Chapter 8: An immeasurable loss

The Conference Room

Indian Institute of Biotechnological Research, New Delhi

The Indians are a god-fearing society. They believe that all knowledge is sacred and that sharing it can only augment their own, in the same way as the light of a candle does not diminish by sharing its flame. They also take a philosophical view to giving money to the poor, for wealth is likened to the dirt on one’s hands and so must be washed away.

Why then are the two seen in such different lights? After all, knowledge can be misused and wealth can change the lives of many, the hungry, the homeless, the sick. Then there’s power, shuttling between the two like a subservient canine between its masters, eager to please the one with the better bait.

Today, none of it seemed to matter.

In the conference room at the other side of the institute, the air smothered by tension made it hard to breathe, the researchers sat uncomfortably around a massive teak table donated from the days of the Raj, with the thoughts of last night’s events casting a sinister gloom on their faces. The bolted windows, lack of conversation or coffee, blank expressions and the strong security presence outside the entrances made sure that it wouldn’t feel like the normal weekly seminar. The interrogation wouldn’t last long, they had promised. But you’d be a fool to believe those words – the IIBR had lost more than just a life, and they all knew that.

Niab Aalab Mansur pensively looked out of the blackened windows and checked his watch. He knew the importance of his visit; it had to be done tactfully. His credentials shadowed his commanding authority, the full force of which would be felt very soon. “Another 20 minutes” he sighed and leaned back on the leather seats while the driver belted the limousine past the outer perimeter of the IG International Airport.

The IIBR’s headed paper in front of her was covered with a million creases and pencil marks forming an incomprehensible pattern as she continued to gaze into the blank space. Zohra’s beautiful face lay gently tilted to one side, allowing the corner of her left eye to form a pearlescent tear that glinted in the morning sun. Her grief was immeasurable, her loss personal. Chandra her been her supervisor for many years. She had sought his guidance and reassurance at every step both in the laboratory and outside. He was her mentor, someone she could trust and confide in. He was a man of clear conscience, a man whose limitless wisdom she often challenged, and always lost. On this icy winter morning, however, falling headlong into the abyss of darkness, inconsolable and irretrievable from the depths of sorrow, Zohra sat at the table, a grieving daughter.

DISCLAIMER

All opinions expressed in this blog are that of Goldbullion7 alone and do not reflect any influence from outside sources. All words written in these pages are the intellectual property of Goldbullion7 and may not be copied or distributed without express permission from the author.

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Chapter 7: Voice of the master

It started with a rapturous applause, then collective silence.

“The discovery of DNA was heralded the greatest achievement of the last century. As I stand before you today, I can say with great pride that our progress in plant molecular genetics since that time will give Watson and Crick, the pioneers of the double-helix, cause for great celebration.”

Gold emblazoned invitations had been sent forth a month in advance to eminent speakers from academia and industry, to bridge the gap between the conceptual and the applied, and to broaden the scope of Cornell’s latest plant biotechnology programme. Yon’s lecture at the symposium on “selective integration of useful traits in Angiosperms” was one of the most eagerly awaited events.

“The molecule of life is a show of simplistic elegance containing short stretches of nucleotide sequences called genes which form part of DNA like beads on a string. The information contained in the genes is ultimately translated into proteins or enzymes, which in turn control or determine a trait.” The mesmerised audience clung to every word uttered by the master and leaned forward in their seats in the anticipation of more. This is one talk no one wanted to end.

Yon’s baritone voice cut sharply through the air and landed on the audience with its honeyed softness. “The discovery, isolation and selection of gene sequences for transforming plants with useful characteristics is not new to science and laboratories across the world are currently looking at every species of plant available in molecular detail and entire genomes are being mapped”.

