Job: Righteous Sufferer or Eco-Warrior?

By Tom Pryce

Approaching a stranger – with no particular Biblical expertise – on the street, asking what the Bible says concerning the natural world, one can anticipate the answer. Having been given the supreme position at the start of the canon, Genesis 1-3 comes to the forefront of their memory. It reminds them of God’s creation in 7 days and that terribly slippery notion of humanity’s ‘dominion’ over the planet. And yet – foregoing the heated debates regarding its place in ancient Israelite faith – creation plays a significant role elsewhere, in oft-neglected corners of the Hebrew Bible. Such passages offer a counter balance to the divinely ordained environmental exploitation committed under the banner of ‘dominion’. They provide a deeper understanding of what it really meant when God made humanity stewards over creation.

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Léon Bonnat’s “Job”

The beautifully constructed divine speeches of Job 38-41 are one such text. After 37 chapters of bitter complaints from the righteous sufferer Job, God bursts onto the scene, speaking from the whirlwind. Belittling rhetorical questions challenge Job’s misguided presuppositions: it is God, not Job, who is the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator and carer for creation. Further, God’s role extends far beyond the individual cares and well-being of Job, or of humanity in general. God cares for the wild ass, beyond human control. God cares for where no humans inhabit, causing rain to fall in an otherwise barren desert. God cares even for the Leviathan, the great Biblical emblem of the chaos that constantly threatens the natural and social order; described by God as a play-mate in the oceans, what to humans is the destructive ‘other’ is to God a rubber duck in the bath.

These speeches are often interpreted as a heartless God, apathetic to Job’s misery, challenging the petty human’s anthropocentrism. I believe something much subtler is going on. In the existential crisis preserved in these passages, Job’s anthropocentrism is challenged, yes. But this induces a tragic sublimity in the fullest sense: with his self-understanding decentred, and his perceptions of the created order shown to be misguided, the rug has been pulled from beneath Job’s feet. God, however, does not do this in a cruel manner, revelling in Job’s suffering. Destroying the categories through which Job understands the world, God intends to elicit self-knowledge from Job. Challenging him to reach a fuller understanding of himself, the tragic sublime knocks Job down, so as to then elevate him to new insight. Job  is challenged by God to a new understanding of what it means to be a steward over creation. Being created in the God’s image, the description of divine providence serves as a reminder to Job of his responsibilities.

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Julius Schnorr von Carosfeld’s “Creation (Day Seven)”

Job is forced to appreciate that ruling over creation does not mean, or even allow, the creation of a hedonistic paradise where all creatures – or at least humans – may have their inner-most desires perpetually satisfied. Instead, it requires care for all of the creatures which inhabit the earth, even if this care requires the self-sacrifice of some. Providence over creation requires that some creatures may suffer, to allow for the general well being of the created whole. This even requires that God allows the eagle prey on the fallen human soldier, so as to feed the young waiting in the nest. God challenges Job to appreciate the nature of divine providence. In doing so God elicits a new self-understanding of Job, who can recognize what his role as the imago deo truly requires of him.

If one were to ask Job – after his dialogue with God – what the Bible has to say about the natural world, I believe that the answer would be quite contrary to that of the stranger on the street. Rather than dominion, I believe the righteous Job would call for responsible stewardship over creation. I believe Job would recognize the value and care which humans, as stewards, should have for creation, even if this is sometimes to the detriment of their personal desires. I believe Job would understand the full sense of what the stewardship given by God to humanity in Genesis 1-3 really calls for.

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The Little Fungus that Could

By Nathan Smith

Deep in the dark depths of fungal taxonomy there lies a phyla known as the Glomeromycota. Members of this phyla are all obligate symbiotes, unable to support themselves independently and requiring a photosynthetic partner to provide organic carbon to them in return for gifts of phosphorous and nitrogen. For all bar one, this photosynthetic partner is a terrestrial plant; the symbiosis being better known as Arbuscular Mycorrhization and which upwards of 80% of angiosperms (flowering plants) are capable of engaging in.

The exception to this Golden Rule of the Phyla? A species known as Geosiphon pyriformis which instead forms a relationship with the cyanobacteria, specifically the species Nostoc punctiforme.

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Geosiphon:Nostoc symbiosis; Geosiphon spores inset
(credit Schuessler Lab)

The Geosiphon:Nostoc symbiosis appears to be unique in nature as the only example of an endosymbiosis between a fungus and a bacteria.  Adding to its mystery, it has so far been reported to have been found only 6 times in the wild in a small region of eastern Germany and Austria.

In contrast to Arbuscular Mycorrhization, where the fungal partner invades the cells of the plant to create an exchange interface, the cyanobacteria are taken in by the fungi, surrounding them with a unicellular structure known as a ‘bladder’ that can grow up to 2mm in length.

