This rare variety of corn has evolved a way to make its own nitrogen, which could revolutionize farming
In the 1980s, Howard-Yana Shapiro, now chief agricultural officer at Mars, Incorporated, was looking for new kinds of corn. He was in the Mixes District of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, the area where the precursors to maize (aka corn) first evolved, when he located some of the strangest corn ever seen. Not only was it 16 to 20 feet tall, dwarfing the 12-foot stuff in American fields, it took six to eight months to mature, far longer than the 3 months needed for conventional corn. Yet it grew to those impressive heights in what can charitably be called poor soil, without the use of fertilizer.. But the strangest part of the corn was its aerial roots--green and rose-colored, finger-like protrusions sticking out of the corn’s stalk, dripping with a clear, syrupy gel.
Shapiro suspected that those mucousy fingers might be the Holy Grail of agriculture. He believed that the roots allowed this unique variety of corn, dubbed Sierra Mixe and locally bred over hundreds or even thousands of years, to produce its own nitrogen, an essential nutrient for crops that is usually applied as fertilizer in epic amounts.
The idea seemed promising, but without DNA tools to look into the specifics of how the corn was making nitrogen, the discovery was shelved. Nearly two decades later, in 2005, Alan B. Bennett of the University of California, Davis—along with Shapiro and other researchers—began using cutting-edge technology to look into the nitrogen-fixing properties of the phlegmy corn, finding that indeed, bacteria living in the mucus were pulling nitrogen from the air, transmuting it into a form the corn could absorb.
Now, after over a decade of field research and genetic analysis, the team has published their work in the journal PLOS Biology. If the nitrogen-fixing trait could be bred into conventional corn, allowing it to produce even a portion of its own nitrogen, it could reduce the cost of farming, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and halt one of the major pollutants in lakes, rivers and the ocean. In other words, it could lead to a second nitrogen revolution.
The synthetic production of nitrogen may be the greatest achievement of the 20th century. The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process and its refinements, in which nitrogen is stripped out of the air under high heat and pressure in the presence of a catalyst, has led to three separate Nobel prizes. And they are well deserved. It’s estimated that crop yields more than doubled between 1908 and 2008, with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer responsible for up to half that growth. Some researchers have tied the massive growth in human population in the last seventy years to the increased use of nitrogen fertilizer. Without it, we’d have to farm almost four times as much land or have billions of fewer people in the world.
But producing all that nitrogen has consequences. It’s estimated that making fertilizer via the Haber-Bosch process uses between 1 and 2 percent of the world’s energy, emitting lots of greenhouse gases. And synthetic nitrogen routinely washes off fields into waterways, leading to massive algae blooms that suck up all the oxygen, killing fish and other organisms. So much nitrogen goes into rivers and streams that large dead zones have developed at the mouths of the world’s rivers, including one in the Gulf of Mexico that last year was the size of New Jersey. Mark Sutton of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology calls nitrogen “the Godfather of pollution”—its effects are everywhere, but you never really see the culprit.
But we can’t just quit nitrogen without seeing major reductions in agriculture. While better management and farming practices can help keep it out of waterways, those strategies aren’t enough to fix nitrogen’s ecological problems. That’s why researchers have for decades wondered if there was a way to help cereal crops like corn and wheat produce their own nitrogen.
The idea is not as farfetched as it sounds. Lots of plants, in particular legumes like soybeans, peanuts and clover, have a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobium bacteria, which produce nitrogen for them. The plants grow root nodules where the bacteria take up residence and sip on plant sugars while converting nitrogen in the air into a form the plants can use. If a similar symbiotic relationship could be found that works in cereal crops like corn and wheat, researchers believe we could reduce our use of the pollutant.
