Whilst not everyone's favourite group of animals, spiders play a variety of important ecosystem roles. I personally am a big fan of spiders, with their diversity of hunting techniques, stunning colours, and just fascinating behaviours. Recently, a new species of trapdoor spider has been discovered in Australia. Finding a new species is always exciting but it's existence and rarity highlight some issues threatening our spiders.
We'll kick off with the positive - the newly discovered species. Researchers involved in Queensland Museum's project DIG, which aims to understand more about the State's biodiversity, found a new, rare, giant trapdoor spider they have named Euoplos dignitas. Eulopos is a group of spiders, known as the golden trapdoor spiders, and 'dignitas' is a Latin epithet that means dignity or greatness.
The spider was discovered in the band of acacia-wooded grassland that runs between the tropical rainforest of the coast and the semi-arid interior of Queensland, known as the Brigalow belt. Specifically, within the black soil around Eidsvold and Monto, west of Bundaberg.
E. dignitas is a large, nocturnal, plug door-building trapdoor spider that displays a strong degree of sexual dimorphism. The males are a beautiful honey-red, whilst the females are darker and stockier, because they spend their entire lives underground, whereas the males leave their burrows to go looking for a female. Despite their large size, like the other Australian trapdoor spiders, their venom is not dangerous to humans. They can live up to 20 years and take between 5-8 years to reach maturity and start breeding.
Whilst this is exciting news, the rarity of this species highlights issues facing spider populations around the world.
Land use and spider populations
The researchers who discovered E. dignitis are concerned about the future of the species as it doesn't appear to be doing well in the wild. The International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List (IUCN Red List) classify it as an endangered species.
Trapdoor spiders are suited to woodlands, however many of these habitats have been lost due to clearing for agriculture. Unlike flying insects, they do not have the ability to quickly relocate to a new, suitable area, and the long time until maturity reduces their ability to reproduce quickly. These factors put E. dignitis at particular risk, but many spiders face these issues.
It's no secret that across the world a variety of habitats are being lost due to deforestation, and other forms of habitat clearing, so the land can be used for agriculture and human development. We often focus on how this impacts the large, charismatic animals and overlook the impacts on the invertebrates. As mentioned above, spiders can be particularly vulnerable.
Often the cleared forests are replaced with large monocultural plantations. Despite giving the appearance of a healthy habitat with lots of vegetation, they lack diversity and therefore do not support a rich ecosystem. Spiders can actually act as an indicator of a healthy habitat, where there are lots of spiders, there is likely to be a lot of insects for the spiders to eat. A healthy ecosystem is required to support that diversity.
This drops dramatically when habitats are changed. For example, researchers used the number of spider species to monitor the health of the Atlantic Forests (a stretch of woodland in South America) as it was cleared for pine farms. As the forest began to disappear, a third of the 126 spider species that originally inhabited the forest were also lost. Even a decade letter, the spider population had not recovered and the species inhabiting the pine plantation differed from the original native population.
This is a prime example of how land use change can drastically alter spider, and other invertebrate, populations. Given their importance in supporting healthy ecosystems, this has wide-reaching consequences.
It is certainly exciting that a new spider species has been discovered in Australia, especially a stunning trapdoor species. However, its rarity and vulnerability to habitat change reflects the struggles of the global spider populations. We continue to alter habitats and replace healthy, mature, and diverse ones with young and simple ones, lacking diversity. This impacts the entire ecosystems, including the invertebrates.
The original publication (although it is behind a paywall) - Rix, M.G., Wilson, J.D. and Oliver, P.M., 2023. A new species of Endangered giant trapdoor spider (Mygalomorphae: Idiopidae: Euoplos) from the Brigalow Belt of inland Queensland, Australia. The Journal of Arachnology, 51(1), pp.27-36.
News article in The Independent containing a photo of the spider.
Oversimplified - Deforestation cuts down spider species - A nice summary of the original paper which is behind a paywall - Munévar, A., Cardoso, P. and Zurita, G.A., 2022. From forest to forestry: Reassembly of spider communities after native forest replacement by pine monocultures. Ecological Entomology, 47(3), pp.400-410.
The short answer...not particularly well. A research article published in Nature by scientists from UCL earlier this year identified that the combination of increasing temperatures and changes in land use is negatively impacting insect populations . Comparing insect diversity in areas with varying degrees of agricultural intensity and climate warming, it was found that areas high in both factors had 49% fewer insects than the more natural habitats with minimal changes in temperature . Additionally, these areas of intense agriculture and temperature changes had 29% fewer insect species . In comparison, they found that the presence of natural habitats near land experiencing significant temperature increases but only minor agricultural intensity mitigated the loss of insects and their diversity. For example, in areas where natural habitats only comprise 25% of land cover insect abundance was reduced by 65%, whereas in similar regions containing 75% natural habitats, the reduction was only 7% . Not only does this emphasise the impact of human activities on insects in regions subjected to substantial warming but it also demonstrates the importance of maintaining areas of natural habitat.
As climate change continues to progress, extreme weather events are becoming both more intense and more frequent. Here in the UK, we have just experienced an example of this with our (joint with 2018) hottest summer, a national drought, an all-time record temperature of 40 degrees Celsius, and the driest July on record in the south. And now following that we are experiencing heavy rain and back-to-back thunderstorms. However, we are fortunate when you look at the catastrophic flooding currently occurring in Pakistan and the 2020 Australian wildfires.
But how does this relate to the world’s insect populations? The frequency of these weather events goes together with a general shift in temperature and rainfall, which ultimately has an impact on natural cycles. Studies have found that climate change has resulted in an ecological shift, demonstrated by alterations in species’ life cycles . This includes species emerging from winter hibernation earlier, changes in migration timing, or reproducing earlier . This can cause a variety of issues, especially if we experience a short but intense “hot spell” early in the year, which has certainly been noticeable over the last few years. For example, we might experience a few days or a week of unusually warm weather in January or February, prompting species to emerge early. Not only does this mean that they become active before their food sources are readily available but also if the warm weather does not last, they can then struggle to survive the sudden drop in temperature.
Given the impact climate change has on all aspects of nature, it is hardly surprising that insects are also being affected. This is not only sad but also has potentially devastating implications for humans as we depend heavily on insect activity to pollinate our crops. However, research continues to show that whilst climate change is certainly having a noticeable impact, agricultural intensity, and changes in land use by human activities are potentially a more serious threat to insect populations. As the world continues to develop, it is difficult to slow down the tide of habitat destruction. However, I think the results of the first study mentioned, whilst on the one hand quite daunting, also provide an element of hope. The substantial buffering effect of maintaining natural habitats around areas of agricultural land provides the possibility of us preventing insect populations from being a casualty of human activities. Ultimately, this information emphasises that we need to maintain areas of natural habitat, especially in regions where the human impact on the land is greatest. We need to slow the progression of climate change and reduce our overall impact; however, this is a somewhat painstakingly gradual process. Therefore, rewilding as much as we can and crucially ensuring that agricultural and developed land still has pockets of natural habitats is essential for protecting our insect populations. If not for their own sake, then for ours.
Thank you for reading, as always I appreciate any and all feedback. Don't forget to find and follow me on social media:
Instagram - @maw_science
Twitter - @Maw_Science
If you would like to learn more about rewilding and how to do it in your own garden, then head over to your favourite podcast app and listen to episode one of my new podcast 'The Birdy Bug Pod'. Run by myself and my Dad, we are chatting about nature, the environment, and what we can do to help it.
