According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), more than 34 million people in the United States do not have enough food to eat. The NSF is funding research into orphan crops to provide food.
The groundcherry is a member of the nightshade family of flowering plants that includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and bell peppers. Although its relatives are important crop plants, groundcherries are called “orphan crops” because they grow wild and have no agricultural value. Groundcherries are common all over America, are easy to grow, and can be modified genetically. They have a papery, balloon-like husk or inflated calyx surrounding the berries.
Using the CRISPR genome editing tool, researchers funded by the NSF are working to modify groundcherries and other orphan crops to provide food. Zachary Lippman and Jia He of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory feel that the groundcherry has a significant untapped potential to make it useful as a food for humans. They hope their research will lead to new food sources from various plants to build and advance a bioeconomy that will eliminate hunger on our planet.
Understanding the design of a plant that might have been considered unusable or even toxic in the past can lead to a new food source. In the distant past, people thought tomatoes to be toxic. We may find ways to use other orphan crops to provide food. Many familiar plants may have the potential to strengthen food supplies.
Have you ever thought about the fact that everything in the natural world directly or indirectly eats plants? Not just animal life but bacteria, viruses, and pathogens also attack plants. So how do plants keep from being wiped out? Recent Duke University research headed by Xinnian Dong shows that similar to animals, plant survival depends on an immune system.
The difference is that animals are protected by specialized immune cells that travel through the bloodstream to a place of infection. A plant doesn’t have that means of resisting an attack. Instead of traveling immune cells, each plant cell has a built-in resistance to infection. Each cell synthesizes new proteins to attack an infection while suppressing the normal functions of photosynthesis and growth.
A plant must perform a complex balancing act. The infection will destroy the plant if it doesn’t produce enough defense proteins. If the plant produces too much defense protein, its growth will be stunted. Plant biologists are still trying to understand how plants can resist infection while still growing and carrying on their normal functions. That ability seems to be built into the design of the plant’s DNA.
Understanding the plant survival defense system and how it works will address one of humanity’s significant problems. Fifteen percent of all crops are lost to bacterial and fungal diseases, translating into some 220 billion dollars. With the growing need for food, we must find new ways to increase the productivity of plants by reducing the losses to disease.
When you look at a plant, you might think it’s a simple thing whose functions we understand. However, every plant is a showcase for the wisdom and design of God.
What seems like a simple question may have a very complex and essential answer. The question is this: How does a flowering plant develop fruits and seeds? This is a crucial question to answer for the production of common food crops such as peanuts, corn, rice, strawberries, and all other foods derived from flowers.
The time when flowers turn some of their parts into seeds or fruit determines when the fruit will be ready to harvest, how big it will be, and what nutrients and water must be applied at what time.
Zhongchi Liu at the University of Maryland has identified a gene called AGL62 that stimulates plant production of a growth hormone called “auxin.” Once the gene activates, the plant synthesizes auxin, causing the creation of a seedcoat. The seedcoat is the outer layer protecting the endosperm, the part of a seed that provides food for a developing plant embryo and fruit. More auxin can boost grain size and stimulate fruit enlargement. If there is insufficient auxin, the crop produced will be smaller, and the fruit will not be commercially viable.
Liu has been working with strawberries because they are easier to study, but it applies to virtually all foods derived from flowers. This is another example of the design God built into the creation of life. When humans finally understand the design, it opens up a way to produce more food for a hungry world.
People communicate with each other through spoken and written words and actions. We also know that animals communicate by using sounds and movements. However, we may not be aware that plants talk to each other. They don’t do it by speech, writing, sounds, or movements. Since they are stationary and silent, how do plants communicate?
Plants are continuously engaging with other plants in their environment, mostly underground. For example, the roots of most plants host fungi, and working together, the plant roots and the fungi create underground structures called mycorrhizae. These mycorrhizae resemble a web system surrounding the plant’s roots, helping the plant absorb nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in a symbiotic relationship. As the mycorrhizae help the roots absorb essential nutrients and water, the plant uses photosynthesis to produce sugars which it shares with the fungi.
But how do plants communicate? The mycorrhizae can connect multiple plants into a network through which they can share energy and information. This web creates a fine-tuned community-wide sharing system. Through this communication channel, plants can pass defensive chemicals to protect against insects. When pests such as aphids attack a plant, it can send a message to its neighbors so they can preemptively activate defense responses. In this way, mycorrhizae enable a system of cooperation between plants.
However, when resources such as light or nutrients are scarce, a plant can limit its mycorrhizae connections and avoid making new ones. Then when resources are good, they can restore their sharing network and even make new connections. When the plants connected in the mycorrhizae network are closely related, they share more than if their neighbors are not close relatives. Trees use these fungal networks to communicate and share but also sometimes to sabotage their rivals. Plants determine when to share and when to maintain their independence.
As we investigate the question, “How do plants communicate?” we realize that they behave as humans often do, putting their own interests first. Yet, sharing and working together is part of God’s design for life, and humans should always follow the example set by Jesus in His life and teaching. (See Matthew 5:38-48 and 25:31-46.)