That’s why the mucus corn is so important, and why Bennett and his team spent eight years studying and re-studying the bacteria and gel to convince themselves that the corn was indeed able to produce its own nitrogen. Using DNA sequencing, they were able to show the microbes in the slime carried genes for fixing nitrogen and demonstrated the gel the corn excretes, which is high sugar and low oxygen, is perfectly designed to encourage nitrogen fixation. Using five different tests they showed that the nitrogen produced by the microbes then made its way into the corn, providing 30 to 80 percent of the plant’s needs. They then produced a synthetic version of the slime and seeded it with the microbes, finding that they produced nitrogen in that environment as well. They even grew Sierra Mixe in Davis, California, and Madison, Wisconsin, showing that it could perform its special trick outside its home turf in Mexico.
“This mechanism is totally different from what legumes use,” Bennett says, adding it may exist in other crops as well. “It’s certainly conceivable that similar types of systems exist in many cereals. Sorghum, for example, has aerial roots and mucilage. Maybe others have more subtle mechanisms that occur underground that could exist more widely. Now that we’re aware, we can look for them.”
Co-author Jean Michel-Ane from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, agrees that this discovery opens up all types of new possibilities. “Engineering corn to fix nitrogen and form root nodules like legumes has been a dream and struggle of scientists for decades. It turns out that this corn developed a totally different way to solve this nitrogen fixation problem. The scientific community probably underestimated nitrogen fixation in other crops because of its obsession with root nodules,” he says in a statement. “This corn showed us that nature can find solutions to some problems far beyond what scientists could ever imagine.”
It turns out that nature has even more nitrogen-producing tricks up her sleeve that researchers are just getting a handle on. There are several other ongoing projects aimed at getting cereal and vegetable crops to do the Haber-Bosching for us. One of the most promising is the use of endophytes, or microorganisms like bacteria and fungi that live in the intercellular spaces of plants. University of Washington researcher Sharon Doty got interested in the organisms a couple decades ago. She was studying willow and poplar trees, which are among the first trees to grow on disturbed land after events like a volcanic eruption, floods or rockfall. These trees were growing out of river gravel, with hardly any access to nitrogen in the soil. Inside their stems, however, Doty found endophytes that fixed the nitrogen for the trees, no root nodules necessary. Since then, she’s teased out dozens of various endophyte strains, many of which help plants in surprising ways. Some produce nitrogen or phosphorus, another important nutrient, while others improve root growth and some allow plants to survive in drought or high-salt conditions.
“There [are] a whole slew of different microbes that can fix nitrogen and a broad range of plant species impacted by them,” she says. Her tests have shown that the microbes can double the productivity of pepper and tomato plants, improve growth in rice, and impart drought tolerance to trees like Douglas firs. Some even allow trees and plants to suck up and break down industrial contaminants and are now being used to clean up Superfund sites. “The advantage of using endophytes is that it’s a really large group. We’ve found strains that work with rice, maize, tomatoes, peppers and other agriculturally important crop plants.”
In fact, endophytes might make it into farmers’ hands sooner rather than later. The Los Altos, California-based IntrinsyxBio is commercializing some of Doty’s endophytes. Chief Science Officer John L. Freeman says in an interview the company is on track to have a product ready for market in 2019. The goal is to deliver several strains of endophytes into plants, most likely by coating the seeds. After those bacteria take up residence inside the plant, they should pump out about 25 percent of the nitrogen it needs.
Another biotech company, called Pivot Bio, recently announced it is beta testing a similar solution, using nitrogen-fixing microbes that grow in the root systems of corn.
The newly emerging field of synthetic biology is also taking a crack at the nitrogen problem. Boston-based Joyn Bio, formed last September, is a co-project between Bayer and Gingko Bioworks, a biotech company with experience creating custom yeasts and bacteria for the food and flavoring industry, among other “designer microbe” projects. Joyn is currently combing through Bayer’s library of over 100,000 microbes to find a host that can successfully colonize plants, similar to Doty’s endophytes. Then they hope to tweak that “host chassis” with genes that will allow it to fix nitrogen. “Rather than rely on nature and find a magic microbe, which we don’t think exists, we want to find our host microbe and fine tune it to do what we need it to do for corn or wheat,” says Joyn CEO Michael Miille.
The Gates Foundation is also in on the game, supporting projects attempting to impart the nitrogen-fixing abilities of legumes into cereals. Still other teams are hoping that the advent of supercharged quantum computing will open up new realms of chemistry and identify new catalysts that will make the Haber-Bosch process much more efficient.