I also used this insect-focused article as an excuse to use some of my macro photography, if you'd like to see more of my images then I have an Instagram account dedicate to just that (@a.bug.in.the.lens)
 Outhwaite, C.L., McCann, P. and Newbold, T., 2022. Agriculture and climate change are reshaping insect biodiversity worldwide. Nature, 605 (7908), pp.97-102.
 Wilson, R.J., Davies, Z.G. and Thomas, C.D., 2007, January. Insects and climate change: processes, patterns and implications for conservation. In Insect Conservation Biology. Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society’s 22nd Symposium. CAB International Publishing (pp. 245-279).
 Hickling, R., Roy, D.B., Hill, J.K., Fox, R. and Thomas, C.D., 2006. The distributions of a wide range of taxonomic groups are expanding polewards. Global change biology, 12 (3), pp.450-455.
We love them in our documentaries and on our plates.
You may remember back in December 2021 a surge of articles popped up across all media outlets from niche animal rights sites to the BBC and Daily Mail, talking about the world’s first octopus farm coming to Spain. Understandably, there was extreme pushback against this with petitions appearing all over the internet and, for a day or two, social media was inundated with angry posts about how unethical this proposition is. This article will explore the proposed octopus farm, the issues behind it, and what the public's outrage reveals about our ethics.
Our love for octopuses
Along with a large number of anecdotes from people who work at aquariums, scientific research has shown that octopuses are able to recognise different people and behave differently towards them . A study found that they would respond differently to people who had either been known to feed them or to irritate them, this was despite the fact that the humans wore identical uniforms . This implies that they can recognise faces and remember how different people treat them and modify their behaviour accordingly. It is therefore no surprise that research has also shown that they are able to recognise different individual octopuses . Beyond the scientific research, there are countless anecdotes of captive octopuses consistently squirting water at certain people, whilst hiding from others.
We often associate tool use with intelligence and frequently see videos of monkeys using stones to crack nuts and crows/ravens doing similarly and even bending twigs into hooks to retrieve food. Such abilities are not often observed in the invertebrate world, but cephalopods buck this trend. There are several examples, but one of the coolest has to be how octopuses have been observed using two halves of a coconut as shelter. Octopuses in Indonesia have been recorded carrying gastropod shells, two halves of a coconut, or human detritus over considerable distances, resulting in them modifying their “walk” and, when startled, assembling these items into a temporary shelter . Not only is this fascinating to see but the fact that they carry the objects around in a “non-functional” state for future use and have to assemble the shelter for it to be effective, displays an unusual level of foresight and tool use.
Escapism, problem solving, and more
There are a plethora of octopus videos, anecdotes, and scientific studies out there exhibiting the remarkable skills of octopuses. From squeezing their bodies through the tiniest holes, to sneaking out of their tanks to steal fish, opening jars from the inside, to solving complex problems. They also display an absolutely incredible ability to change colour, both to display mood and as mind-blowing camouflage. I will link interesting articles and videos at the end in case people want to read and watch examples of octopuses being clever.
I can’t cover every example of incredible cephalopod behaviour without this becoming a very long article but hopefully those above give a good representation of their abilities, which in no small part, have contributed to our fascination with these creatures. Recently, however, octopuses have been in the news, not because of their intellect, but because of a controversial farm opening in Spain. Late in 2021, the Spanish multinational, Nueva Pescanova group (which specialises in fishing, farming, processing, and marketing seafood) announced their plans to open the world’s first commercial octopus farm. It has been reported that they will produce up to 3,000 tonnes of octopus each year and the company claims that farming octopuses will reduce the impact on the wild populations. However, a closer examination reveals that their claims don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Interestingly, the ecological impact is not what has caused the large backlash against this proposed farm, instead, the outcry of it being unethical has taken centre stage. This was surprising to see as normally people focus more on environmental issues as, when it comes to animal farming, it is often the easier route to public support. However, in the case of the octopus farm, articles were quoting scientists and conservationists claiming that there is no ethical way to farm these incredible animals which have been shown to feel pain and be "sentient”. Additionally, despite several requests by the BBC, Nueva Pescanova would not release any details on how the animals would be kept, fed, or killed, further raising concerns. The boneless body of an octopus would make housing many individuals in a small space very difficult as they are very susceptible to being crushed. Furthermore, they are territorial, solitary animals, again adding to the ethical difficulties when it comes to keeping large numbers. Finally, as seen above, they are known to be particularly intelligent, therefore being deprived of any stimulation would likely result in significant psychological problems for the octopuses. All of these factors point towards it being unethical to commercially farm octopuses and scientists, animal lovers, and the public all seem to be in agreement that this shouldn’t go ahead.
This large outcry over the ethics seen by the public does, however, reveal our hypocrisy when it comes to how we view animals. Whilst it pleases me to see such strong opposition against the farm, I imagine that a lot of the people angry, also consume octopuses and squid. Additionally, I find it hard to believe that a similar level of backlash would be seen if a new industrial pig, cow, or salmon farm was being opened instead. Many of the problems being used to argue against the octopus farm are commonplace in the rest of animal agriculture. Pigs repeatedly score higher than dogs on various intelligence tests, yet are kept in small, tightly packed barns in farms, starved of any stimulation, and inside investigations continually show how poorly they are treated. Salmon farms are repeatedly documented to have problems with parasites due to the density of animals, and environmentally require large quantities of fishing in order to feed the salmon. Yet, we rarely see these ethical concerns receive the same amount of public support. I don't think many people would argue against the ability of a cow or pig to feel pain or display personalities/sentience, yet rarely do the farming practices of these animals spark mass outcry from the public.
I too am guilty of this, up until 2 years ago, I would be outraged at dog farming in the East and would be quick to sign a petition against the octopus farm, yet happily contribute to the industries carrying out the same actions against pigs, cows, chickens, salmon, and all the other animals we commonly consume in Europe. One argument against this is that animals such as pigs have been domesticated for so long that we have a good understanding of their requirements, the same for which cannot be said about octopuses. However, I would argue that the revealing investigations into the practices at a huge array of farms would prove this to be false. Or, at the very least, these requirements are not being met.
However, it would be great if it was more publicly accepted that the best thing for the octopus would be to stop consuming them entirely, not just the commercialisation of their breeding and farming. Similarly, it would be good to see recognition that whilst farming octopuses would have negative environmental consequences, so does catching wild ones. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it would be excellent to see all animal agricultural sectors receive the same level of scrutiny when it comes to the ethical side of the common (even legal) practices.
I hope that this hasn’t come across as too preachy, I had an article on cephalopod intelligence planned for a while but the news about the proposed farm changed the focus slightly. I am aware of how tricky it can be to recognise the cognitive dissonance at play when we are opposed to a certain industry while supporting others guilty of the practices that go against our ethics. I was truly an avid meat eater up until two years ago and particularly loved seafood. So I certainly don’t want to come across as holier than thou but I think it is important to point out these issues, especially when something hits mainstream media and receives such universal backlash.
I hope that you enjoyed the article and if nothing else learned something cool about octopuses. As always, I am interested in your thoughts on these issues and welcome any and all feedback, so please do leave a comment or ping me an email (email@example.com).
Don't forget to follow me on social media:
@plants_n_cells on Instagram
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Here is the petition to stop the octopus farm from going ahead:
 Anderson, R.C., Mather, J.A., Monette, M.Q. and Zimsen, S.R., 2010. Octopuses (Enteroctopus dofleini) recognize individual humans. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 13(3), pp.261-272.