The exchange of nutrients is also different than in Arbuscular Mycorrhization. With the exception of nitrogen and carbon, all of the cyanobacteria’s nutritional needs must be met by the fungus. In return, the fungus receives organic carbon and nitrogen.

It is possible that Geosiphon:Nostoc symbiosis represents an important step in fungi being able to form symbiotic relationships with plants; it’s also possible that the Geosiphon:Nostoc developed out of the wider spread Arbuscular Mycorrhiza symbioses.

Either way it’s an interesting story of one fungus breaking the mould.

Plants in science fiction and fantasy

By Lilian Halstead

When it comes to plants in real life, many people seem to think that because they don’t move, they can’t be very interesting. This is hardly the case in science fiction, where plants (and plant-animal hybrids) are much more active, dangerous things. If you think of plants in science fiction the thing you are mostly likely to come up with first would be the triffids, which first appear in The Day of the Triffids. These intelligent flowering plants originally kept for their oil escape and take over, killing with a venomous sting and wondering around on three stumpy legs. Another well known dangerous plant is Audrey II from the Little Shop of Horrors, which although it remains rooted in place manages to persuade Seymour to bring it the flesh it needs to grow.

These man eaters are by no means the first though— there is a long history of claims of trees that eat people during the exploration of Africa by the Europeans, although they tended to be depicted as masses of tentacle vines which would lash out and grab the unwary, much like the bloodoak and tarryvine in the Edge Chronicles. Some aspects of their design are echoed in the more benign whomping willow in Harry Potter, which is more grumpy than hungry. Many of the plants in the Harry Potter books are drawn from folklore: the devil’s snare was a bloodsucking vine believed to grow in central America, while the mandrake is a real plant which has fleshy roots that was said to scream to kill those who uprooted it.

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Some Arthurian legends say Merlin was turned into an Oak tree by Niviane
(Credit Rob Young)

Another common theme is for plants to resemble people. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers people are gradually replaced by replicas grown in pods. But others are more friendly, one of the main characters in Farscape is a humanoid plant, although it’s not possible to tell from looking at her. Ents are more typically what you’d expect from plant people, and the Cactacae in the world of Bas-Lag are also more plantlike, having wooden bones and being covered in spines. In mythology there were the dryads, tree spirits in humanoid form, although in myths people also had a habit of turning into trees. In some versions of the Arthurian legends Merlin suffers this fate, doomed to live as an oak by the actions of Niviane.

As well as plant people, plant-animal hybrids tend to spring up all over the place. The Sarlacc from Star Wars is one of these, some expanded universe depictions describe it as having roots as well as tentacles and teeth. The best hybrid though has to be the vegetable lamb of Tartary, which is exactly what it sounds like—a plant shaped like a sheep attached to the ground by an umbilical cord-like stalk.

Despite all these plant monsters and hybrids, the most common use of plants is as a MacGuffin: they are variously able to cure diseases, kill the invincible monsters, lift curses and even, in some folk tales, open locked doors. So while animals may get most of the glory in most of science fiction and fantasy, there is also no shortage of plants.

Invisible forests; and how marine dwelling microorganisms really rule the waves!

By Charlie Whittaker

For sure, the abundance of terrestrial plants we share our planet with are weird and wonderful in equal measure, but why should they get all the glory when there’s an equally as important component to the biomass on Earth? I’m of course talking about the much maligned, often overlooked, and most definitely misunderstood microscopic creatures that inhabit the murky depths of our oceans!

The marine environment is by far the planet’s largest habitat. Covering over 70% of the land area, it contains a huge diversity of organisms, co-existing in a harmonious, yet fragile, balance. Underpinning all the life that the oceans sustain are photosynthetic organisms. Tiny, often microscopic and unicellular, these organisms are responsible for roughly half of all the primary productivity of the planet. Their ability to capture sunlight and use it to synthesise new organic compounds provides the energy for the diversity of marine life found in the ocean. They are, for want of a better analogy, the oceans’ invisible forest.

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These primary producers are exceptionally diverse, ranging from tiny photosynthetic bacteria that hitch a ride on the tiny particulate matter found in seawater, to the phytoplankton. These represent a hugely diverse group of unicellular organisms. Contained within this group are the diatoms, which enclose their cell in a glass box made out of silica, as well as the dinoflagellates, that tend to employ semi-opaque plates of cellulose to separate themselves from the external environment. And then who could forget the coccolithophores? Unicellular like their other phytoplankton counterparts, these microorganisms cover themselves with ornamented plates called coccoliths made out of calcium carbonate.

So why does any of this matter?