While it’s unlikely that one solution alone will be able to replace 100 percent of the synthetic fertilizer humans use, perhaps together these projects could make a serious dent in nitrogen pollution. Bennett hopes that Sierra Mixe and what his team has learned from it will be part of the nitrogen revolution, though he admits it’s a very long leap before his slimy corn fingers start producing nitrogen in conventional crops. He now wants to identify the genes that produce the aerial roots and pin down which of the thousands of microbes discovered in the mucilage are actually fixing the nitrogen.
“I think what we’re doing could be complementary to those [endoyphte and synthetic biology] approaches,” he says. “I think we’ll see many divergent strategies, and in 5 to 10 years something will emerge that impacts how corn gets nitrogen.”
Editor’s note 8/15/18: An earlier draft of this article misspelled John L. Freeman’s name and misidentified his current company.
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science- ... 180969972/
Weit verbreiteter Zusatzstoff E211 verändert Erbgut-Anlagerungen und Genaktivität
Von wegen harmlos: Das gängige Konservierungsmittel Natriumbenzoat (E211) hat doch eine biologische Wirkung. Schon geringe Dosen dieses Lebensmittel-Zusatzstoffs führen zur drastischen Zunahme bestimmter Anlagerungen am Erbgut, wie eine Studie an Zellkulturen enthüllt. Diese epigenetischen Anlagerungen beeinflussen die Genaktivität und möglicherweise auch wichtige Stoffwechselwege, wie die Forscher im Fachmagazin "Nature Communications" berichten.
http://www.scinexx.de/wissen-aktuell-23 ... 08-29.html
Britische Forscher haben einen neuen Übertragungsweg für Mikroplastik entdeckt: Es gelangt in die Mägen von Vögeln, Fledermäusen und Spinnen. Und zwar über deren Nahrung.
https://web.de/magazine/wissen/tiere/st ... e-33172100
Studie weist indirekte Schadwirkung des Herbizids auf Honigbienen nach
Fataler Effekt: Das umstrittene Pestizid Glyphosat könnte für Bienen schädlicher sein als bisher angenommen. Denn wie ein Experiment enthüllt, beinträchtigt das Herbizid die Darmflora der Honigbienen. Mehrere wichtige Bakterienarten im Darm der Insekten gehen stark zurück – und das macht sie anfälliger gegenüber Infektionen, wie die Studie belegt. Diese indirekte Wirkung könnte erklären, warum das vermeintlich für Insekten harmlose Glyphosat trotzdem das Bienensterben fördert.
Kaum ein anderes Pestizid ist so umstritten wie Glyphosat. Denn das weltweit am häufigsten eingesetzte Herbizid steht im Verdacht, gesundheitsschädlich zu sein und zum Insektenschwund beizutragen. Während die WHO das Mittel im Jahr 2015 als "wahrscheinlich krebserregend" einstufte, kamen die beiden EU-Behörden ECHA und EFSA zum gegenteiligen Schluss. Ein Versuch, die Verlängerung der EU-Zulassung für das Pestizid zu verhindern, scheiterte im Herbst 2017. Fakt ist jedoch, dass Glyphosat inzwischen längst allgegenwärtig ist: Es findet sich unter anderem in Bier und auch in unserem Urin.
Glyphosat wirkt auf ein Enzym
Jetzt jedoch liefern Erick Motta von der University of Texas und sein Team Indizien dafür, dass Glyphosat entgegen bisherigen Annahmen auch Bienen schaden kann – indirekt, durch ihre Darmflora. Bekannt war bereits, dass Glyphosat das Enzym EPSPS hemmt, das nur in Pflanzen und einigen Bakterien, nicht aber in Tieren vorkommt. Deshalb galt der Unkrautvernichter bislang als für Tiere unschädlich.