 Tricarico, E., Borrelli, L., Gherardi, F. and Fiorito, G., 2011. I know my neighbour: individual recognition in Octopus vulgaris. PloS one, 6(4), p.e18710.
 Finn, J.K., Tregenza, T. and Norman, M.D., 2009. Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus. Current biology, 19(23), pp.R1069-R1070.
Further reading and interesting links
If you fancy learning more about these awesome animals or simply go down a YouTube rabbit hole then check out some of the following links.
Popular science articles
Richter, J.N., Hochner, B. and Kuba, M.J., 2016. Pull or push? Octopuses solve a puzzle problem. PloS one, 11(3), p.e0152048.
Godfrey-Smith, P., 2013. Cephalopods and the evolution of the mind. Pacific Conservation Biology, 19(1), pp.4-9.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2EboVOcikI (the octopus carrying and hiding in a coconut shell)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WU-PKTxeUk (world cup predicting octopus)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLv1NsX7Ztk (escaping a closed jar)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydrc489USbM (incredible colour and texture changing ability)
‘My Octopus teacher’ is an incredible documentary available on Netflix that shows how a man suffering from depression recovered through his bond with an octopus.
By the time Friday rolls around many of us will be cracking open a cold beer and enjoying the end of the week. However, like with everything nowadays, many of us are concerned about the environmental impact of our purchases and activities. Coinciding with the public's growing concern for the environment is the influx of marketing by companies to try and make their products seem to be the eco-friendly and ethical option and beer/alcohol companies are no exception. Perhaps leading the charge in this is Brewdog and as mentioned in my greenwashing article, it is important to investigate the activities of companies that market themselves in this way to determine how genuine they are. Eco-friendly information covers their packaging and fills their adverts but what exactly are Brewdog doing to better the process of making beer and can they justify their claim to being good for the planet or is it another case of greenwashing?
I am aware of the controversy that happened around Brewdog earlier this year with concerns over the workplace environment being raised by current and previous staff members and I of course do not support the idea of growth over the wellbeing of staff. I am also aware that often in their push for publicity they have made a few marketing errors. However, this article is not meant to put Brewdog on a pedestal or hail the owners as the pinnacle of ethical business practices. They have addressed the complaints and I sincerely hope that they work hard to ensure that their workforce is happy. This article simply looks at the strategies they are implementing to make their business more environmentally friendly and whether or not they can justify their use of eco-friendly branding. It is not often you see such a large company planning such a variety of environmentally-focused projects and I wanted to see if they were genuinely good ideas or just clever marketing. I can understand people would perhaps not support them as a company but I hope you enjoy the article.
Arguably, Brewdog’s eco-friendly reputation kicked off when they announced that they had become carbon negative in August 2020. Whenever I read that term my immediate response, unfortunately, is quite pessimistic, assuming that they are another company simply donating to an offsetting scheme and claiming to be saving the planet. Now, offsetting is part of Brewdog’s carbon negative status, however it is far from the only strategy being implemented. But let's kick things off with the offsetting. As mentioned in my article about such schemes, it is not the idea of offsetting that I have a problem with, only that often heavy polluters (I'm looking at you airlines) donate to offsetting schemes as their sole solution and want a big pat on the back. Brewdog have instead noted that some of their other projects will take time to set up and implement to a level that benefits the environment and instead use offsetting schemes as an interim solution. They also make a point of vetting the schemes that they donate to, ensuring that they are well accredited and reputable. With schemes in the UK (partnered with the Woodland Trust and Ribbles River Trust), Canada and Australia pledging to remove double what they emit, they are an example of one of the better uses of offsetting schemes. However, as mentioned they are only using this as an interim measure and it is far from their only strategy, so now on to some of the more interesting and ambitious measures.
Just a quick mention of their own offsetting scheme involving the planting of 3 million trees in the Scottish Highlands. They have purchased 9,308 acres (larger than 17 countries) of land and through planting over 3 million native trees by 2025 their “Lost Forest” will become the largest native woodland in the UK. Alongside the trees this project also involves restoring thousands of acres of depleted peatlands. It is fantastic to see such an ambitious project focusing on planting native trees. Additionally, doing this in the region in which they are predominantly located, makes more sense than donating to a scheme that takes place in a different corner of the world.
The Brewdog brewery in Scotland is hooked up directly to 3x 800kW wind turbines that ensures the plant is run on 100% renewable energy. This is a massive step, and it is brilliant to see a company set up and run-on green energy, making good use of the infamous Scottish weather. It may not currently be possible for every company to switch to 100% renewables due to the current state of the UK’s energy grid, but it is a positive step to see a company make it work.
Arguably most impressive is Brewdog’s dedication to reducing waste and making use of any surplus in their production processes. Reduce, reuse, and recycle, we hear it frequently and they are written in order of importance. It is not easy to ask businesses to reduce their production when they rely on it for income and we know the often ineffectiveness of recycling, therefore reusing becomes ever more important. As with all manufacturing, there are inevitably waste products in the process of brewing beer, however Brewdog are making an effort to use these waste products in any way possible.
Currently underway is the creation and implementation of a bio plant which will turn the waste water from brewing into clean water, food grade carbon dioxide, organic fertiliser, and green gas. Much of these products (notably the clean water and gas) will be cycled back into the brewing process, however they have also stated that more gas than they need will be produced and this will be go into the power grid. This both improves the waste situation within the brewery and goes towards decarbonising the grid.
Carbon Dioxide Recovery
In addition to the bio plant, Brewdog intend to make use of the carbon dioxide produced during the fermentation process required for brewing beer. This will be accomplished through a carbon dioxide recovery system and the acquired gas will be used downstream to carbonise the beer. Again, making good use of waste products and feeding them back into the manufacturing process, further reducing the need for raw materials.
Bad Beer Vodka, Dog Biscuits, and Cosmic Crush
Yep, there is even more. Beer is inevitably wasted by brewers, when certain brews are not quite right and cannot be sold. Rather than simply discard it, Brewdog are developing their own waste-free vodka produced by the otherwise useless beer. Spelt (a grain used in beer production) is also often wasted but they are turning this into dog biscuits. Finally, the fruit used in the “Overworks Sour Beers” are all defective, at the end of their shelf life, and would otherwise be wasted. These innovative products further highlight the dedication to reducing their environmental impact by making use of anything that would be wasted.
The examples I have provided here are not the end of Brewdog’s efforts to live up to their eco-friendly branding, they also have electric vans delivering the beer and are trialling re-fillable bottles. However, if I go into too much more detail, I run the risk of becoming an advert for Brewdog. I set out to look into how they became the first carbon negative brewery and what they are doing to justify calling themselves the planet’s favourite beer. I’ll be honest, I was expecting a lot of offsetting and likely a good deal of greenwashing. I was pleasantly surprised to find what appears to be a genuine dedication to making every stage of their processes environmentally beneficial. Beyond the standard ideas of recycling some cans and switching to green energy, the extensive and innovative use of waste products is a brilliant thing to see. Of course, the best thing for the planet is to reduce our overall consumption but this is often a hard sell, especially to companies. It is therefore refreshing to see a company using a diverse array of strategies in order to reduce their impact on the planet. Hopefully we will see more companies adopt these kinds of eco-friendly solutions and I raise my glass to Brewdog for their attempts to live up to their branding. It will be interesting to see how their projects develop.
