60-Second Science: Plants’ Roots Helped Them Move to Land

PHOTO: Alicia Foxx.Alicia Foxx is a second-year Ph.D., student in the joint program in Plant Biology and Conservation between Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Her research focuses on restoration of native plants in the Colorado Plateau, where invasive plants are present. Specifically, she studies how we can understand the root traits of these native plants, how those traits impact competition, and whether plant neighbors can remain together in the plant community at hand.

Life for plants on land is hard because the environment can become dry. Water is important because it is used when plants take in sunlight and carbon dioxide to make energy; this is called photosynthesis. In fact, the largest object in a plant cell is a sack that holds water. Without water, plants would die.

Plants first evolved in water, which is a comfortable place: there is little friction, you almost feel weightless, and…there was plenty of water back then. These plants had no difficulty photosynthesizing, as water diffused quite easily into their leaf cells! They had little use for roots.

Evolving Plant Structures

In the time plants evolved to live on land (100 million years later), water shortages and the need to be anchored in place became issues and restricted plants to living near bodies of water. Some plants evolved root-like structures that were mostly for anchoring a plant in place, but also took in some water.  

It wasn’t until an additional 50 million years after the move on to land that true roots evolved, and these are very effective at getting the resources essential for photosynthesis and survival. In fact, the evolution of true roots 400 million years ago is associated with the worldwide reductions in carbon dioxide, since more resources could be gathered by roots for photosynthesis. Importantly, plants were no longer tied to bodies of water!

PHOTO: tree roots.
Large roots anchor a plant in place.
PHOTO: bulb with tiny bulblets and root hairs.
Tiny root hairs on a bulb take up nutrients when moisture is present.

Water issues continued, however, even with true roots. Early roots were very thick and could not efficiently search through the soil for resources. So plants either evolved thinner roots, or formed beneficial associations with very tiny fungi (called mycorrhizal fungi) that live in the soil. These fungi create very thin, root-like structures that allow for more effective resource uptake. In general, while life on land is hard, plants have evolved ways to cope via their roots.

Garden scientists are studying the relationships between plants and mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Orchids are masters of nutrient collection. The vanilla orchid has terrestrial (in soil) and epiphytic (above ground, or air) roots—and forms relationships with fungi for nutrient collection. Read more about research on Vanilla planifolia here

Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. This is our second installment of their exploration.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

60-Second Science: Dormancy and Germination

Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. Each week this spring, we’ll publish some of the results.

These brief explanations cover the topics of seed dormancy and germination, the role of fire in maintaining prairies, the evolution of roots, the Janzen-Connell model of tropical forest diversity, and more. Join us the next several weeks to see how our students met this challenge, and learn a bit of plant science too.

PHOTO: Alexandra Seglias at work in the field.Alexandra Seglias is a second-year master’s student in the Plant Biology and Conservation program at Northwestern University/The Chicago Botanic Garden. Her research focuses on the relationship between climate and dormancy and germination of Colorado Plateau native forb species. She hopes that the results of her research will help inform seed sourcing decisions in restoration projects.

PHOTO: A tiny oak sprouting from an acorn.
A tiny oak emerges from an acorn. Photo by Amphis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dormancy and Germination

The seed is an essential life stage of a plant. Without seeds, flowers and trees would not exist. However, a seed doesn’t always live a nice, cozy life in the soil, and go on to produce a mature, healthy plant. Similar to Goldilocks, the conditions for growth of a seed should be “just right.” The charismatic acorn is just one type of seed, but it can be used here as an example. Mature acorns fall from the branches of a majestic oak and land on the ground below the mother tree. A thrifty squirrel may harvest one of these acorns and stash it away for safekeeping to eat as a snack at a later time. The squirrel, scatterbrained as he is, forgets many of his secret hiding places for his nuts, and the acorn has a chance at life. But it’s not quite smooth sailing from here for that little acorn.

Imagine trying to be your most productive in extreme drought, or during a blizzard. It would be impossible! Just as we have trouble in such inhospitable conditions, a seed also finds difficulty in remaining active, and as a result, it essentially goes into hibernation until conditions for growth are more suitable. Think of a bear going into hibernation as a way to explore seed dormancy. The acorn cozies up in the soil similar to the way a bear crawls into her den in the snowy winter and goes to sleep until spring comes along. As the snow melts, the bear stretches out her sore limbs and makes her way out into the bright world. The acorn feels just as good when that warmer weather comes about, and it too stretches. But rather than limbs, it stretches its fragile root out into the soil and begins the process of germination. This process allows the seed to develop into a tiny seedling — and perhaps eventually grow into a beautiful, magnificent oak tree.

Our scientists are studying seed germination in a changing climate. Learn how you can help efforts to help match plants to a changing ecosystem with the National Seed Strategy

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Five Things To Bring to the Chicago Botanic Garden for World Environment Day

World Environment Day (WED) will take place on June 6, 2015. The United Nations started WED as a global platform for raising awareness around pressing environmental issues and motivating collective efforts for positive change. Activities will take place around the world including in Milan, where global leaders will host a conference to focus on the links between water and sustainable development.

In Chicago, the Chicago Botanic Garden is hosting a day of action around WED. The theme of this year’s event is “Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.”

PHOTO: Learn sustainable gardening techniques and more from a variety of experts around the Garden on World Environment Day.
Learn sustainable gardening techniques and more from a variety of experts around the Garden on June 6.

Here’s what you’ll need to bring for a fun-filled, zero-waste day of environmental activities:

Recyclables: Don’t forget to bring your electronics, plastic pots, vases, and baskets with liners, which can be donated for recycling from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in parking lot 4. Learn more zero-waste life hacks here.

PHOTO: Items accepted for recycling at WED.
Click here for a list of acceptable electronics items for recycling.

Reusable Bags: Windy City Harvest will be hosting a farmers’ market featuring local and organic produce on the Esplanade. Bring a taste of Chicago back home with you!

Notebook: Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, will discuss the role of urban agriculture in the food system as the keynote presentation. Nierenberg will host a panel of Chicago’s leaders in sustainability to engage others in the discussion. Take advantage of their expertise, ask your burning questions, and jot down notes for later!

Appetite: Watch a demonstration by Chef Cleetus Friedman of Fountainhead, The Bar on Buena, and The Northman at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden’s open-air amphitheater.

Bright Clothing: Beneficial insects are pollinating the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden! Be sure to wear colorful summer clothing so you can make friends with hummingbirds, butterflies, and ladybugs. Several plant scientists will be giving demonstrations and presentations at the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, through which you can explore the science behind nocturnal pollination and prairie management. Beekeeper Ann Stevens will provide lessons on apiculture.

PHOTO: Bees transferring to new comb.
Learn about apiculture with beekeeper Ann Stevens.

Don’t miss family-friendly performances by the Dreamtree Shakers (11:30 a.m.) and Layla Frankel (1:30 and 2:30 p.m.) on the Make It Better stage. Younger visitors will enjoy learning about plant parts, pollination, and making stick sculptures.

You can share your pledge for World Environment Day with people around the world and come together for #7BillionDreams on June 6, 2015. Join the Dream Team and inspire others to do the same!

Join the #WorldEnvironmentDay conversation online! Follow the Chicago Botanic Garden on Twitter and Facebook using #CBGWED2015 or #WED2015.

Continuous shuttle service is provided throughout the day from the Visitor Center to the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. Sign up for membership at the Chicago Botanic Garden or donate to their mission.

—Guest bloggers Emily Nink and Danielle Nierenberg


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org