Allerdings: "Die Gesundheit der Bienen ist eng mit der Gemeinschaft der Bakterien in ihrem Darm verknüpft", erklären Motta und seine Kollegen. "Bienen ohne ihre normale Darmflora zeigen eine verringerte Gewichtszunahme, einen veränderten Stoffwechsel, eine erhöhte Anfälligkeit für Krankheitserreger und eine höhere Sterblichkeit." Bisher jedoch war unklar, ob die von acht Bakterienarten dominierte Darmflora der Bienen zu den glyphosatsensiblen Mikroben gehört oder nicht.
Test am Bienenstock
Um Klarheit zu schaffen, haben die Forscher nun die Wirkung von Glyphosat auf die Darmflora von Honigbienen getestet. Für ihre Studie fütterten sie Arbeiterinnen eines Bienenstocks fünf Tage lang mit einer Zuckerlösung, die fünf oder zehn Milligramm Glyphosat pro Liter oder kein Pestizid enthielt. "Diese Konzentrationen entsprechen denen, die in der Umwelt vorkommen und denen Bienen bei Blütenbesuchen ausgesetzt sind", erklären die Wissenschaftler.
Die Bienen wurden farbig markiert und dann wieder in ihren Stock entlassen. Nach drei Tagen entnahmen die Forscher einiger ihrer Testbienen wieder aus dem Stock und untersuchten ihre Darmflora. In einem weiteren Test infizierten die Wissenschaftler einige mit Glyphosat belastete Bienen sowie Kontrollbienen mit dem opportunistischen Erreger Serratia marcescens.
Schwund der Darmflora - und die Folgen
Das Ergebnis: Das Glyphosat im Futter beeinträchtigte die Darmflora der Honigbienen. Vier der acht Bakterienarten in ihrem Darm erwiesen sich als anfällig gegenüber dem Pestizid und nahmen stark ab, wie die Forscher berichten. Am stärksten betroffen war dabei die Bakterienart Snodgrassella alvi, eine für die Verdauung und die Erregerabwehr wichtige Spezies der Bienen-Darmflora.
Welche Folgen dies haben kann, zeigte der Infektionsversuch: Von den zuvor nicht dem Glyphosat ausgesetzten Honigbienen lebte nach acht Tagen noch rund die Hälfte. Die Arbeiterinnen aber, die kontaminierte Zuckerlösung bekommen hatten, starben zu 90 Prozent. "Das belegt, dass Glyphosat den Schutzeffekt der Darmflora gegenüber opportunistischen Pathogenen verringert", erklären die Forscher.
"Das sollte zu denken geben"
Konkret bedeutet dies: Das auf den ersten Blick bienenunschädliche Glyphosat schadet den Bestäuberinsekten indirekt – indem es ihre Darmflora und ihre Infektionsabwehr stört. "Unsere Studie beleuchtet damit einen der möglichen Mechanismen, über die Glyphosat die Gesundheit von Bienen schädigen kann", konstatieren Motta und sein Team.
Sie appellieren daher an alle Landwirte und Gartenbesitzer, Glyphosat keinesfalls auf blühenden Pflanzen einzusetzen. "Wir benötigen bessere Richtlinien für den Glyphosateinsatz, besonders im Hinblick auf den Bienenschutz", sagt Motta. "Denn bisher gehen die Richtlinien davon aus, dass Bienen durch das Herbizid gar nicht geschädigt werden. Unserer Studie zeigt aber, dass das nicht wahr ist."
Wie die Forscher betonen, ist Glyphosat sicher nicht die einzige Ursache für das Bienensterben und den Rückgang vieler Bestäuberinsekten. "Aber es ist definitiv etwas, über das sich die Leute Gedanken machen sollten, denn Glyphosat ist inzwischen überall", so Motta. Er und seine Kollegen gehen stark davon aus, dass auch andere heimische Bienenarten wie Hummeln oder Wildbienen auf ähnliche Weise betroffen sein können, weil ihre Darmflora der der Honigbienen ähnelt. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1803880115)
http://www.scinexx.de/wissen-aktuell-23 ... 09-25.html
Wissenschaftler sind sich einig: Für den deutschen Strombedarf wird die Braunkohle unter dem Hambacher Wald auch langfristig nicht gebraucht. Auf die Rodung könnte verzichtet werden – wenn es die Politik wollte.