What do you think of Brewdog's attempts to be eco-friendly? Are there other beer/alcohol companies that you think are doing a better job or that you enjoy more? I would love to hear about them and use it as an excuse to sample more beer.
As always, I welcome any feedback and don't forget to find me on social media:
@plants_n_cells on Instagram
@MaW_Science on Twitter
Litter, it is everywhere, unsightly, bad for the local wildlife and the environment in general. We see on the news the impact of plastic pollution on the ocean, yet most of it starts on land before ending up in our water. It is a massive problem and an overwhelming one to try and tackle. Ultimately, we need a shift in our infrastructure away from the heavy reliance on plastics and non-degradable materials. However, for the time being it is worth people chipping in to help combat the problem. This can take the form of participating in beach cleans or large litter picking events in national parks, both of which are great but often few and far between. So, I have started doing something I like to call a litter picking commute. Each day I walk around 20 minutes to the lab and the same home and every day I see copious amounts of litter. Rather than just being sad and shaking my head at it, I purchased myself a folding litter picker which stays in my rucksack alongside a shopping bag. On the journey each way I pick litter as I go. It is not a thorough search with the aim of getting every small piece of rubbish, as I have a place to get to, but instead I just collect every piece that I pass, although I will swap sides of the road if necessary. It is scary how much litter can be collected on a short walk, and it is even scarier seeing that on the way home there is just as much.
It is only a small impact, however often lots of little actions can lead to a substantial improvement. If we could get kids walking to school, or university students walking to and from lectures to all litter pick on their commute, it could result in a significant improvement to the amount of rubbish spread throughout our urban areas. It would of course be great to get other groups besides school kids and uni students involved, however they are the groups that frequently walk to and from their daily activities.
I have a foldable litter picker that I keep in my daily rucksack. You can easily find cheap ones online; however, I would highly recommend the one from waterhaul.com as it is made from either recycled face masks or fishing nets. It feels better not to buy a piece of plastic to combat the problem of plastic when there are recycled options available, it is also very portable, of excellent quality and has a magnet on the end which is especially useful for picking up bottle caps. I collect the litter on my walk to and from the university and sometimes do a circuit of the campus during my lunch break. Ideally, I separate out the rubbish before disposing of it (gloves are handy for this) and ensure that the pieces that can be recycled are, however this is not always easy. This is simpler after the walk home as I have recycling bins at my disposal, I do use the ones on campus but not every place of work will have a broad selection of specialist bins. I would also be lying if I said I did this every occasion, if I don’t have time or it is particularly windy making sorting tricky, I will simply dispose of the collected rubbish. This is not perfect; however, it still contributes to cleaning up the local area and protecting the wildlife from harm.
I understand that it can be quite a daunting thing to walk around with a litter picker, it certainly isn’t the norm (although I would love to see that change). I will be honest; I was a tad self-conscious when I started. However, I quickly realised that most people really don’t take any notice and quickly learnt not to worry. In fact, if anything, the reception has actually been quite good. I have been stopped a couple of times by people who have thanked me, asked about my motives, been really interested and positive about me trying to clean up the area. A few people have driven past and stuck their thumb out and again said genuinely nice things as they went by. It is great and reassuring to see the activity received so positively and gives me hope that it could become more common.
Let’s Start the Movement
It would be good to get this going as a social media movement/campaign. Grab a litter picker and a bag, sling it in your rucksack and partake on your way to and from work or just when you are out and about. If you do partake in litter picking on your commute, post a picture on an Instagram story or twitter and use the #litterpickingcommute and tag me (socials at the end of the post).
The day this article is poster (18th September) is ‘World Clean Up Day’ which is all about people chipping in and helping to clean up their area through litter picking, I will be posting a little video on Instagram showing the litter picking commute. Check it out if you’re interested, there are also loads of great people on Instagram showcasing their efforts and it is a great way to get inspired to get out there and clean up the planet.
If you are interested, check out the foldable litter picker made from recycled face masks or old fishing nets from Waterhaul here: Recycled Ocean Plastic Litter Pickers ~ Waterhaul
As always, I welcome any feedback and don't forget to find me on social media:
@plants_n_cells on Instagram
@MaW_Science on Twitter
If you follow any wildlife or nature accounts on social media, then you may have noticed an influx of posts about beavers over the last month. So, what is going on and why are people excited? In a sentence: plans are being made to reintroduce beavers into the wild in the UK and grant them legal protection as a native species. But what makes this so great, beyond the obvious excitement of regaining a species we hunted to extinction?
The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) is the second largest rodent in the world after capybara and was once widespread across Europe, including the UK. However, they were heavily hunted for their soft fur, meat, and a secretion called castoreum (historically used in “medicines” and as a food additive). This persistent persecution drove beavers to extinction in the UK by the 16th century and restricted their population to a few sites in France, Germany, and Norway. However, hunting control and reintroduction programs have benefited the European population with beavers becoming ever more widespread and reaching numbers of around 1.2 million. Reintroduction into the UK has been slow, often with misconceptions of them eating fish (they are fully vegetarian), causing a conflict of interest. However, the beaver became the first mammal officially reintroduced into the UK. This occurred in Scotland, and they were granted status as a European Protected Species by the Scottish Government in 2019. Following reintroduction trials and the success of the Cornwall beaver project, they are being granted legal protection in England, making it an offence to deliberately capture, kill, disturb, or injure them. This is fantastic, not only because it is great to see the return of a native species, especially one as charismatic as the beaver, but also because of the host of benefits that they can provide.
Beavers are known as a keystone species and ecosystem engineers due to the profound impact that their presence and behaviour has on the ecology and biodiversity of the surrounding area. So much so that they have been proposed as a tool for implementing the EU water framework directive. Famously, beavers build dams, which have a range of ecological benefits. They retain ponds, causing nutrient build up and consequently creating a rich habitat that can support an entire food chain. These ponds have been shown to have increased invertebrate species diversity and even improve their resilience to drought . The abundance of insects in turn acts as an all you can eat buffet for other animals and greatly benefits fish by providing a constant supply of food. Alongside the ample dining prospects, the alteration to water flow also improves fish species diversity .
At the base of every ecosystem, you find the plants and beavers improve plant diversity both within aquatic habitats and in the surrounding area. A study found that after 12 years of beaver presence, both the plant species richness and the cumulative number of species recorded increased (figure 1) .
Beavers also coppice (cut back) trees, this activity has several benefits. Firstly, it provides a deadwood habitat, something that beetles, and other insects are particularly fond of, again increasing species richness and diversity . Secondly, it allows sunlight to reach vegetation that was previously shaded by trees, which results in an increase in plant diversity . This vegetation often takes the form of shrubs which provides cover and a habitat for insects, birds, bats, and amphibians.
It is difficult to get across just how much of an impact the presence of beavers can have on an ecosystem in a short article, but it is truly staggering. Their habitat engineering is remarkable, and it benefits every aspect of the ecosystem.
Climate and Humans
Engineering an ecosystem will also have an impact on the environment, whether it is done by humans or beavers. The construction of dams elevates water levels and can create a wetland habitat surrounding the pond/river. Not only does this further benefit wildlife, but wetland habitats are excellent at acting as carbon sinks (see my previous article ‘back the bogs’). Silt and sediment build-up occurs as a result of dam construction which further contributes to carbon storage.
