) made it a great morning’s work.  I enjoyed working with living plants, getting my hands dirty, and working with different people.   The Firs is a wonderful place to visit.

Botany volunteer Barbara Porter donated her rare fern collection to the Firs when she died.  It was good to see the bench dedicated to her.

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Lindsey and botany intern Alyssa repotting lemongrass plants.

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Snowdrops: pearls of the opening year

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Putting away some specimens in the herbarium last week I noticed a folder labelled Nat. Ord. CLXXIV Amaryllaceae GENUS 8. Galanthus.

Snowdrops!

Unfortunately pressed flowers rarely keep their natural colours, and snowdrops are no exception – even though their petals are white.  The flowers turn brown and the leaves darken too.

 Our cultivated collection also includes illustrations.  Below is a colour illustraion of ‘Eight kinds of Snowdrops’ from The Garden, dated 23 January 1885:

A short article in The Garden (no date, probably around 1886) by F. W. Burbidge begins, ‘THE GIANT SNOWDROPS. One of the minor miseries of my life is having to live in a garden containing thirty distinct kinds of Snowdrops, and not being able to boast of possessing Galanthus fosteri, the “giantest”, and so far, the most to be desired of them all.  Still, I live in hopes, since we are told that, “all things come to those who know how to wait”.’

Burbidge goes on to describe the species and varieties of snowdrop giants in his garden.  He concludes, ‘I hope all the readers of these notes who have distinct Snowdrops in their collections … will be so good as to tell us of them, since there are now a good many of us deeply and seriously interested in these pearls of the opening year’.

Another delightful little piece about the average flowering dates of snowdrops (probably dated around 1880 to 1890):

 

Touring the herbarium with Manchester’s plant scientists

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Yesterday I welcomed a group of scientists from the University of Manchester to the herbarium. Some study flowering plants like tobacco and barley, while others work with ferns, mosses and algae. 

We discussed the ways that herbaria can be used, both to conduct scientific research and to teach people about plants. It’s nice to think how little the aims of the herbarium have changed over the years since the collections were first being put together.

Take our beautiful plant models for example:

In 1892, Frederick Wiess (the second Professor of Botany at the University of Manchester) valued the way that models could show the fine structure of a plant to a room full of people, saying that:  “there are models and there are models…..the carefully prepared models, as supplied by Brendel, are a lesson in themselves.” 

In the intervening years, there have been great changes both in the tools available to study plants and those to show them to an audience. But despite inventions such as Powerpoint and improvements in microscopy, these models still do the job that they were made for and are viewed by 1st year undergraduates learning about the variety of life.

To read more about models by Brendel, follow this link:

http://curatorialtrainee.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/botanical-models/

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 Mikaela.Sitford@manchester.ac.uk.

Study sheds new light on key to life on earth

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University of Manchester scientists have discovered exactly how plants obtain energy from sunlight through chlorophyll production in a study that helps to explain the design and activity of all enzymes

Professor Nigel Scrutton and his team at the Faculty of Life Sciences have not only gained a more detailed understanding of the production of the most abundant and life sustaining chemical on Earth, they also expect to apply their findings to all enzymes thus allowing the design of novel clinical and industrial processes.

The study, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), also takes in quantum tunnelling, a newly discovered enzyme mechanism where they use energy to blast through rather than climb a chemical reaction.

Professor Scrutton says: ‘Chlorophyll is the most abundant and arguably the most important chemical on planet Earth. Without it, there would be no life on Earth as it allows plants to convert light into chemical energy.

For more information click here

Sticks and bones: Tree study to help orthopaedic surgeons

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As part of  the Manchester Museum’s Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Scientist programme of events,  all the staff  in the herbarium were recently trained to take museum objects connected with Charles Darwin out to community groups.   During the training we were discussing what it meant to be a scientist, and how it was not necessarily about having the all answers but more about asking the right questions.

I was reminded of that discussion today when, looking at the University of Manchester website, an article about a new tree study caught my eye.  The study, being undertaken at the University by Dr Roland Ennos, is looking at why tree branches buckle or split, rather than break cleanly, and how this could help orthopaedic surgeons do a better repair job on children’s broken bones.

What I found particularly interesting is how Dr Ennos came up with the idea for the study.  He said: “I was walking through our local wood and breaking twigs off trees and wondering why they were breaking in these two particular ways. I remembered how difficult it was to break branches for firewood as a cub scout – you can’t break fresh branches, you need to find dead wood.”

It’s all about the questions!

Finally, here’s Dr Ennos singing the praises of trees: 

“…wood is a marvelous material, the best in the world, better than steel or plastic. It is stiff, strong and tough, all combined, and that’s very rare in a material. Steel is stronger but it’s heavier and both that and plastic take a lot of energy to make, which is important when we are facing climate change.

“We ought to return to an age of wood, in my opinion. We have a feel for wood that goes back to our early ancestors, when we used to cut branches off trees to make into spears and other tools. Understanding precisely how it works should help us design the tools of the future.”

Read the full article here.