Die wissenschaftlichen Studien und Empfehlungen zum deutschen Kohleausstieg folgen derzeit fast im Wochenrhythmus: Im letzten Monat veröffentlichte das Deutsche Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung (DIW) seine Modellrechnung für den deutschen Kohleausstieg. Letzte Woche folgte die Empfehlung des Sachverständigenrates der Bundesregierung und nun folgt die Studie "2030 Kohlefrei" vom Fraunhofer-Institut für Energiewirtschaft und Systemtechnik im Auftrag von Greenpeace.
Die Ergebnisse und Empfehlungen sind in allen Studien ähnlich und auch eindeutig. Eine wesentliche Diskrepanz zwischen den Energiewissenschaftlern gibt es nicht. Die Experten gehen davon aus, dass Deutschland bis 2020 das lang versprochen Klimaziel von 40 Prozent weniger CO2 im Vergleich zu 1990 noch erreichen kann. Was hierzu bisher allerdings fehle, sei der entschiedene Wille und dasHandeln der Politik.
Damit die nationalen und die internationalen Pariser Klimaziele erreicht werden, empfehlen alle Experten den sehr schnellen und beherzten Ausstieg aus der Stromgewinnung mit der besonders klimaschädlichen Braun- und Steinkohle und den starken Ausbau von Solar- und Windenergie.
Hier geht es weiter.
One scientist is definitely listening.
Monica Gagliano says that she has received Yoda-like advice from trees and shrubbery. She recalls being rocked like a baby by the spirit of a fern. She has ridden on the back of an invisible bear conjured by an osha root. She once accidentally bent space and time while playing the ocarina, an ancient wind instrument, in a redwood forest. “Oryngham,” she says, means “thank you” in plant language. These interactions have taken place in dreams, visions, songs and telekinetic interactions, sometimes with the help of shamans or ayahuasca.
This has all gone on around the same time as Dr. Gagliano’s scientific research, which has broken boundaries in the field of plant behavior and signaling. Currently at the University of Sydney in Australia, she has published a number of studies that support the view that plants are, to some extent, intelligent. Her experiments suggest that they can learn behaviors and remember them. Her work also suggests that plants can “hear” running water and even produce clicking noises, perhaps to communicate.
Plants have directly shaped her experiments and career path. In 2012, she says, an oak tree assured her that a risky grant application — proposing research on sound communication in plants — would be successful. “You are here to tell our stories,” the tree told her.
“These experiences are not like, ‘Oh you’re a weirdo, this is happening just to you,’” Dr. Gagliano said. Learning from plants, she said, is a long-documented ceremonial practice (if not one typically endorsed by scientists).
“This is part of the repertoire of human experiences,” she said. “We’ve been doing this forever and ever, and are still doing this.”
Dr. Gagliano knows that these claims, based on subjective experiences and not scientific evidence, can easily be read as delusional. She also knows that this could damage her scientific career — plant scientists in particular really hate this sort of thing. Back in 1973, an explosively popular book, “The Secret Life of Plants,” made pseudoscientific claims about plants, including that they enjoy classical music and can read human minds. The book was firmly discredited, but the maelstrom made many institutions and researchers reasonably wary of bold statements about botanical aptitude.
Regardless, last year Dr. Gagliano published a heady and meandering memoir about the conversations with plants that inspired her peer-reviewed work, titled “Thus Spoke the Plant.” She believes, like many scientists and environmentalists do, that in order to save the planet we have to understand ourselves as part of the natural world.
It’s just that she also believes the plants themselves can speak to this point.
“I want people to realize that the world is full of magic, but not as something only some people can do, or something that is outside of this world,” she said. “No, it’s all here.”
As environmental collapse looms, we’ve never known so much about life on earth — how extraordinary and intricate it all is, and how loose the boundary where “it” ends and “we” begin.
Language, for example, doesn’t seem to be limited to humans. Prairie dogs use adjectives (lots of them) and Alston’s singing mice, a species found in Central America, chirp “politely.” Ravens have demonstrated advanced planning, another blow to human exceptionalism, by bartering for food and selecting the best tools for future use.