The entire concept of creating transgenic plants through incorporation of foreign DNA’s into its genome began in the 1990’s and is a well established procedure. The protocol usually involves delivering the engineered vector containing the selected genetic sequence into the host cell using a mediator such as Agrobacterium, and then allowing natural recombination to weave its magic to swap the DNA fragments. Then, there’s the difficult process of establishing whether the selected DNA fragment has actually been accepted by the host. Of course, the locus of integration and its direction (sense or antisense, depending on facing the right direction or the opposite, it is so named, nonsensically) have a huge impact on the level of expression of that particular gene. High levels of expression mean large quantities of mRNA, which in turn mean a high turnover of enzymes and proteins via the ribosomal-based translation apparatus, which control every functional aspect of life. From germination, seed production, fruit and flower formation, root and shoot development to the generation of specialised structures and regulating physiological responses to environmental stimuli to name but a few.

Yon moved gracefully on the stage, his presence commanding strict attention. He spoke eloquently, almost without thinking yet each one of the delegates felt the weight of thought that the master put into each word he spoke. The screen behind him projected strange looking fragments floating, randomly at first, in a sea of translucent liquid, then being drawn together by some unknown force causing them to interact and fold, exchange fragments and finally seperate. The creation of new life.

Yon continued…

“Therefore, with the insight of what a gene does in a plant, you could quite simply cut it out from one species, put it in another and transfer the characteristic you need. Identification, excision, insertion, recombination, integration, ligation, expression and selection…”, Yon paused to read his audience, no one moved, “…simple, and in that order.” he exhaled. Everyone cheered.

The shadow on the last row of seats watched quietly.

DISCLAIMER

All opinions expressed in this blog are that of Goldbullion7 alone and do not reflect any influence from outside sources. All words written in these pages are the intellectual property of Goldbullion7 and may not be copied or distributed without express permission from the author.

Chapter 6: Chaos descends

Director’s Office

7.48pm 6th January

Indian Institute of Biotechnological Research, New Delhi

IIBR was buzzing with activity the following morning. The call was sent out by a breathless janitor whose daily 7.30am routine was broken by his misfortune of being the first to be witness to such mindless horror.

The site was never known for its security, it wasn’t required when the only thing worth stealing was pure intellect. Some of the best minds in the world belonged to IIBR and Chandra was one of them. Scientists from all over liaised with the researchers at IIBR, to seek their expertise, gain from their understanding and advance the global scientific effort.

The Indian sun glinted through the Director’s Office windows, casting light on a typical Indian crime scene – the reporters took centre stage jostling for the best angle, the constables grappled with the outer layers of public enthusiasts and over-eager children and beyond that, the local superintendant and his aides claimed authority whilst tying to belly their way in and catch a faint glimpse of the epicentre. The forensics waited patiently outside.

It was reassuring that he didn’t have to employ stealth to camouflage his presence – the city did that for him. He knew that Delhi’s burgeoning population revelled in abject disarray. The 21st century metropolis thrived by turfing out discipline and guesting confusion. Despite this he was aware that the system somehow worked so he had to be careful. He scanned scene in front of him where little vendors were busy selling goods on the street. To his right, local ‘Dabbawallas’ scurried around like ants, busy delivering over a million lunchboxes from homes to offices all over the city on foot, bicycles, train rooftops. Unlike the western world, they did not have barcodes to track the delivery, no computers to manage the accounts and in fact there was no system at all – yet there was never a mix up. An ingenious service based on the foundations of organised chaos. Still more proof on why he had to remain careful.

To his left, the main highway welcomed hundreds more to the city. He made a mental note. A getaway, if required, would be clean since very few left the city. The authorities might as well have converted the highway into a one-way street and broadened the roads. But democracy means creating fair opportunities for everyone, even if it meant creating a traffic-free escape route for the unworthy.

He wondered if Delhi could adopt the English system on their roads for even half a day. They might learn a thing or two about sensible driving. Or perhaps not, the ministers knew that and so do the people. Now what freeway or highway or motorway or carriageway could simultaneously support the car, the scooter, the bike, the pedestrian, the bullock cart, the tractor and the diverse wildlife from elephants, camels, sheep, cattle, simians and many more…?