In the Northern Hemisphere, we have just entered the period we call autumn or fall. Summer has ended. Earth’s axis tilt and its path around the Sun cause the Sun to be directly overhead at the equator. We refer to this as the equinox, which is Latin for “equal nights.” Thus, at this time, we have approximately 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. As a new season begins, we see God’s design of fall.
For those living in the northern hemisphere, this time brings amazing things to see among the plants and animals around us. Tree leaves turn from green to a cascade of colors. They don’t all turn at the same time because of their system design. Some measure the length of the day and start turning colors when the equinox occurs. Others depend on temperature to change colors. In addition, we see fruits and nuts come to full maturity at this time, providing food for animals and ensuring the future growth of new plants.
We see God’s design of fall as animals prepare for winter. With the temperature change, some animals migrate to warmer areas. This movement coincides with the abundance of fruits and nuts, allowing nutrition for the journey. Some animals, such as hummingbirds, leave well ahead of freezing temperatures. Other animals change their color in preparation for winter camouflage in the snow. Still others retreat into a place underground where the temperatures will not drop below freezing.
The question is, how do all these plants and animals know when to do that? It cannot be a conscious, planned adjustment by the animals to the local situation. Many of the changes happen even before the cold weather arrives. Certainly, plants don’t think about cold weather coming and their need to prepare for freezing conditions. Some of the changes seem to be designed to provide humans with a sensation of beauty. A sea of green becomes a splendor of color as the plants eliminate chlorophyll “A” (which gives them their green color) to reveal various colored chemicals in the leaves.
Fall is not just about beauty, but it also brings amazing and beneficial changes. Plants that survive the winter are able to free themselves of insects and bacteria that can damage them. Some animals prepare for winter by fattening up to go into hibernation. Bears give birth during this period. God’s design of fall is a functional system that speaks of God’s wisdom.
We can see God’s wisdom and design in a unique way at this time of year.Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:1, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” To those of us who listen, fall speaks of the purposes of God in His living things.
One area of constant scientific investigation is the involvement of magnetism in living things. Studies have shown that cattle can align themselves with Earth’s magnetic field. Magnetism seems to be used by some animals in migrations. The presence of magnetism in the human brain has led to research into what that magnetism does and how medical science can use it to treat certain diseases. In addition to animals, plants use magnetism.
Scientists have found that magnetism plays a role in the survival of some plants. For example, the Venus flytrap uses jaw-like leaves to trap insects. Scientists have been mystified by what causes the “jaws” to close. However, it appears that stimulation from prey produces a small magnetic field which triggers the “jaws” to snap shut.
Studies have shown that other plants use magnetism by generating magnetic fields, including a bean and a single-celled alga and bacteria. This magnetic ability seems to be built into the plants for highly specialized functions. Thus, God’s design for every living thing is both subtle and complex.
Science is just beginning to understand how plants use magnetism. As we have said before, that Earth’s magnetic field has reversed in the past. We are far from understanding the many ways such a reversal could have affected life on this planet.
Realize that magnetism in a living plant requires ferromagnetic materials to be built into the plant. Those magnetic materials would serve no other purpose than to allow the plant to use magnetism somehow. Everywhere we look in the natural world, we see that a wonder-working hand has gone before.
A giant wetland called the Pantanal is located mostly in Brazil and partly in Bolivia and Paraguay. It’s the world’s largest tropical wetland covering as much as 75,000 square miles (195,000 sq km). You might think that such a vast area is a lot of wasted space that should be drained and used for other purposes. Why do we need wetlands anyway?
The Pantanal is located in a depression in the Earth’s crust surrounded by highlands. Several rivers flow into the Pantanal, bringing sediment and making it an inland river delta. In the rainy season, up to eighty-percent of the floodplain is covered with water. In the dry season, the floodplain becomes dry. Forests of trees grow in the higher areas of the Pantanal. In the lower seasonally inundated areas, grasslands are growing.
The area’s topography creates various biome regions supporting plants that are native to rainforests, savannahs, and semi-arid lands. There are 3,500 plant species in the Pantanal, 1000 bird species, 480 reptile species, 400 fish species, and 300 mammal species. In other words, the Pantanal supports an incredible variety of aquatic plants and a very diverse menagerie of animals.
Some of the animals living in the Pantanal are rare or endangered. We need wetlands like the Pantanal to support these various plants and animals, plus thousands of invertebrate species. More than that, wetlands are natural water treatment systems that remove pollutants and chemicals, purifying and replenishing the groundwater. Wetlands also provide a buffer against flooding in other areas.
Why do we need wetlands? They are an essential part of the hydraulic system God created for planet Earth described thousands of years ago in Job 36:27, 28, “He draws up the drops of water, which distill as rain to the streams; the clouds pour down their moisture, and abundant showers fall on mankind.” That ancient book describes the water cycle with scientific accuracy.
