It’s like having a time machine—supercomputers and gene sequencing allow scientists to study early events in plant evolution.
One of our conservation scientists, Norman Wickett, Ph.D., is co-leader of a global initiative involving some 40 researchers on four continents. The team has spent the past five years analyzing 852 genes from 103 types of land plants to tease out early events in plant evolution. The results, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, expand our knowledge of relationships among the earliest plants on land.
It was on a seasonably pleasant day this past May that 15 veterans from the Thresholds Veterans Project began a journey to be well in the Buehler Enabling Garden.
We toured the garden, got to know each other, and sipped on coffee. Lots of coffee. The activity I led was called Inspirational Herb Dish Gardens and was intended to provide these vets with a lovely planter of kitchen herbs to cook with, as well as a message of encouragement they could reference for inspiration in their daily life. After the first retreat was done, I thought to myself, “Wow! That was a really good program!” And it was. It was really good. Over the course of the summer, these vets returned to the Garden five more times to participate in various retreats all focused on wellness and using nature to heal.
To date, more than 2.7 million people have served our country during the most recent conflicts. Approximately 1 million of these veterans have accessed the VA healthcare system for war-related injuries. Many of the injuries sustained on these missions are unique in that they are “invisible” wounds of war—traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are difficult to diagnose, yet have large impacts on a veteran’s life. Symptoms range from mild to severe and include anxiety, hypervigilance, insomnia, irritability, and physical pain. Other common injuries sustained from these missions include musculoskeletal and missing limbs. For some, reintegration into civilian life, family, society, and employment may be difficult. In fact, even vets who were not technically injured in war often experience anxiety, hypervigilance, insomnia, and other stresses that inhibit their readjustment.
Veterans who have not had success with traditional medicine often begin to seek out alternative ways to heal. That is where the Garden comes into play. We believe beautiful gardens and natural environments are fundamentally important to the mental and physical well-being of all people. We also believe people live better, healthier lives when they can create, care for, and enjoy gardens. I witnessed the amazing effects interacting with nature has on people this summer as veterans—some on the verge of homelessness—planted the Buehler Enabling Garden with summer annuals, overjoyed to return and observe the garden flourishing throughout the season. I witnessed veterans—some participating in in-patient psychology programs—get a pass from the hospital to come to the Garden and learn to rake a dry garden in the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. I witnessed veterans—some clinically depressed—smile and laugh, as they dug potatoes from the ground in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.
Each of our six retreats was filled with creativity, education, companionship, and joy. As the summer progressed, so did the veterans, each of them growing stronger and more healthy in their special way, each of them changing and striving to be well. Our group started to call the Enabling Garden “our garden,” and the plantings we planted became “our plants.” Participants would tell me that this day (the day they came to the Garden) was the day they looked forward to the most. They would tell me how amazing the Garden is, and how safe they felt here. It was music to my ears, and I felt so proud of them.
It was easy to draw comparisons about healing, being well, and growing to gardens this summer. Gardens start small and respond to weather and temperature. They grow and change with the season. Sometimes they start to fail or get crowded out, or overgrown; sometimes they need to be watered or groomed to flush out new growth and blooms. With care and attention, however, they grow, and flourish, and bloom. They are like us. We are small sometimes. We are big sometimes. We respond to things that happen to us or things we do. But with love and care and attention, we can grow, we can bloom, we can be well. Gardens start over and each year is a new year. We can start over, too, and each day is a new day.
I saw this summer how powerful gardens can be in helping people to heal and maintain wellness. Our program was effective because it created a sense of belonging and comradery, and fostered a feeling of continuing to serve, which is an important value to many vets.
As Veterans Day approaches, remember the people who have served, put their lives on the line, and are still fighting today. Thank them, salute them, and honor them.
I was honored to work with this amazing group of veterans, who became an inspiration in my own life. And I am so grateful to have the opportunity to deliver such a wonderful program.