As he pondered, the reasons became clear…

Over time, the homogeneity of British built roads was, starting with the main cities and towns, and later evolving into villages and settlements, had been gradually replaced with the uniformity of non-conformation, akin to drops of beetroot juice in water, slowly diffusing from their point of origin until they transformed all the liquid surrounding them with their colour.

He refocused his attention to more pressing matters and reminded himself, “Hindsight is a tool of the unprepared, it can only show what could have been done differently to make things right; perfectionists have no use for this pathetic implement”, the killer’s mind erased these thoughts as soon as he had had them, like a hastily scribbled love note – full of passion yet never intending to reach its destination. He watched from behind the hullabaloo of the building crowd, secure in the knowledge that the investigation would reflect the hallmarks of the city itself, chaotic, confusing and directionless.

The growing din engulfed his presence in the way heavy fog drown entire monuments and within moments he was gone.

DISCLAIMER

All opinions expressed in this blog are that of Goldbullion7 alone and do not reflect any influence from outside sources. All words written in these pages are the intellectual property of Goldbullion7 and may not be copied or distributed without express permission from the author.

Chapter 5: The moving shadow

Director’s Office

11.54pm 5th January

Indian Institute of Biotechnological Research, New Delhi

The figure moved around in the dark with remarkable ease. The kill was easy, it always is, provided the skill of the hunter matches up to, and then exceeds that of the hunted and this was an operation he had timed to perfection. A seasoned performer.

He had obviously been there long enough for his eyes to grow accustomed to night light, finish the job and leave no trace behind.

“And now for the final touch…” he thought to himself and eased himself behind the Chandra’s chair.

The computer terminal lit up with a faint whirring noise but the screen was immediately dimmed down. The muted sounds of efficient typing produced the desired effect on the monitor and with three minutes to spare before midnight, the intruder deftly stepped over the slain body, and casually walked out.

DISCLAIMER

All opinions expressed in this blog are that of Goldbullion7 alone and do not reflect any influence from outside sources. All words written in these pages are the intellectual property of Goldbullion7 and may not be copied or distributed without express permission from the author.

Chapter 4: Emerging secrets

“Why the hell didn’t you tell me about this before?” Duma raged.

Yon stood up painfully, his fingers reaching out, seeking for his friend’s shoulder that appeared to be moving away from him. Steadying himself, he inspected the unique pattern that now adorned his shirt and joked ‘I always knew we had an artist in the house’. Duma silence conveyed his emotions.

Sensing his mood, Yon continued in a voice calm enough to melt the hardest of hearts – “My dear friend, nature clutches her secrets very closely to her breast, they are her creations, her children, and no mother will give her children away, not without a fight anyway. Should you ever wish to find out, you must first learn about patience, then endurance, then resilience and ultimately tenderness for she can never be forced to reveal her identity, only coaxed.”

“And I’m supposed to be content with that, am I?” Duma maintained his sarcasm.

“You know it as well as I do, Duma. It is what makes biology a fascinating science. Nature has given us the materials to play with and even the tools to work with, now all she wants is to test the strength of the human spirit in exchange for her precious jewels.”

“Very fair indeed.” Duma retorted sharply, but his anger was melting away in anticipation of what lay ahead.

“It’s late, go home and we’ll catch up first thing in the morning, I’ll give you a full update.”

“Make sure it’s a full update.”, and with a knowing wink, Duma picked up his coffee mug that had miraculously survived the onslaught moments earlier and made a quiet exit.

*******

Only the innocence of a child can experience absolute joy, for there is no bias, no expectation, in fact, nothing that can corrupt its thoughts.

Tonight , Yon felt that a child had taken his place.

A few years ago, his groundbreaking paper detailing the complexities of how different molecules within a plant signal to each other was featured on every major scientific publication across the world and put him right on course for the much coveted Nobel Prize. He had tracked down an important and extremely elusive piece of the puzzle on hormonal cross-talk in plants and this finding held the potential to pave the way for the other pieces to fall in place.