We need wetlands for what they do for our water supply and the support they provide for plants and animals essential to the balance of nature. Human activity threatens the Pantanal, as well as many other wetlands. We must become better stewards of the blessings God has placed in our care.
We often take plants for granted, but their design has allowed animal and human life to exist and offers great hope for the future. We are amazed at the incredible diversity of plants.
Plants not only sustain life on the land but also in the oceans.Seagrass meadows exist all over the planet. Studies in England have shown that 92% of seagrass meadows have disappeared due to pollution, industrial development, and other threats. That has led to a decline in fish and shellfish populations. Yesterday we talked about seahorses, which depend on seagrass for food and protection. The World Wildlife Federation has begun a project called Seagrass Ocean Rescue to reverse the damage by collecting seeds and replanting them in huge plots. The project has protected shorelines and provided nursing grounds for countless species in the hope that coastal life will rebound.
The redwood and sequoia trees that grow in California are very different plant designs. Those giant trees bring water into what would otherwise be a very dry area. The redwoods and sequoias can extract water from fog and rain because of their size, providing a rich soil ecology for other plants. A giant sequoia will weigh around 640 tons – equal to about 107 elephants. They can grow to heights over 300 feet and live for well over 3000 years. You can find information about California’s 1.6 million acres of redwoods and the 48,000 acres that depend on the giant sequoias at www.savetheredwoods.org.
Because of the incredible diversity of plants, we find them growing underwater and in deserts, but some plants known as epiphytes grow in the air. They have exposed roots that pick up moisture and nutrients from the perspective, and they are a food source for many organisms. Closely related are water plants that don’t need soil but can use the nutrients released by fish and other animals that live in oceans and lakes.
Science has developed new aquaponics and hydroponics methods to grow plants in water to produce food for people. In aquaponics, the plants receive their nutrients from the waste products of fish living in the water. In hydroponics, the plants receive their nutrients artificially.
We find plants of all kinds growing everywhere, and because of that, animals can live everywhere. With creative agricultural practices, we can produce enough food to feed the growing human population. Our geologic studies show us that, from the beginning, plants have provided the oxygen that we breathe while removing the carbon dioxide we produce. The plant diversity God has given us makes it possible to produce food, remove pollutants, and recycle carbon. Without the incredible diversity of plants, animal and human life would not be possible.
Many years ago in Alaska, I had a discussion with a biologist who was studying the Alaskan soils. His study revolved around the fact that Alaska has very little soil and what it does have is developing. The lack of soil in Alaska has limited plant growth and made the ecology dependent on migrating salmon. Soils are complex mixtures of organic matter, minerals, water, air, and billions of organisms that form over hundreds of years. Good soils are vital for survival. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”
Research has shown that plants are designed to “call” for nutrients from the soil. A plant will release molecules called flavonoids, which cause bacteria in the soil to migrate into the plant and form nitrogen nodules on the roots. The nitrogen nodules generate food for the plant. If ample nitrogen is already available for the plant, it will not release the flavonoids.
This “hunger” by plants is vital to understand because many natural and human-caused processes can deplete the soil. Forest and brush fires, hurricanes, pollution, and climate change can deplete soils’ nitrogen content and kill plants. Studies of the giant sequoias in California have shown that the soil under them has twice as many bacteria as the soil under nearby sugar pines. We all know that bacteria influence human health, but bacteria also affect plant health and growth.
As our population increases and world climates change, it will become increasingly important to understand how soil allows us to feed our growing population. God’s design of the Earth includes providing the soils necessary to produce food. Good soils are vital for survival.
We mentioned yesterday that plants use scents to attract friendly and helpful insects and animals. They also use fragrances to protect against unfriendly visitors. Seemingly passive plants have secret weapons against insect invasions. We call it chemical warfare in the plant world.
A good example is the lima bean. Spider mites attack lima bean plants, but other predatory mites eat spider mites. When spider mites attack a lima bean plant, it floods the area with a chemical signal that attracts the predatory mites. This chemical odor also causes other lima bean plants to emit the same chemical. When the spider mites are gone, the plants stop secreting the chemical.
Some plants, such as tobacco and corn, protect themselves from destructive caterpillars by sending off a signal to attract wasps. Research has shown that plants customize the signal to attract a particular species of wasp. The wasps can tell the difference between the chemical signal of plants attacked by tobacco budworms and corn earworms, and different chemicals attract a different wasp species. So far, cotton, corn, and beets have been shown to have different emissions as they call for protection.
We previously mentioned wasps that kill and eat the caterpillars of certain butterflies. In that instance, ants have a symbiotic relationship with the caterpillars to protect them from the wasps in exchange for food. The U. S. Department of Agriculture is looking to find ways to cause one insect to combat another. This research is necessary because it can help us find ways to protect crops.
Chemical warfare in the plant world shows that God has equipped plants to protect themselves against different insect scourges. Because of that, we can survive on a planet where insectshopelessly outnumber us. The design that the Creator put into living systems is truly amazing.