I always look forward to seeing Indian corn in the market and finding it in autumn decorations. Indian corn—in its range of hues from blue to deep maroon to oranges, golds, and yellows—extends the colors of the season long after the tree leaves have faded and been raked away. It is one of November’s icons, reminding us of the cultural and botanical history of the continent.
“You call it corn; we call it maize.”
Or so the 1970s TV ad for Mazola margarine told us.
Long ago, “corn” used to be the term for any grain seed, including barley, wheat, and rye, so naturally the new world plant “maize”—botanically known as Zea mays—was labeled as another kind of corn when it was introduced in Europe. For some reason, the name stuck, and we all think of the sweet yellow stuff on our dinner plates (and its close relatives) as the one and only “corn.”
There are actually many varieties of maize-corn. Archaeologists are pretty sure that all of them resulted from the domestication and selective cultivation of the grass teosinte (pronounced tay-oh-SIN-tee), around 10,000 years ago by the people living in what is now Mexico. Over time, maize became a staple crop, yielding different varieties of nutritious and versatile grains throughout the American continent.
Indian corn is related to popcorn. These kinds of maize differ from other kinds in that they have a harder outer coating and a starchy interior with a bit of water inside the seed, or kernel. Popcorn pops when the kernel is heated quickly at a high temperature, causing the water inside the seed to suddenly turn into steam, inflating the starch. The sweet corn we love to eat and the dent corn used for tortilla chips and livestock feed will not produce a fluffy white snack when heated.
We can exploit these properties of Indian corn and turn the kernels into necklace beads to wear during the season.
How to make an Indian corn necklace
You will need the following:
Indian corn (one average-size cob will make two necklaces)
a sharp embroidery needle, long, with a large eye
string; you can use ordinary sewing thread, but a little heavier is better
a pot of water to cook and soften the corn
First, remove all the kernels from the cob. You can wedge a butter knife between the rows of kernels and twist to pop out the seeds. Once you get some of the cob stripped, you can rub the kernels loose with your thumb.
Place the corn kernels in a pot of water and boil for 30 minutes. (This isn’t hot enough for the corn to pop.) Test for doneness by removing three kernels. If you can push a needle through each of them easily, they are ready. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool. You can add cold water to cool them faster, but be sure to leave them soaking so they do not dry out, even when you are stringing them. (Pushing the needle through dry kernels can be a painful experience.)
While the corn is cooling, cut a string about three times as long as you would like your necklace to be. (You can work in shorter sections and tie them together, but it won’t look as nice.) Thread the needle and double the string; then knot the ends.
Now, select kernels in the colors you like, or pick them up randomly so the string resembles the color pattern of the corn cob. Try to pick softer pieces. Hold each kernel by the sides, and push the needle through the middle of the kernel so that the needle is not pointing toward your finger. Then slide it down the string. Leave a few inches of string below the first piece so you have some string to tie when you’re finished.
If the kernel is too hard and resists piercing, do not force it! Try to push the needle through at another angle, or discard that piece and select a softer one. This is important because you will prick yourself with the sharp needle if you are not careful. In fact, you’ll probably stab yourself at least once even if you are careful, so this is not a project for very young children.
Pack the moist seeds close together on the string. As they dry, they will shrink in size. You may want to slide them together a little tighter so the string doesn’t show, but you’ll also want to leave enough wiggle room so the necklace has flexibility. When your string of corn is long enough, allow the seeds to dry completely. Then tie the ends together and you will have an attractive necklace to wear to Thanksgiving dinner or other festive gatherings!
One final note: when I made a corn necklace in third grade as part of a unit on Native American culture, I was under the impression that indigenous people of long ago made and wore necklaces like this. No way. All corn was grown for food, and it was needed to sustain the population, so it would not have been turned into jewelry. This season, we can be thankful for the plentiful food we have to eat, and we can appreciate the beautiful colors of the corn as decoration during the feast.
The study examined how major forms of land plants are related to each other and to aquatic green algae, casting some uncertainty on prior theories while developing tools to make use of advanced DNA sequencing technologies in biodiversity research.