But the research had been extremely intensive with a young Yon hitting the 18-20 hour mark everyday for weeks on the trot. This task really tested his resolve – five years of painstaking labour to say the least with other projects constantly seeking his attention like hungry fledglings in a nest. The project was massive and very ambitious given the timeframe. It took all of Yon’s research and managerial skills to see this one through while keeping his sanity and team together, for the setbacks were many. But he was doggedly determined to not opt out when others in his place would most certainly have quit a long while ago – it’s what made Yon different; he chased the big fish… and didn’t stop until it was in his grasp.

Yes, he was pleased then.

But tonight was different, for the dream he had envisioned appeared with the brightness of day before his eyes. Yon knew that it was luck, perhaps he saw it as a blessing. The gods had been kind and pitied their child groping in the dark and in doing so had left him with a priceless jewel on his lap, without him having to lift so much as a finger.

The gold-threaded cushions eased the pressure on Yon’s lower back as he took rest on his favourite crimson armchair, staring into space through the swirling mist of his freshly prepared coffee; he’d been this way for the last hour since he had left office, unmoving, unbreathing, the body’s way to shut down non-essential systems as all power is diverted to the brain. Finally, he looked upwards, towards the stars that embroidered the night sky and marvelled at their beauty and immense power… “Thank you” he quietly mused looking at the star he now owned, right on his lap, on his shimmering laptop.

DISCLAIMER

All opinions expressed in this blog are that of Goldbullion7 alone and do not reflect any influence from outside sources. All words written in these pages are the intellectual property of Goldbullion7 and may not be copied or distributed without express permission from the author.

Chapter 3: Friendship is trust

“Two dark, please!” Yon sent his voice ringing down the circular walls that were painted in a beautiful yellow and decorated with seemingly expensive looking paintings – they did not lack taste, just their frames. The better looking ones that wore frames adorned the room upstairs but any trained eye will know that they were nothing more than glorified calendar cutouts or posters but Yon didn’t care; there were other things more important to spend his precious budget on.

Yon was born Nishiuta Inshimoto Lazuki Yon although he preferred to be simply called ‘Yon’, much to the relief of his friends and colleagues. Yon was Japanese in every way, his parentage, cultural beliefs, his determination to succeed and an unwavering faith on the protector – but he was educated in England, where he completed his Doctorate research with a strong focus on plant genetics and metabolic engineering.

His ability to see beyond what others could see soon led to rapid discoveries, which in turn drew to him fame, glamour and women, and it wasn’t long before the ambitious researcher was poached and found himself heading the prestigious Genomics division at the NRC in Manhattan, engulfed in top secret work. It’s where the pair first met, the beginning of a lasting relationship.

Yon didn’t expect a reply from Duma – when friendships run as deep as theirs, there is a level of mutual understanding that goes beyond the realms of consciousness. Whole conversations can be conducted telepathically with the unsaid often carrying more weight than the said.

Yon envisioned Duma gracefully making his way into his office with the nimble steps of a ballet dancer, his arms flailing wildly like a master orchestrator in a trance, seeking the right materials and concocting the aromatic caffeine laden brew with an expression of serenity associated with the all-knowing. “Good” he muttered to himself, “just enough time…” and hit save.

Yon sat at the workstation on Bar 7 feigning disinterest as the computer imitated his expression with a corporate screensaver.  Duma reached the module, unhurried, and casually set the steaming tray on an oval glass coffee table. ‘Not casually enough though’, Yon’s mind quickly reasoned while trying to keep calm himself. Too late.

Duma was already flying at him.

Through the eyes you can read the mind…

Yon felt his chair disappear from beneath him as and landed hard on the cold floor simultaneously getting drenched in scalding rain on his short trip down. Unsure about whether to scream out in pain or shiver with the icy chill offered by the granite, Yon lay writhing and laughing at the same time as he watched his friend punch in the access codes on his computer with great impatience. “You devil…! Tell me NOW!” He raged.