Furthermore, as climate change continues to progress, droughts are becoming both more frequent and more intense. Due to the large quantity of water held by beaver created ponds and the increase in water content in the surrounding ground/soil, beavers can reduce the impacts of drought. This can also ensure a supply of water for human activities in times of water shortage. On the flipside, they also reduce flooding and mitigate the impacts of floods. The restriction of water flow speed as a result of dam construction reduces the likelihood of flooding downstream, whilst the increased water holding capacity of the surrounding area reduces the severity of any floods that do occur. Similar to the situation with droughts, this is beneficial both for the surrounding ecosystems and human activities, helping mitigate some of the impacts of climate change.
Beaver dams and the resulting ponds can also act as filters, removing pollutants from the water. This includes chemical pesticides containing nitrogen and phosphorus . Both components can cause problems downstream in the form of algal blooms and must be removed from drinking water sources. The surrounding wetlands also contribute to the removal of these often dangerous compounds, with the plants and algae providing an excellent filtration system. In fact, wetlands are often called the Earth's kidneys. One study that looked at the filtration activities of dams (using beavers in Devon) concluded that whilst further research is needed on the long-term impacts on nutrient cycling, beaver ponds have the potential to help diffuse agricultural pollution .
Beavers are incredible animals with an unmatchable ability to engineer an ecosystem. They have undoubtedly earned the title of a keystone species and it is fantastic news that they are gaining protection in England. I sincerely hope that more reintroduction projects will ensue, and the Cornwall beaver project can remove the fences. There are so many more levels to the benefits that they provide (from hydrological changes to reducing erosion) and I have only provided a small summary in the interest of not writing a thesis length article, but I will reference the cited sources below and link some cool websites if you want more information. Ultimately, they are not only great for improving biodiversity and ecological health, but they are also fantastic for mitigating effects of climate change and cleaning up our water systems.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed the article. As always, I welcome any feedback/questions and don’t forget to find me on social media.
@plants_n_cells on Instagram
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1 Brazier, R.E., Puttock, A., Graham, H.A., Auster, R.E., Davies, K.H. and Brown, C.M., 2021. Beaver: Nature's ecosystem engineers. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water, 8(1), p.e1494.
2 Law, A., Gaywood, M.J., Jones, K.C., Ramsay, P. and Willby, N.J., 2017. Using ecosystem engineers as tools in habitat restoration and rewilding: beaver and wetlands. Science of the Total Environment, 605, pp.1021-1030.
3 Puttock, A., Graham, H.A., Carless, D. and Brazier, R.E., 2018. Sediment and nutrient storage in a beaver engineered wetland. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 43(11), pp.2358-2370.
A really cool interactive animation that shows how beavers change an ecosystem, really worth a look: http://highdesertmuseum.org/beaver-interactive/
The beaver trust is a great source of info on the history and benefits of beavers: https://beavertrust.org/index.php/beavers-create-healthy-rivers-for-wildlife-and-people/
News article on beavers gaining legal protection: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/25/beavers-to-make-cautious-return-to-england-with-legal-protection
Carbon offsetting, what is it and is it any good? The premise is quite simple. The idea being that if you partake in an activity that emits a lot of carbon dioxide, such as flying, you then contribute to an activity (often in the form of donating to an organisation) that removes carbon from the atmosphere. Commonly, this involves an organisation that plants trees. Therefore, if a flight emits x amount of CO2, you pay a company to plant enough trees to remove the same amount from the atmosphere, effectively making the journey net zero in carbon emissions. In principle this seems like a promising idea, in practice however it is fraught with problems. It is important to mention that whilst the following points are relevant to consider for individuals trying to be eco-friendly, it is more important when analysing the policies of companies and governments trying to look green, because often it is all show and little substance.
Overestimations and Lack of Additional Benefits
It has been shown multiple times that offsetting schemes overestimate the amount of carbon that they remove. It is a tricky thing to calculate, if we look at the case of planting trees (the most common scheme), you are typically planting young trees which will take a long time to grow and remove the amount of carbon promised by the scheme. Meanwhile, the emitted carbon has impacts immediately. Furthermore, they often fail to include the inevitable emissions from the process of planting, the machinery used, the transportation of seeds, the workers and so on. It is not as simple as planting a huge tree and immediately removing the desired amount of carbon. The other frequently used scheme is saving an area of forest, this potentially reduces the problems with the previous example as you have mature trees removing carbon and do not need to go through the process of planting and waiting. However, it is not always clear that the area they promise to stop from being cut down is threatened. Additionally, this can lead to other areas that were not about to be chopped down instead being deforested. This makes calculating exactly how much has been emitted and how much as been removed really quite difficult and therefore frequently inaccurate.
Additionally, it is a sad fact that forests do not always survive. With increased frequency the world is seeing extreme cases of decimating forest fires. In some cases, this is a natural process vital for the health of the ecosystem, in others it is devastating. Regardless, if it occurs in a forest that is being used as part of an offsetting project, that stored carbon is immediately lost into the atmosphere.
Along a similar line is the problem of calculating the additional benefits. This essentially means that to successfully offset, the project must cause additional carbon sequestering that would not occur if the scheme was not in place. This again is an incredibly awkward thing to calculate as it is impossible to know exactly what would happen if the scheme was not there. However, studies have shown that most UN (United Nations) sanctioned projects were unlikely to result in additional emissions reductions. Further adding to the overestimation of the effectiveness of carbon offsetting schemes.
Delaying Real Change
An unexpected side effective of offsetting schemes is the potential to actually worsen climate climate change. Providing companies and governments with the simple solution of donating to an offsetting scheme to look good and meet environmental targets, could result in them delaying the implementation of emission reducing schemes. Because signing up to an offsetting scheme is both simple and relatively cheap, it may prevent the making of more difficult decisions and ultimately slow down real change. On a larger scale it can even "allow" the continuation of fossil fuel use or the construction of coal mines and oil rigs because the resulting emmisions can simply be offset. This is potentially one of the most detrimental impacts of carbon offsetting schemes, because not only are they proving be ineffective at removing the promised amount of carbon from the atmosphere, but they can also provide an excuse to continue the expansion of climate damaging industries.
The above points highlight some of the difficulties in devising an effective carbon offsetting scheme based on accurate calculations. However, the biggest flaw is the heavy reliance on the concept of net zero, this idea of removing the equivalent CO2 as you admit, rather than reducing emissions. This is fundamentally worse than implementing strategies to reduce emissions. Doing a good thing (e.g., donating to an organisation that plants trees) is great, but it does not negate the effects of a bad thing. It would be similar to donating to an organisation that removes plastic pollution from the Pacific Ocean whilst dumping plastic in the Atlantic Ocean. Even if the amount removed is equivalent to the amount dumped, resulting in the total amount of plastic in the world’s oceans not changing, it does not negate the impact of dumping plastic in the Atlantic. Similarly, planting trees in one part of the world whilst emitting tons of CO2 elsewhere doesn’t prevent the environmental damage done by that activity. Ultimately, the idea of net zero is not a solution to combat climate change and this severely impacts the usefulness of offsetting emissions.