The list goes on. Leaf-cutter ants not only invented farming a couple million years before we did, but they have their own landfills — and garbagemen. Even slime molds can be said to make “decisions,” and are so good at determining the most efficient route between resources that researchers have suggested we use them to help design highways.
But it may be plants whose capacities are the most head-rattling, if only because we tend to view them as décor. Plants can do a lot of things we can’t. Trees can clone themselves into 80,000-year-old superorganisms. Corn can summon wasps to attack caterpillars. But research suggests we also have some things in common. Plants share nutrients and recognize kin. They communicate with each other. They can count. They can feel you touching them.
So we know that plants respond to their environments in sophisticated, complex ways — “far more complex than most of us realized a few years ago,” said Ted Farmer, a botanist at University of Lausanne in Switzerland and one of the first to defend the concept of inter-plant communication.
Dr. Farmer is among those still “very” uncomfortable describing plants, which lack neurons, as “intelligent.” But now it’s “consciousness” — another word without a firm definition — that’s really raising hackles in the scientific community.
A group of biologists published a paper this summer with the matter-of-fact title “Plants Neither Possess nor Require Consciousness.” The authors warned against anthropomorphism, and argued that proponents of plant consciousness have “consistently glossed over” the unique capacities of the brain. Though her book went unremarked upon, Dr. Gagliano’s experiments and statements ascribing feelings and subjectivity to plants were among those critiqued, and she was categorized witheringly within “a new wave of Romantic biology.”
Versions of this debate have been simmering for years. In 2013, Michael Pollan wrote about Dr. Gagliano presenting the results of an experiment to an incredulous audience.
That study is likely her most widely known. In it, she sought to discover whether plants, like animals, could demonstrate a basic type of learning called “habituation.”
The Mimosa pudica — you may know it as the “sensitive plant” — contracts its leaves when touched. So, in the experiment, potted mimosas were dropped a few harmless inches onto foam. At first, the leaves closed up immediately. But over time, they stopped reacting.
It wasn’t that they were fatigued, Dr. Gagliano wrote, because, when the pots were shaken, the leaves closed up again. And when the dropping test was repeated a month later, their leaves remained unruffled.
The plants had “learned” that the drop wasn’t a threat, Dr. Gagliano argued. The plants remembered.
And subsequent research has suggested that plants may indeed be capable of some type of memory. But Dr. Gagliano’s conclusion didn’t go over well at the time. Her framing of the data didn’t help. She insists that she doesn’t use metaphors in her work, and that “learning” is the best description we have for what took place, even if we don’t know how the plants are doing it.
This experiment was “a remarkable piece of work,” Mr. Pollan said in an interview. “Humans do tend to underestimate plants, and she’s one of a small group of scientists who are trying to change that story.”
“Monica is a brilliant young woman, and she’s been a major idea generator in the field of plant sensory biology,” said Heidi Appel, a scientist who found that rock cress produce more defensive chemicals when exposed to the stressful sound of a caterpillar chewing. “We’re investigating things I don’t think we would have otherwise.”
But, in Dr. Gagliano’s memoir, Dr. Appel said, “there’s a commingling of science and spiritual experiences that I feel are best disentangled.”
“I think it’s important to separate out what you can prove and what might be true in a more subjective way,” Mr. Pollan said. “And I don’t know where you draw the line, exactly.”
I met Dr. Gagliano at an outdoor cafe in San Francisco, next to a pot filled with bright, chubby succulents. I found myself watching it, wondering if its inhabitants were aware that we were debating their awareness.
Dr. Gagliano grew up in northern Italy and is a marine ecologist by training. She spent her early career studying Ambon damselfish at the Great Barrier Reef.
After months underwater observing the little fish, Dr. Gagliano said she started to suspect that they understood a lot more than she’d thought — including that she was going to dissect them. A professional crisis ensued.