When he had finished, Duma sat staring at the screen for a long time and what he saw, he didn’t believe. Every ounce of his scientific experience denied it yet he wrestled against his will to hold on to the thought. Wide eyed, he turned around slowly to face Yon. “It’s not… I don’t…? How could…?”, he blabbered.

By then, triumph had settled on Yon’s face and pride had already sealed his lips shut so he just gave a devilish smile. The screen glowed through Duma’s spiky hair and illuminated the back wall with the silhouette of an emperor’s waving crown. Yon’s log read simply:

2.27am, 14th November – “The equivalence rule is non-universal”.

DISCLAIMER

All opinions expressed in this blog are that of Goldbullion7 alone and do not reflect any influence from outside sources. All words written in these pages are the intellectual property of Goldbullion7 and may not be copied or distributed without express permission from the author.

Chapter 2: The offer

Genomics Division

2.27am 14th November

Nyaksua Research Centre, Manhattan

Sure, the building was old…well, ostensibly.

Blessed with traditional architecture and carved with the immortal beauty of 18th century splendour engraved on its walls, yet, buzzing with the sights and sounds from a time beyond, the Nyaksua Research Centre represented the epitome of unblemished technological and scientific progress concealed within a concrete hide of awe-inspiring wonder. A real convergence of over 400 years of history with the stealth of tomorrow.

“Upstairs!!” came the booming voice.

“And for the nth time, I’m coming…” echoed Duma’s response along the spiral ascent that twined around the central stele as he shut the ornate oak door to Lab B despite its earnest protest.

At each level, the lifts opened up into a circular foyer with pure white marble flooring interspersed with slabs of circular granite set flush with the floor – an unnerving experience, especially for new visitors since it gave the impression of standing on a porous chamber of death, capable of delivering swift justice through the black voids that would open a chasm and swallow them whole at any moment, should any misbehaviour be noticed.

From the foyers at each level, specialist laboratories fanned out along the length of the historic building, the lights adding to the beauty of the building as the sun settled in for the night.

Although a Kenyan by birth, Duma had travelled widely specialising in studying adaptations to plants to their natural habitats. He was an expert in the field and pursued his work with real fervour. He was a revolutionary thinker and his work put him in the limelight for both the right and the wrong reasons. His research on plant behaviour won him many accolades and admirers but equally many of his papers earned him derision and scorn from other less radical evolutionary biologists who failed to keep up with the pace of his concepts.

The NRC, who noticed an opportunity, would rather own his ideas than put up a fight against his brilliance and so, on a rather innocuous conference trip to the Philippines, two of NRC’s top men discreetly approached the partially stoned Duma and made an offer that he, despite being high on spirits, both literally and metaphorically, could not refuse.

The deal granted him independence from financial constraints, allowed him to follow his dreams and his research and get to any place he wanted, at any time with a generous research grant with the proviso that NRC held joint ownership of his work. Duma was a passionate scientist and like many of his peers, he placed his freedom to pursue his idealogies above everything else; above fame, above power and even above money.

That night, even though Duma was in a right state, he had paused just for a moment to consider but the two men in the sharp suits would take no chances – the man on the left shook his unsteady palm while the other placed a card on his jacket pocket saying – ‘I think you’ll like travelling first class…’.

DISCLAIMER

All opinions expressed in this blog are that of Goldbullion7 alone and do not reflect any influence from outside sources. All words written in these pages are the intellectual property of Goldbullion7 and may not be copied or distributed without express permission from the author.

Chapter 1: Death of the moon

Director’s Office

11.45pm 5th January

Indian Institute of Biotechnological Research, New Delhi

“Chandra” refers to the moon, as those familiar with the Devenagri script will concur.

A force of nature as old as time itself. It’s silvery light always there to guide and protect you from the hidden dangers of the night. The bearer of love, the symbol of purity, the chariot of hope and the guardian of life. All taken for granted but should it ever abandon its duty, the birds will stop singing and the flowers will stop blooming…life on Earth shall perish.