“We have known for quite some time that all plants on land share a common ancestor with green algae, but there has been some debate as to what form of algae is the closest relative, and how some of the major groups of land plants are related to each other,” explained Dr. Wickett, conservation scientist in genomics and bioinformatics.
Over the past four years, he has collaborated with an international team of researchers on the study that gathered an enormous amount of genetic data on 103 plants and developed the computer-based tools needed to process all of that information.
The study is the first piece of the One Thousand Plants (1KP) research partnership initiated by researchers at the University of Alberta and BGI-Shenzhen, with funding provided by many organizations including the iPlant Collaborative at the University of Arizona (through the National Science Foundation), the Texas Advanced Computing Center, Compute-Calcul Canada, and the China National GeneBank. The results released this week were based on an examination of a strategically selected group of the more than 1,000 plants in the initiative.
Researchers dove into the genetic data at a fine level of detail, looking deeply at each plant’s transcriptome (the type of data generated for this study), which represents those pieces of DNA that are responsible for essential biological functions at the cellular level. In all, they selected 852 genes to identify patterns that reflect how species are related.
The study is consistent with ideas and motivations that parallel research Wickett is pursuing in work funded by the National Science Foundation program called “Assembling the Tree of Life.” Both studies seek to better understand how the earliest land plants that first appeared more than 460 million years ago evolved from green algae to yield the diversity of plants we know today.
Understanding those lineages, Wickett explained, allows scientists to make better-informed decisions in their research pursuits, and illuminates historical environmental conditions that may have impacted evolution. “Knowing that set of relationships offers a foundation for all evolutionary studies about land plants,” he said.
Using Bioinformatics to Better Understand Our World
Wickett’s expertise in a field of science called bioinformatics allowed him to serve as one of the leaders in the data analysis process, which relied on a set of tools developed by the research team. Using those tools, Wickett helped develop the workflow for a large part of the 1KP study. “The tools we have developed through this project are able to scale up to bigger data sets,” he said. This is significant because “the more data you have, the more power you have to correctly identify those close relatives or relationships.”
By working with a large amount of data, explained Wickett, the team was able to resolve patterns that were previously unsupported. Until recently, the scientific community has largely believed that land plants are more closely related one of two different lineages of algae—the order Charales or the order Coleochaetales, which share complex structures and life cycle characteristics with land plants. However, the study reinforced, with strong statistical support, recent work that has shown that land plants are actually more closely related to a much less complex group of freshwater algae classified as Zygnematophyceae.
A Simpler Ancestor
It may mean that the ancestor of all land plants was an alga with a relatively simple growth form, like the Zygnematophycean algae, according to Wickett. More than 500 million years ago, that ancestral species split into two new species; one became a more complex version that colonized the land, and the other continued on to become the Zygnematophyceae we know today. The unique direction of both species was likely influenced by environmental conditions at the time, and this study may suggest that evolution could have reduced complexity in the ancient group that formed what we now recognize as Zygnematophyceae.
“Our new paper suggests that the order of events of early land plant evolution may have been different than what we thought previously,” said Wickett. “That order of events informs how scientists interpret when and how certain characteristics or processes, like desiccation tolerance, came to be; our results may lead to subtle differences in how scientists group mosses, liverworts, and hornworts, the lineage of plants (bryophytes) that descended from the earliest land plants.”
Wickett can’t help but feel encouraged by the wave of enthusiasm around the release of the publication. “When you get involved in these kinds of projects, it never seems as big as it is—you just get used to the scale. It’s been really great to get the public reaction and to see that people are really excited about it,” he said.
Where We Go from Here
Wickett will convene with the research team in January in San Diego to discuss next steps for 1KP, which will lead to the analysis of some 1,300 species. The team will likely break into subgroups to focus on sets of plants that share characteristics such as whether they produce flowers or cones, or have a high level of drought tolerance.
With the publication of this research, a door to the past has been cast wide open, offering untold access to natural events spanning some 500 million years. After such significant discovery it’s hard to imagine that there could be more in the wings. But with the volume of data generated by the 1KP project, there are certainly exciting results yet to come.
