The Master Mimic, New Planty Perspectives, and a Breaking of Dormancy
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years… the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
- Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder
“Why do you stay in a prison when the door is so wide open?”
The Master Mimic
Boquila trifoliolata is a common vine native to the temperate rain forests of Chile and Argentina. It is such a well-known plant species in these regions that it has numerous common names (pilpil, voqui, voquicillo, voquillo, voqui blanco, and others). Boquila is a woody, ground-rooted vine, unique in that it is the only species in its genus. The liana produces edible berries and is found abundantly in its native habitat, so it has been known and studied by local foragers, plant experts, botanists, and adventurers for hundreds of years. Yet, it was only 9 years ago that humans discovered the extraordinary nature of this very familiar plant, garnering it yet another common name - the chameleon vine.
In biology, mimetic capabilities are those deployed by an organism in order to imitate or create a resemblance between itself and another object, often an organism of another species. Mimicry is rather common in the animal kingdom but much less observed in the plant world. There are species of orchids that produce flowers resembling the pollinator they wish to attract and succulent Lithops plants that imitate the stones of the Southern African desert in which they live. These mimetic abilities are the results of natural selection and evolution over multiple generations. What makes the Boquila’s adaptation so extraordinary is that, unlike other reports of mimicry in plants, leaf mimicry by this climbing plant can encompass imitation of several different species of host trees on one individual. This means that an individual Boquila plant can change the shape, size, and color of each individual leaf to resemble one of its nearby neighbor's. This isn’t an eons-long evolutionary change. This is a very short-term, during one lifetime, change in form. In a way, this would be like humans growing different hair strand colors and thicknesses based on environmental cues. This research is not suggesting the plant consciously initiates these changes. (But that hasn’t been disproven either!). The way in which the plant does this is still not known.
To be able to regulate leaf features with such flexibility means that the Boquila is adjusting the expression of its own genes in a way that has never previously been observed in the plant or animal kingdoms. There are a few theories as to why the plant mimics its hosts in this way (protection from herbivory is most favored by the scientific community). There are also a few ideas as to how the vine modifies its body so quickly. But a third, and perhaps more physiologically interesting, question arose with this discovery - how does the Boquila know what to imitate? The leading theories include the perception of emissions of volatile chemicals from the host, horizontal gene transfers from the host by microorganisms, and some type of visual capacity by the plant itself. This last idea seems the least likely, but is arguably the most exciting…
What does this mean for our understanding of plant perception? Could this plant have a type of visual sense, more complex than simply perceiving light intensity and duration? As often is the case in scientific discovery, more questions arise than answers.
More interesting plant-y things to check out...
1. Bewildering microphotography of common plants that feed us. In 1995, David Attenborough opened our eyes to the dynamic and exciting movement of the plant world. He understood that plants exist on a different timescale than humans, and this difference might be limiting people’s ability to appreciate the true dynamism of plant life. So he used time-lapse photography to speed things up for us. The result is an incredible series that captures plants in motion. Called The Private Life of Plants, he and his crew reveal lianas snaking along the forest floor, vines twirling through the air in search of anchorage, even the sophisticated sequenced flowering of wild geranium.
In a similar perspective-changing fashion, National Geographics photographer, Robert Dash, recently shared a series of scanning electron microscope photographs that give us a much a closer look at common crops. Using a technique that can magnify specimens up to 3,400 times, Dash hopes his images will provide new information on what climate threats might await our favorite food plants and the possible ways we might save them. Of the below photograph (an 80-times magnification of a black olive tree flower bud), Nat Geo editor said, “I saw a face shrouded in a veil and was awestruck.” What do you see?
My head was turned upside-down over two other images - a hop leaf covered in trichomes, looking more reptilian than botanical, and a fish-scaled orb that happens to be a blueberry.
2. An explanation for how we came to be… a sinkhole full of extremophiles in Lake Huron. Have you heard of the cyanobacteria thriving in a Lake Huron sinkhole? We found out about them almost 20 years ago but only now are scientists thinking these extremophiles might explain how oxygen levels increased on Earth billions of years ago and eventually led to our ability to exist as humans today. A gradual decrease in the earth’s rotation rate over time (due to the relentless pull of the moon’s gravity and the tidal friction it creates) is thought to have increased the amount of sunlight available to these deepwater-dwelling photosynthesizers. More sunlight means more photosynthesis. More photosynthesis means more oxygen as a byproduct. And here we are.
3. A reminder on Why Trees Matter. This NYTimes op-ed, written almost 10 years ago, highlights some specific and significant contributions to our (scientifically speaking) cozy life here on earth - like phytoremediation, beneficial chemical clouds, and fish food source. Robbins writes “We have underestimated the importance of trees.” Alas, we continue to.
the state in which otherwise mature and viable seeds will not germinate until exposed to favorable growth conditions; a resting stage.
“I'd rather die enormous than live dormant.”
It's good to be back.