Don’t get me wrong, organisations and projects that work towards preserving ecosystems that sequester carbon, be it forest, peatlands, or oceans, or those that plant trees and re-wild are excellent for the environment and biodiversity and certainly deserve support. However, supporting these schemes under the guise of removing the same amount of carbon as is emitted from a certain activity to allow the continuation of those activities is not the answer to climate change. We should continue trying to protect and rejuvenate these habitats whilst also fundamentally changing our global habits to reduce our impact on the planet. As mentioned at the start, this is relevant to individuals in the sense that we now often get the chance of “offset” our flights by donating to a scheme when purchasing a ticket. And it is important to ensure that the scheme being used is actually doing good things whilst also recognising that the idea of offsetting a flight is somewhat flawed. However, recognising the issues with offsetting is crucial when looking at companies and governments promising to combat climate change with offsetting being their primary method of doing so. When choosing companies and policies to support it is important to recognise real solutions as opposed to greenwashing, those that make the organisation sound good and like they care, whilst doing the bare minimum to help the climate. Ultimately, we should be putting pressure on big polluters (oil companies, airlines, and agricultural companies) to find real solutions that actually reduce their emissions, for example, switching to renewables or reducing their waste. Rather than spending time trying to look as though they are prioritising the climate through donating to offsetting schemes, whilst continuing with their detrimental activities. Individuals can donate to good organisations and reduce their own carbon footprint, but ideally we all need to put pressure on these companies/governments to implement systemic change.
A great blog post by ‘Friends of the Earth’ - https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate/does-carbon-offsetting-work
A detailed study for the European Commission into the UN projects - https://ec.europa.eu/clima/sites/clima/files/ets/docs/clean_dev_mechanism_en.pdf
As always, I welcome any feedback and don't forget to find me on social media:
@plants_n_cells on Instagram
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Documentaries love them or hate them; they are everywhere and often being discussed. Especially within the last year or so, Netflix seems to be releasing documentaries like there's no tomorrow. Even if you avoid watching them, you can’t avoid the conversations about them. For a long-time documentary fan this is great, and I often avidly await the release of the latest one people are getting excited for. However, whilst often great educational sources and entertaining, they are not without their issues. It would be great to say that you can absorb and relay the information from these films without any further thought, however if this was the case, we wouldn’t see every newspaper doing “fact checking” articles on the most recent releases. Therefore, in a slightly different style of article from the last two, I want to discuss documentaries, the information they present, the difficulties with them, and my approach to consuming them.
First off, this article really only addresses a certain type of documentary. There isn’t much to debate with those that simply show off wonders of the world like the films featuring David Attenborough. These documentaries simply showcase amazing photography and allow the public a glimpse at the natural world. However, when documentaries are centred around more complex and potentially controversial issues, such as health, ethics, sustainability, and political situations, how they are presented and how you approach the information becomes a little more nuanced.
The problems often stem from the fact that the documentary makers will always have a stance that they want to push whilst also attempting to make something entertaining/engaging. It is difficult for a 1.5-hour film to delve into the complexities of health science or sustainability without becoming a lecture. Instead it is much easier to present one side of an argument in a dramatised and perhaps embellished manner. Therefore, to raise certain issues and bring these topics to the public, documentaries take a hard stance and make a shocking/emotional film. This often results in the film being called controversial and every newspaper starts releasing articles "fact checking" the film (ironically many of these newspapers need fact checking themselves on a daily basis). I may reference SeaSpiracy throughout as it is a recent documentary that has hit mainstream news because of potential controversy around the information presented (however this isn't a review or a critique of that film).
There are pros and cons to this dramatised style of documentary. On the one hand, they are successful in bringing light to important issues and gain media attention. With Seaspiracy for example, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the majority of people didn't know that by-catch is one of the main causes of shark deaths. People don't hesitate to sign petitions against killing sharks for fin soup yet are unaware that commercial fishing is responsible for killing sharks. Therefore, the film successfully brought this to the publics attention with shocking footage and facts, got people talking about the issue, and potentially thinking about how they can help.
On the other hand, it is definitely fair to say that often these documentaries present the more extreme side of the statistics to push their narrative. The makers will most likely have an agenda that they are wanting to push and persuade people of and therefore are likely to embellish and cherry pick information to ensure that their side of the issue is emphasised. This can easily lead to confusion and misunderstanding of a topic. It is rare for complex issues to be cut and dry and the cherry picked information rarely reflects the breadth of an issue.
Documentaries also impact individuals differently depending on whether or not they already have an opinion/stance on the topic. People enjoy watching things that reaffirm their beliefs. I am no exception, I avidly awaited the release of Seaspiracy and as someone who is passionate about sustainability, climate change and ethics, I knew that the film would align with a lot of my thoughts. This is not necessarily a good thing because whilst I enjoy the films, it is easy to sometimes overlook inaccuracies or issues and even get defensive when the documentary is challenged. Yet it is crucial that we are able to take a step back regardless of whether you agree or disagree with a documentary and analyse it critically.
Alternatively, if a person is neutral on a topic and someone or a film presents information in an enthusiastic manner, it can be quite easy to persuade people. This is where the embellishment of facts in documentaries can be troublesome. As mentioned, films emphasise and dramatise issues to ensure engagement. There is both a responsibility on the film makers to present honest information but also responsibility on the viewers not to take everything they say as gospel. However, it isn't necessarily fair to assume that everyone is as invested in the topic or has the time to delve into fact checking and primary research. If anything, googling can make things more confusing as the aforementioned newspapers can be just as loose with facts. Yet if the documentaries presented the nuanced debate or stats, the general public would likely not watch the film. It is a delicate balance and not one that is easy to get right.
Therefore, here is how I think documentaries should be approached. In Seaspiracy's case, filming the scale of the industrial fishing industry, the ethical considerations surrounding fish consumption, and the environmental damage is useful for bringing these issues to the public light. Additionally, showcasing the important work of organisations such as Sea Shepherd gives them great publicity and again brings them into the mainstream. However, I think that often the statistics and numbers presented shouldn't be taken as set in stone. Also, it is worth noting that snippets of interviews presented in documentaries don't always reflect the entire conversation and can very easily be manipulated or edited to fit the films narrative. Again, using Seaspiracy as an example, the conversation regarding dolphin safe tuna accreditation highlights the difficulties of enforcing regulations. However, the film does also make various NGOs look incompetent or as if they deliberately avoid important issues. Yet, it makes sense for a lot of charities to focus on things such as plastic straws and plastic cups because these are small changes that the general public can easily do whereas convincing everyone to stop eating fish and combat industrial fishing waste is a much larger and longer term goal. These long-term goals should certainly feature on their websites and be discussed, however it isn't difficult to understand why they don't always focus on them. It is easy to leave these documentaries with a very negative view of organisations that don’t necessarily deserve it. Whilst many may not be getting everything 100% right, it does them an injustice to paint them as an enemy, when often they do a lot of good.
It is certainly good to enjoy documentaries and watch them as a way familiarise yourself with current issues, however it is important to take some the presented "facts" with a pinch of salt. It is important not to consider yourself well-versed in a topic after watching one documentary made by people who already have a firm stance. If the documentary succeeds in igniting interest and passion for a subject, then further reading from both sides of an argument is needed. The documentary should act as a starting point not as the main source of someone’s education. And just to clarify, this is not an attack on Seaspiracy, I enjoyed the documentary and do believe it is an important film to watch, I just don’t want people to assume that because it is recommended to them that they should believe every word presented. It has many good points but also tends to embellish facts, paint NGOs in a bad light, and perhaps focus too heavily on the makers agenda rather than the complexity of the issues. It was mainly chosen as an example due to its recent release and media attention.