Plants were inching their way into her life. As Dr. Gagliano tells it, she’d been volunteering at an herbalist’s clinic, and had begun using ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew that induces visions and emotional insights (and often nausea). She says that one day, sober, she was walking around her garden and heard, in her head, a plant suggest that she start studying plants.
In 2010, she traveled to Peru for the first time to work with a plant shaman called Don M.
To communicate with plants, Dr. Gagliano followed the dieta, or the shamanic method in the indigenous Amazonian tradition by which a human establishes a dialogue with a plant. The rules can vary, but it usually involves following a diet (no salt, alcohol, sugar or sex; some animal products may also be prohibited, depending on the culture) and drinking a plant concoction (sometimes hallucinogenic, sometimes not) in isolation for days, weeks or months. An icaro, or medicine song, is said to be shared by the plant, as well as visions and dreams, and the plant’s healing knowledge becomes a part of the human. It’s not fun, she warned.
Dr. Gagliano worked with multiple plant shamans, or vegetalistas, in Peru. There she bathed in the foul-smelling pulp of an Ayahuma tree, which then designed a scientific experiment for her, instructing her to “train young plants in a maze and give them freedom of choice.” The Ayahuma also helped her diagram a 2017 study investigating pea plants’ use of sound to detect water.
In the memoir, she wrote that she also traveled to California to work with a health care professional who conducts vision quest ceremonies (that’s when the oak tree spoke to her). She visited “the Diviner,” a man trained by the Dagara people of Ghana and Burkina Faso to channel nature spirits.
At a certain point, Dr. Gagliano began going solo, “working with” plants like basil in her own veggie patch.
“Did you ever wonder if you were going insane?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she said, and laughed. “I still do.” But she believes she should be free to talk openly about these experiences.
“Maybe we should admit that we hardly understand who we are, we hardly understand where we are at, we know very little compared to what there is to know,” she said. “To be open to explore and learn, I think that is the sign of wisdom, not of madness. And maybe wisdom and madness do look very similar, at some point.”
As a white woman on a journey through sampled bits of sacred rituals, Dr. Gagliano speaks thoughtfully and often about the legacies of colonialism, capitalism and exploitative New Age trends, which certainly includes the rise in ayahuasca retreats. A term like “shaman” can now bring to mind its plunder by an unpopular modern archetype — the personal-growth-obsessed wellness devotee, dreamily trailing sage in circles around her unvaccinated children.
But Dr. Gagliano’s journey, her supporters say, is rooted in a desire to challenge dominant assumptions.
“I have been working with the idea of plant intelligence for many years,” said Luis Eduardo Luna, an anthropologist and ayahuasca researcher in Brazil who has collaborated with Dr. Gagliano. Back in 1984, he published a paper in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology detailing the concept of plants as teachers in the Peruvian Amazon.
Dr. Luna said he was excited to hear these ideas expressed by a scientist, rather than someone in the humanities.
“Perhaps we are living in a much more interesting universe, perhaps we are living in a planet full of intelligent life,” Dr. Luna said. “I think it’s very important that we recover, somehow, this idea of the sacrality of nature, in the terrible situation in which we are today.”
“I’m really interested in the notion of plants as teachers, what we can learn from them as models,” said Robin Wall Kimmerer, an author, botanist and SUNY professor, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. “And that comes from my work with indigenous knowledge, because that is a fundamental assumption of indigenous environmental philosophy.”
Dr. Kimmerer doesn’t see Dr. Gagliano’s experiences as mystical processes so much as poorly understood ones.
“Some of the medicines that people have made are sophisticated biochemistry over a fire,” Dr. Kimmerer said. “You think, how in the world did people learn this? And the answer is almost always, ‘The plants told us how to do this.’ This is not a matter necessarily of walking in the woods and being tapped on the shoulder, but indigenous cultures have sophisticated protocols that are research protocols, in a sense, for learning from the plants. They involve fasting, ceremonial practices that bring one to a state of such openness to the conversations of other beings that you can hear them.”
“Have you ever had an experience like that?” I asked.