“It’s insane! I shouldn’t be here…”

Chandra had no time to collect these thoughts, make sense of them and warn the others. How could he? For in that moment, frozen in time, as his spinal column lay severed, Chandra knew that he had abandoned his duty. No longer the guardian of life, he had jeopardised his own existence – and of those around him.

It’s always the same, the eternal game between the past and regret. The archives of life are a testament, for there are many souls, locked in silence, waiting to seize the one opportunity to journey back through time and rewrite their actions. But time is cruel because it calls acceptance, healing even though they are not the same, and renders life worthless, a life too difficult to live with the lasting reminder that remorse could never catch up with…and change history.

Chandra understood this but he also knew that being human meant that you were born with certain failings, ones that no matter how hard you tried, you could never correct.

An intellectual man, a genius, a philosophical thinker, an honest man…but these little consolations were irrelevant. With life ebbing out of his quivering body, Chandra’s dying brain conjured its final thought – “…for all life on Earth shall perish” .

As though with cruel sarcasm, the night sky dimmed in the instant the clouds crept up to obscure the moon and when it had cleared, Chandra’s eyes had closed.

The moon had just been extinguished…

DISCLAIMER

All opinions expressed in this blog are that of Goldbullion7 alone and do not reflect any influence from outside sources. All words written in these pages are the intellectual property of Goldbullion7 and may not be copied or distributed without express permission from the author.

Teaching tomatoes…

guilty dog

The scene

You are at home.

You are excited.

You are going on holiday!

Wider than a ‘fat maharajah’, your 5-year old suitcase lies open on your bed whose delicate frame can barely support the maharajah’s weight.

But you can’t stop, as you pile in your favourite clothes, the book you’ve read a million times and the shoes that nearly bankrupted you (you never know when you might need them!) – hey! wait a minute, where’s the other one of the pair?

You don’t see it first but you can hear the slobber. Your mind is streets ahead as it quickly tries to contemplate on how to deal with the reality that is to follow.

Soon enough, a big, soft, furry creature enters. It is the family dog and in the soft folds of its wet mouth, the other shoe…

I give up. How can I train it?

Okay – I can’t give you the answer to that one!

However, I am going to use this context to describe to you how you can potentially ‘train’ plants.

In my last article titled ‘the parched plant’ (June ’12 archive), I introduced the concept of how plants react when placed under water-stress. In one sentence, they close the pores (stomata) on their leaves to limit water loss and slow down all intensive processes such as flowering and growth.

Great, where’s the problem

The issue emerges when you realise that plants cannot maintain this for very long.

In the wild, when animals like Cheetah’s hunt, they are able sprint extremely quickly to capture their prey. However, if the prey is anything like an antelope with a slim body, slender legs and tremendous stamina, the Cheetah will soon give up because it cannot sustain its speed for very long.

Plants have a similar problem. When there is very little water around, they respond immediately by producing small quantities of a special stress-hormone, which enables it to cope in the manner described above but only in the short-term. If the season is unusually hot and persistent, plants will simply lose their water, dry out (wilt) and ultimately die unless…

Is there light…?

Unless of course, they have more of this special stress hormone to keep them going! – this hormone is called Abscisic Acid (ABA).

When roots of tomato plants start to dry out, they sense (in the way you and I can sense that we need a cold drink) that water in the surrounding soil is running low. This sensing turns on genes that help to make ABA in the roots.

From here, ABA will travel upwards to the rest of the plant, where it will help close stomata etc. This is a bit like your taking medicine for a stomach-ache. The medicine is taken in the mouth but has to travel to the stomach, where it has the calming effect.

Some of the ABA is also made locally in the leaves so it doesn’t have to travel a long distance before having an effect.

The biggest problem that plants face under pesistent dry conditions is a shortage of ABA – how do you make more of it?