If you have made it this far, thank you! It has definitely been quite a ramble-heavy post and different from the previous ones. It is not a topic on which I can draw a hard conclusion. These documentaries on important issues are a double-edged sword. They bring these issues into the public eye, gain media attention and get people talking/thinking. However, the embellishments of facts or inaccuracies often present as a result of making an engaging and entertaining film over a 100% accurate account of a situation can lead to misunderstandings. I hope you have found this interesting, and I would be very curious to know people's views on these types of documentaries and how you approach them. Do you just enjoy them from a film perspective, or do they send you down a fact checking rabbit hole?
As always, I welcome any feedback and don't forget to find me on social media:
@plants_n_cells on Instagram
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Arabidopsis thaliana is a small weed with no particular importance either agriculturally or economically. However, it was the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced and is the dominant model organism used in plant biology. Over the course of 70 years (1930-2000) a few key scientists saw the potential of A. thaliana as a model organism and despite the large resistance and scepticism, eventually saw it established and widely used. Coinciding with key developments in modern molecular biology techniques and the collaboration of dedicated researchers, Arabidopsis thaliana went from an ignored and irrelevant weed to an invaluable research tool for molecular biologists and geneticists and was largely responsible for increasing plant molecular biology as a field.
Arabidopsis thaliana (also known as thale, mouse-ear, and rock cress), considered a weed, is a small and unremarkable flowing plant with no agricultural importance. However, despite this apparent lack of interesting characteristics, Arabidopsis thaliana (Arabidopsis from here on) is the main model organism used in plant biology with more research resources allocated to it than other memorable model organisms, such as the mouse and fruit fly . What it lacks in physical charm, it more than makes up for in its usefulness to plant scientists.
Arabidopsis is the organism that I work on and I have found that whilst people remember fruit flies and white mice as model organisms from science lessons at school, Arabidopsis seems comparatively less well known outside of plant science. Therefore, I thought that I would do a small appreciation post on the remarkable journey from weed to model organism. I am going to attempt to cover a rather long story quite succinctly whilst also giving a bit of information on its natural history and key characteristics/facts. But I will reference and link articles that go in depth on each specific area.
For example, it has a rapid life cycle of between 6 and 8 weeks, this quick growth makes multiple replicates of experiments much easier to conduct. Additionally, the aforementioned small size allows them to be grown without taking up excessive amounts space. Furthermore, Arabidopsis can reproduce through self-fertilisation (or selfing) making it particularly easy to breed and cross different lines. It forms a fairly compact rosette stage and produces a comparatively large number of small seeds (another advantageous trait for research). The evolution of several, of what became key, characteristics set Arabidopsis thaliana apart from its close relatives, including other species within the genus Arabidopsis.
History and Road to Fame
Arabidopsis thaliana has come a long way since its original discovery in the German Harz mountains by Johannes Thal in the 16th century and original name Pilosella siliqousa. Much of its widespread use and fame begins with the work of Friedrich Laibach, a German botanist . Prior to Laibach's interest, in his words, "Arabidopsis was only known to florists and taxonomists, who had nothing better to do than constantly change its name and systematic positioning" . Laibach became interested in this small plant predominantly due to the large variety observed in its phenotype, which lead him to meticulously collect seeds from different Arabidopsis populations from every location that he visited [1,4]. Interestingly his seed collections were the base from which the Arabidopsis Information service (AIS) seed bank was built from in the 1960s. The AIS in turn was the foundation from which the Columbus (ABRC) and Nottingham (NASC) seed stock centres would be formed from many years in the future (both of which I use as part of my research).
Laibach went on to determine that Arabidopsis contains five chromosomes, a relatively small number and publish a paper in 1943 proposing that it would make for a good model organism. He supported this proposal with the facts that Arabidopsis is easy to grow, contains a small genome, has a short life cycle, produces a large quantity of seed and can be easily crossed, all characteristics which make for a good model organism. However, this idea was largely ignored and would be for 40 years.
Some, however, saw the logic in Laibach's proposal and the potential in Arabidopsis. One such researcher was George Redei, a Hungarian biologist. He started his own laboratory in Missouri and obtained 4 Arabidopsis lines from Laibach to conduct work on. For 20 years Redei was the only scientist working on Arabidopsis in America, something that made acquiring funding particularly difficult. As part of his research, in 1957 Redei exposed Arabidopsis seeds to x-rays and screened for interesting mutants, this led to the discovery of a mutant line with stunted growth which came to be called Arabidopsis erecta. This line became one of the most frequently used for molecular and genetic studies.
Over the course of the next 20 years the amount of research and interest in Arabidopsis slowly grew and a small community of dedicated researchers began to form. 1965 saw the first International Arabidopsis Symposium, held in Germany, and hosted 25 scientists . Following the traction Arabidopsis research was gaining, Redei followed Laibach's example and published a paper in 1975. With the title 'Arabidopsis as a genetic tool' Redei reiterated the many points originally detailed by Laibach that point towards the use of Arabidopsis and its worth as a model organism . This paper further added to the interest and after its publication several influential papers were published, and Arabidopsis became more solidified as a model organism.
This was a huge win for plant molecular biology and the ability to be transformed was another useful attribute that could be added to Arabidopsis' already long list. This was a particularly important moment as a contributing factor behind the original slow growth in Arabidopsis research was its resistance to mutations.
Following on from these key moments Arabidopsis has been the dominant model organism in plant molecular biology. Whilst a lot of the original research was conducted on the Arabidopsis erecta line described by Redei, the Columbia line was chosen to have its genome sequenced. This was in no small part due to the fact that A. erecta was a mutated line as a result of the x-ray experiments. The Arabidopsis Genome Initiative (AGI) set out and accomplished their aim to sequence the full genome of the Columbia line of Arabidopsis and it became the first plant with this accolade in the year 2000. This finally solidified Arabidopsis as a model organism in plant biology. This Columbia line is widely used today, and I have a large number of tubes labelled Col-0 (referring to seeds of this line).
To finish off
The road from ignored, unremarkable weed to a dominant model organism was a long and slow one for Arabidopsis. Something I enjoyed learning about during my research for this article was the importance of a small but strong community of scientists who "exhibited an admiral level of collegiality and cooperation" . The development of shared resources and strong collaboration between researchers was key in establishing Arabidopsis as a model organism. You often hear of scientific discoveries involving a high level of competitiveness with different research groups racing to beat others to the findings. Whilst this competition has certainly played a big role in pushing scientific research forward, it was interesting to read a story in which collaboration and shared knowledge played such a large role.
I have attempted to cover this long and multifaceted journey relatively succinctly and therefore was forced to leave out many details. I have included key moments and the parts that I found particularly interesting. The research has certainly spawned ideas for future articles but if people are interested in the story of Arabidopsis and want more depth then I recommend checking out the articles that I have referenced. I hope you enjoyed this article, despite its dominance in the world of plant science, the vast majority of people have never heard of Arabidopsis and are unaware of the part it has played in important research. Hopefully, I have brought the story of this unremarkable yet remarkable weed to more people.
As always, I welcome any feedback and don't forget to find me on social media:
@plants_n_cells on Instagram
@MaW_Science on Twitter
 Leonelli, S. (2007). Arabidopsis, the botanical Drosophila: from mouse cress to model organism. Endeavour, 31(1), 34-38.
 Kramer, U. (2015). The natural history of model organisms: Planting molecular functions in an ecological context with Arabidopsis thaliana. eLife, 2015(4).
 Mitchell-Olds, T. and Schmitt, J. (2006). Genetic mechanisms and evolutionary significance of natural variation in Arabidopsis. Nature, 22(441), 947-52.