“I have,” she said, preferring to leave it mostly at that. “Suffice it to say, I have had experiences of intense focus and attention with plants where I came away knowing something that I didn’t know before, and it’s quite incredible. You feel like, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’”
The problem with talking about these experiences, Dr. Kimmerer said, is that they “are grounded in a cultural context that is so different from Western science that they are easily dismissed.”
Reality has become rather strange lately. Tech billionaires are trying to colonize the moon. U.F.O.s appear to exist, in some capacity. Parents in conspiracy-minded Facebook groups are poisoning their autistic children with bleach. Reality TV has fused with politics. The future of the planet looks remarkably grim. (Or maybe we’re in a simulation.)
Dr. Gagliano’s more subjective claims may feed, in an unnatural time, a spiking hunger for naturally sourced answers. People are looking for “wisdom from nature,” Mr. Pollan said, when describing the rising interest in psychedelic compounds like ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms. The booming wellness industry is certainly packed with all things “natural” and “plant-based.” The novel that won the most recent Pulitzer Prize was inspired by a giant redwood that produced a “religious conversion”; caring for houseplants seems to be a national obsession.
Given this context, it’s logical that critique over her approach hasn’t stopped Dr. Gagliano from finding an audience. She spoke about plant intelligence at last year’s Bioneers Conference, and was invited to speak at last year’s Science and Nonduality conference, along with Deepak Chopra and Paul Stamets, a respected mycologist who believes that mushrooms are trying to communicate with humans through their hallucinogenic properties.
This summer, Dr. Gagliano sat on a sold-out panel called “Intelligence Without Brains” at the World Science Festival. There I eavesdropped on a woman excitedly explaining Mr. Pollan’s recent book on psychedelic therapy to her mom. Why had they come?
“We’re plant ladies!” said one, beaming. “There’s a lot about plants that we don’t know that might end up saving us, in some regard.”
Dr. Gagliano spoke about plants with pointed familiarity. In her telling, they became jaunty little characters; she used pronouns like “he” and “they” — never “it.”
At the festival, a young woman asked Dr. Gagliano how her scientific work had changed her understanding of the world.
“The main difference is that I used to live in a world of objects, and now I live in a world of subjects,” she said. There were murmurs of approval. “And so, I am never alone.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/26/styl ... 8fb_BIiapc
https://unitedplantsavers.org/what-is-g ... BKeMyUSoP8In October of 2018, “Cleaning Space Kits” including white sage bundles appeared on the shelves of Anthropologie, and with the collective social media outcry they were removed from the stores almost immediately—thank you, Anthropologie. At this time white sage can be purchased on Amazon and Walmart websites and on the shelves of stores such as Urban Outfitters in pre-packaged new aged kits. This is a serious indicator of alarm for many who know and respect the ecological and cultural fragility of this plant.
One of the most active voices in the social media outcry is the IG @Meztliprojects. Meztli Projects is an Indigenous based arts and culture collaborative, based in Los Angeles. Meztli Projects brilliantly updated the Wikipedia page on white sage to provide information on the recent controversy, citing the illegal harvest arrests and current press on this issue over the last two years.
Commercial harvest of wild white sage populations is a concern held by many Native American groups, herbalists, and conservationists. In June 2018, four people were arrested for the illegal harvest of 400 pounds of white sage in North Etiwanda Preserve in California....
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/scie ... 6_nsIvqnecEven on the quietest days, the world is full of sounds: birds chirping, wind rustling through trees, and insects humming about their business. The ears of both predator and prey are attuned to one another’s presence.
Sound is so elemental to life and survival that it prompted Tel Aviv University researcher Lilach Hadany to ask: What if it wasn’t just animals that could sense sound—what if plants could, too? The first experiments to test this hypothesis, published recently on the pre-print server bioRxiv, suggest that in at least one case, plants can hear, and it confers a real evolutionary advantage.
Hadany’s team looked at evening primroses (Oenothera drummondii) and found that within minutes of sensing vibrations from pollinators’ wings, the plants temporarily increased the concentration of sugar in their flowers’ nectar. In effect, the flowers themselves served as ears, picking up the specific frequencies of bees’ wings while tuning out irrelevant sounds like wind.