The cascade

Natural cascades are very pretty. I love how the water falls from a height down one step, collects, then falls again and collects until right at the bottom there is a stunning lake.

The lake is ABA.

In roots, each cell will have a mini-cascade where chemical 1 flows down a biological cascade, collects and becomes chemical 2, flows down again, collects and becomes chemical 3 and so on…This flow continues until the last chemical flows and becomes ABA at the bottom.

Now this is where things get even crazier!

Chemical 1 is the ‘red coloured’ pigment that you see on ripe tomatoes. Chemical 2 is the ‘orange-coloured’ pigment that is see on tomatoes that are on their way to ripening. In fact, the remaining chemicals on the cascade are all pigments that give colour to flowers and fruits.

So, isn’t it rather strange to think that what gives colour to fruits ends as becoming a ‘stress-hormone’? In human terms, that is the equivalent of the pigment that makes us brown (melanin) somehow transforming itself into ‘adrenaline’, our main stress-hormone. Utterly ridiculous, I know!

Water, water everywhere yet not a drop to drink

Fruits like tomato have an abundance of the red-pigment (Chemical 1) and it lies on top of the cascade. So, you could be forgiven for thinking that there would be gallons of it flowing downstream and feeding into a rather large lake of ABA. Of course, lots of ABA means plants can cope with water-stress for a longer period of time.

The truth has to be different – nature loves to throw in a twist!

As you go lower down the beautiful cascade, there are bottlenecks at each level which get tighter and tighter so the flow of ‘pigments’ is reduced considerably. Therefore, at the end, what should have been a large, magnificent lake of ABA is no more than a little puddle. Shame!

There’s more…

The width of each of the bottlenecks is controlled by genes – they act like sentinels guarding a gate so it’s up to them what and how much can get through the gates. They also have a bad attitude, which means they let very little through most of the time. Reminds me of my friends who used to try and get past bouncers in clubs (with little success might I add!).

This explains why even though we have so much pigment on top of the cascade, we end up with very little ABA at the bottom that the plant can actually use to protect itself.

Okay, that’s tough – now, give us the good news

Believe it or not, this is real research!

So you are part of my research team and you can help me by thinking about it and contributing to its progress.

Let’s carry on – the only way to get into the club is to confidently convince the bouncers to let us in. Funny that as a scientist, you would pretty much apply the same formula. We need make the genes (our little biological bouncers) at each step of the cascade to release the bottleneck so more of the ‘stuff’ can flow through the gates (of our biological club) – you can do this by pushing them into overdrive (yes, I do mean it in the literal sense).

When the weather is pleasant, most plants will have these genes running slowly at 2nd gear. On a hot day, the genes will pick up speed and work on 3rd gear but only until the pleasant conditions return.

If we were to shift the genes to overdrive and have them going faster throughout the day, the floodgates will stay open – the ABA lake is ready for use!

Is this really possible?

Oh yes. We have already managed to increase ABA levels in various tissues (roots, leaves) for several species including tomato and it works to varying levels. No doubt, the research is complex but the fundamental principles remain the same.

This research has tremendous potential both in terms of its scope and application. If applied correctly, it could reduce the need to excessive irrigation for water-intensive crops. It may also be used to reclamate vast areas that have dry and arid soils – here, more resilient plants could be introduced and established that would gradually moisten the soil and well as increase its fertility through the degradation of organic matter.

So next time you mention ‘teach’ and ‘plant’ in the same sentence to a friend and are met with a raised eyebrow, I’ll leave you to explain to them the rest of the story.

Until then, I wish you luck in rescuing that shoe!

 

DISCLAIMER

Many of the analogies used in this article have been simplified for explanatory, illustrative purposes intended for a general audience.

All opinions expressed in this blog are that of Goldbullion7 alone and do not reflect any influence from outside sources. All words written in these pages are the intellectual property of Goldbullion7 and may not be copied or distributed without express permission from the author.