 Somssich, M. (2019). A short history of Arabidopsis thaliana (L.) Heynh. Columbia-0. PeerJ Preprints, 7.
 Koornneef, M. and Meinke, D. (2010). The development of Arabidopsis as a model plant. The Plant Journal, 61, 909-21.
Habitat engineering and carbon storage: the importance of Sphagnum moss in peatlands
You know what really bogs me? How infrequently mainstream conversations surrounding climate change discuss the importance of peatlands and Sphagnum in carbon storage. I know what you are thinking... am I really going to stand by using that terrible pun in the first line of my first article? And the answer is yes. Start with the bar low and things can only improve, now onto the article.
Peatlands are a fascinating environment found across the world. Not only do they support a wide range of organisms and play crucial ecological roles, but they also act as one of the most efficient carbon sinks, storing twice as much carbon as the world’s forests. This ability to store carbon is a result of an interesting bit of biochemistry and the efforts of Sphagnum moss to engineer themselves the perfect environment. However, the carbon stored within peatlands is at risk of being released as a direct result of climate change. The rising temperatures and prevalence of droughts threatens the delicate biochemical processes that keep the carbon locked within peat bogs.
As mentioned, one of the defining characteristics of peatlands is the slow rate of decomposition. This is caused by the low levels of oxygen, high acidity, and overall lack of nutrients present in their waterlogged conditions. Peat formation varies substantially and is heavily dependent on the climate, with it taking millennium to form in some areas whilst others have produced 20m of peat within the last 10,000 years . High acidity and a lack of both oxygen and nutrients does not make them look like a particularly appealing place to inhabit. However, as an ecosystem they support a myriad of flora and fauna. But dominating this habitat are the Sphagnum mosses. Undoubtedly the most prominent organisms in peatlands and actually regarded as the most ecologically dominant group of mosses . You may think that Sphagnum thrives in peat bogs due to the conditions being perfect for their needs, interestingly this is not the case. In fact, Sphagnum actually engineers these conditions within peatlands to make them perfect for themselves. In doing so, they create an environment that most other plants struggle in, enabling their dominance. Sphagnum growth stimulates the build-up of peat. The acidity, low nutrient, and slowly permeable nature of peat reduces the growth of other plants, which increases the light available for Sphagnum. Therefore, peat production as a direct response to Sphagnum growth acts as a positive feedback loop to further increase the growth of Sphagnum. Not only are Sphagnum mosses responsible for many of the defining characteristics of peatlands but they are also essential for their notorious carbon storing abilities.
A bit of chemistry
We have established that slow decomposition is key to the formation of peatlands and is why the carbon storage is so high. It was originally believed that simply the lack of oxygen and nutrients, along with the high acidity were the driving factors behind this slow rate of decomposition. However, the driving force behind these conditions is the inhibition of a group of enzymes known as phenol oxidases and the resulting build-up of the phenolic compounds that they breakdown. Phenolic compounds are incredibly widespread within the plant kingdom and are involved in a variety of important processes, including plant defence responses, increasing the attractiveness of the plant to pollinators, as well as being responsible for antibacterial and anti-fungal properties .
Sphagnum contains its own specific phenolic compound known as Sphagnum acid (p-hydroxy-beta-(carboxymethyl)-cinnamic acid - in case you were wondering) . Sphagnum acid is a very stable compound and is, unsurprisingly, the most prevalent phenolic compound in peatlands. By suppressing the activities of phenolic compound degrading bacteria and fungi, Sphagnum acid plays a key role in the build-up of phenolic compounds . Combined with the low oxygen levels in peatlands also reducing the activity of phenolic oxidases (that breakdown phenolic compounds) it is easy to see how they accumulate .
This build-up results in the inhibition of certain enzymes produced by bacteria and fungi which act as crucial agents of the carbon and nutrient cycles [7,8,9], thereby keeping the carbon stored within the peatlands rather than being cycled back into the atmosphere. The inhibition of the phenol oxidase enzymes and bacterial activity has become known as the "enzymic latch" on the global carbon stores.
Side note, this inhibitory effect on bacterial and fungal enzymes is what gives Sphagnum its antimicrobial properties, leading to it being used in medicine, specifically as an antiseptic in wound dressings during the first world war.
To summarise, the limitation of phenol oxidases, causes a build-up of phenolic compounds, which subsequently prevents the decomposition of organic compounds and inhibits the carbon cycle, resulting in the substantial accumulation of carbon in peatlands.
The climate change concern
Right, we've seen that, for their size peatlands store a huge quantity of carbon and I've discussed the role of Sphagnum in this carbon accumulation but why is it at risk of being released as climate change progresses?
A well-known consequence of climate change is an increase in the frequency, distribution and intensity of droughts and this is detrimental for the carbon stored in peatlands. It has been shown that drought conditions, and the eventual re-wetting of peat that has been subjected to drought, impacts the concentration of phenolic compounds in peatlands . This is because, under drought conditions, the activity of phenolic compound degrading enzymes (phenolic oxidases) increases, as does the presence of bacteria, ultimately reducing the concentration of the crucial phenolic compounds. Additionally, this initiates a feedback loop, as the reduced presence of phenolic compounds enables further microbial growth and therefore further breakdown of those compounds, resulting in a biochemical cascade. What is more concerning, is that this cascade goes beyond the initial drought phase and continues to be affected during the post-drought recovery phase. This makes sense, because when the rain finally comes to the drought-exposed peat, the nutrient levels will suddenly spike, altering the pH and ultimately increasing the rate of decomposition that is so vital to the storage of carbon. To put some numbers to this situation, it was found that under simulated drought conditions the diversity and abundance of phenolic compound degrading bacteria increased by 129.4% and the activity of phenolic-degrading enzymes went up by 83% . Therefore, it is easy to see how an increase in droughts leads to the loss of the carbon stored within peatlands.
Despite acting as large carbon stores and their fragility, you don't tend to hear so much about peatlands in mainstream discussions surrounding climate change. Often the conversations focus on forests and oceans, both of which are important, and the carbon stored within them is also under threat from human activities. However, I hope that we start seeing peatlands become more of a focus and projects that aim to preserve and regenerate them being emphasised (something I may write another article on).
To summarise, the rising temperatures and the resulting increase in droughts associated with climate change pose a substantial risk to carbon stored within peatlands by affecting the concentration of phenolic compounds which are responsible for their carbon storing abilities.
To finish off
Thank you for reading my first article on this website, I greatly appreciate it and I hope that you found it interesting. I actually spent some time researching this topic and studying a gene family involved in the production of phenolic compounds in Sphagnum as part of my molecular biology masters. I aim to cover a wide range of topics and keep a balance between slightly heavier science and overall relevance within each article. However, it has been a long time since I have written articles for a blog rather than university assignments, so I welcome any feedback. I often have a tendency to write too much or go too deep and part of the point of this blog is to improve on those things. So please do send me feedback and again, thanks for reading.
 Wieder, R. K. and Vitt, D. H. (2006), Boreal peatland ecosystems, Vol. 188, Springer Science & Business Media.
 Roulet, N. T. (2000), ‘Peatlands, carbon storage, greenhouse gases, and the kyoto protocol: Prospects and significance for canada’, Wetlands 20(4), 605–615.
 Holden, J. (2005), ‘Peatland hydrology and carbon release: why small-scale process matters’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 363(1837), 2891–2913.
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