Gather together a vibrant group of textile artists, pose a problem that sparks their creativity, and you get “Masks: Disguise – Expose – Celebrate.” The bold and thought-provoking exhibition will be on display as part of the Fine Art of Fiber show opening at the Chicago Botanic Garden this Thursday evening.
“Masks” is the 11th project by “Women’s Journeys in Fiber,” an ongoing exploration of the artistic process that began 16 years ago with an eclectic mix of quilters, lace makers, bead workers, weavers, and others. This year’s challenge: use a textile technique to construct a mask that’s celebratory, ceremonial, entertaining, theatrical, decorative, ethnic, or personal.
The resulting “fireworks display” of creativity foments growth and transformation for the artists, and provides visitors an inspiring and engaging experience, said Jan Gerber of Wilmette, Illinois, the group’s founder. Let’s take a sneak preview:
Dia de Los Muertos/Day of the Dead by Valerie Rodelli of Inverness, IL
It’s said that the spirits of the deceased can return to earth and visit their families on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Images of skeletons, depicting the beloved activities of the departed, are used to welcome back the dead. Perhaps the soul commemorated in Valerie Rodelli’s mask was a gardener, farmer, botanist, or nature lover.
Ma Bell Transformed by Mary Krebs Smith of Wilmette, IL
What have we gained and what have we lost in the Internet Age? Ma Bell Transformed reflects Mary Krebs Smith’s family traditions, as well as her frustrations with new modes of communication. Adornments to her mask include trinkets her mother and aunt received during their 45 years of service with Illinois Bell (AT&T).
Going Gray without Becoming Invisible by Dvorah Kaufman of Kenosha, WI
Do women really become invisible when they go gray? Dvorah Kaufman explored and ultimately rejected this notion in a playful mask, made with gray fiber donated by friends and family. “Women who have joy, energy, friends, and family in their lives will never become invisible,” Kaufman said.
Bye Bye Butterflies by Virginia Reisner of Elmhurst, IL
Virginia Reisner grew up on the northwest wide of Chicago near open spaces, where she played amid butterflies of all sizes and colors. “Things changed when a super highway was built through the area,” Reisner said. “Gone were the woods, the prairie and most importantly, the butterflies.” Her beaded mask pays tribute to “past, present, and, hopefully, future” winged beauties.
The Unity by Hyangsook Cho of Barrington, IL
Air, water, and earth are essential elements of nature that embrace all life. Hyangsook Cho’s mossy mask—sprouting wires wrapped with yarn—symbolizes the environment supporting all.
Whiskers—The Real Thing by Marcia Lee Hartnell of Northbrook, IL
An exploration of macramé, incorporating real whiskers shed by pet cats, led to the creation of Marcia Lee Hartnell’s cat mask.
CRAZYCRACKPOT by Maria Snyder of Lake Forest, IL
Mental illness—a thread running through Maria Snyder’s family history—should be treated and discussed like any physical illness, she said. Snyder’s mask is a call to lift the stigma of mental illness and bring the topic into the open.
When Life Gives You Junk Mail, Create! by Gretchen M. Alexander of Glenview, IL
A mailbox stuffed with colorful, abundant junk mail led Gretchen Alexander to ponder the debris generated and discarded by society. She created a mask from the overflow to serves as a metaphor for innovative ways to reuse and recycle materials.
Face of Time by Elizabeth Mini of Browns Lake, WI
The Honduras mahogany used to carve this mask reminded Elizabeth Mini of her childhood home, where she grew up amid descendants of the Maya Indians. “Carving wood is normally a man’s work,” Elizabeth wrote. “Breaking this mold has been my woman’s journey in time.”
Shaman Spirit Mask by Cathy Mendola of Lake Forest, IL
Western and Native American astrology, Hindu traditions, and a crown of seashells help express Cathy Mendola’s deep connection to nature in this interpretation of a Shaman spirit mask.