The parched plant…

So you’ve been out running under the blazing rays of the midday sun for an hour. Lucky you!

The story unfolds…

You reach home, sweating profusely but proud of the miles and the calories that you have managed to burn. As you undo your dirty shoes just before you enter into the safety of your welcoming home, you eyes notice a slight movement.

Your head swivels to follow the direction that your eyes have set and your mind interprets an image in green: it is plant, humble, insignificant and looking tired. Its leaves droop slightly, the stem looks frail and the flowers refuse to open. Its thoughts – ‘just another 7 hours to go before sunset…if I can hold out’

The challenge

Well, this is no conundrum. It’s pretty obvious – plants can’t move.

Unlike every other species that enjoys this power for granted, plants have to come up with innovative ways to survive the vagaries of the environment. Despite this paralysing reality, they are one of the most successful, prolific and beautiful forms of nature.

When the temperatures peak, birds find the solace of trees, animals find shade or go underground and us? Well, we head indoors. All of this to preserve this precious chemical of life called ‘dihydrogen oxide’ or ‘Water’!

Okay, but if you cannot move and are forced to remain exposed, what do you do? Plants face this challenge every day and even more so in some habitats than others.

The strategies that they have adopted are nothing short of ingenius.

Intrigued? Read on…

The 999 response

In the summer heat, we are constantly reminded to keep hydrated by drinking lots of  water. Isn’t it just great that we have access to this resource called water ‘on tap’, quite literally and metaphorically.

Plants on the other hand have to find ways to conserve the little bit of water they have. I get a feeling that they can sense no-one’s going to approach them with a bottle of chilled Evian anytime soon.

Now we as humans breathe through our nose while plants achieve this through hundreds of special noses/organs called ‘stomata’ (for some reason, I have an image of hundreds of noses forming all over me – yuck!).

When the weather is hot, the roots send a signal to the leaves telling them this this is a good time to save water. The leaves immediately produce a ‘stress hormone’ (yes, plants too have hormones!) that closes the opening of these hundreds of noses/stomata, thereby limiting further water loss.

Life support for vital systems only

If you’re a young person, you’ll know that growing requires energy and lots of it. For plants, growing and producing new fruit are two of the most energy and water intensive activities – their preferred choice: ‘I’ll think we’ll save the growing for another day’.

Similarly, an open flower is like a pot-bellied man with his top off walking along a hot beach on flip-flops – it will lose water rapidly due to the level of exposure and the large surface area. Plants recognise this and generate signals that will keep flowers closed until milder conditions return.

When the Star Trek spaceship ‘Voyager’ has been hit badly following a Borg attack, losing important systems and venting plasma, you can hear Captain Janeway give orders to her crew: ‘Divert all power to life-support systems only’.

Plants behave in much the same way – they will use power only for the most important activities. Everything else is shut down temporarily until things become better. So you can already see that:

a) some of the plant’s responses are physical (actual closure of noses/stomata) and visual (flower closure)

2) some responses are physiological (genes being switched on, new hormones made, systems and processes are slowed down)

Breaking barriers…

In the same way as some people can run faster than others, different plants can cope with the summer heat at different levels.

Pretty obvious point, until it hits you that I am a scientist so I’d like to find out whether it is possible for poor water-saving plants (our poor runners) to become better (like Olympian runners)?

And why would you do that?

Look at it like this: Millions of gallons of water are used to irrigate crops every day.

Now, if you can help train a plant that uses a lot of water (like watermelons, grapes, tomatoes etc.) to conserve its water better, you will not only help it to survive the difficult times but help mankind save precious water.

Go on, ask me how?

Ah! that will be in my next post – you see, I’m terribly parched!

DISCLAIMER

Many of the analogies used in this article have been simplified for explanatory, illustrative purposes intended for a general audience.

All opinions expressed in this blog are that of Goldbullion7 alone and do not reflect any influence from outside sources. All words written in these pages are the intellectual property of Goldbullion7 and may not be copied or distributed without express permission from the author.