80 million tonnes of marine seafood are caught globally each year. Seafood forms a common constituent of diets worldwide and provides more than 1.5 billion people with at least 15% of their protein requirements. The entirety of this marine life, whether directly (animals that feed on the producers themselves) or indirectly (in the case of organisms several trophic levels above the primary producers), relies upon the productivity and photosynthesis these organisms are carrying out.

They also represent an important carbon sink. The ocean plays a huge role in mopping up and buffering CO2 released into the atmosphere: and a significant proportion of the ability to do this stems from the simply huge amount of photosynthetically capable biomass present.

Okay, that’s fine and dandy then?

Not quite. Unfortunately things are getting progressively less peachy. Climate change poses a serious issue to the future productivity of the oceans and marine life. Changes to the oceanic average temperature has implications ranging from alterations to the vertical stratification of the water column (important in mixing, thereby ensuring all the phytoplankton receive all the nutrients they need) to impacting the chemical reactions responsible for the productivity of the primary producers. Whilst of course, the response to rising sea temperatures will not be the same globally (a paper recently published in nature showed that “Some phytoplankton like it hot” and that warming oceans may increase productivity in some areas) there are important marine areas of human concern that are set to suffer substantially: the Atlantic Cod population has plummeted in number in recent years. Partly this has been driven by overfishing, but it was also shown this was due to rising temperatures. The alteration modified and impacted the plankton ecosystem in such a way that it reduced the survival rates of young cod, and thereby facilitated the population’s rapid decline.

They may be invisible, but the effects of these tiny photosynthetic powerhouses are quite the opposite. And unless something is done soon, they may be at the forefront of drastic alterations to our current marine system.

Further reading:

On the effect of increased temperatures on cod and phytoplankton populations.

On the propensity some phytoplankton show for warmer temperatures.

Marine Biology: A Very Short Introduction.

You’ve got the wrong (fun)guy!

by Nathan Smith

If you were presented with a plant and a fungus and asked to pick the parasite, chances are you’d pick the fungus. Whilst this is often the case, there are significant and widespread cases of the relationship being the other way around. Enter Orchids.

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Common Spotted Orchid

Orchids are family of plants distinct in physical appearance and are renowned for their sweet scent and aesthetic beauty, despite the fact they more closely related to rice than they are to roses. Their seeds contain rather small reserves of nutrients and they are unable to photosynthesise immediately after germination, instead going through an achlorophyllic stage; in fact some orchids are not capable of photosynthesis during their lifespan. Usually small reserves and an initial inability to photosynthesise would be considered a bad strategy for a plant, but Orchids are still thriving and there is a good reason why.

Throughout their non-photosynthesising stage, and indeed throughout their entire existence, they are the dominant partners in what can best be described as an uneven symbiotic relationship with a fungal partner.  In fact, a fungal partner is required by the orchid for them to germinate ‘in the wild’. Orchids can be germinated in sterile conditions; however this requires exposure to the ‘fungal sugar’ trehalose.  So what is the trade between the orchid and the fungus?  The fungus supplies the plant with organic carbon, a source of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other minerals and nutrients, and in return, gets… well, not much really. This uneven relationship continues once the plant gains the ability to photosynthesise and there is little evidence that the fungus gains a significant amount of reduced carbon from its photosynthetic symbiont. The fact that the fungus enters into a symbiosis with the plant in the first place, and continues this relationship throughout the plant’s life, suggests the fungus gains something from the relationship or that the plant emits a strong attractant, however there is little to no evidence for this and so these hypothesises remain little more than speculation.

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Tway-blade Orchid

What about the orchids that never photosynthesise? These plants, for instance the Bird’s-nest Orchid, have a habit of forming symbioses with fungi that also associate with tree roots. This allows them to use the fungus like a straw and indirectly parasitise what they need from the unsuspecting trees. Clever stuff.

Orchids are beautiful and interesting plants and deserve to be admired, but it doesn’t mean it’s the good guy. Next time spare a thought for the poor little fungus.

Photography by Leanne Massie

Trees: Carbon Sinks or Sources?

by Joanna Wolstenholme

With a warming planet, you wouldn’t be laughed at for thinking that trees may come to our rescue: we release more CO2, the greenhouse effect leads to global warming, and this increase in temperature leads to plants being able to photosynthesise faster. Indeed, future climate warming is expected by many experts to increase plant growth in temperate ecosystems, and increase carbon sequestration. So is our planet coming to the rescue, is Gaia saving us from certain doom? Well, unfortunately, no. Heatwaves lead to droughts, and droughts put plants, trees in particular, under a lot of stress. Without sufficient water, plants struggle to transpire, and so are unable to take up enough nutrients and water for growth.

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Ciais et al (2005) found that during the heatwave and drought of 2003, plants in Europe managed to undo four years of their own carbon sequestration, by reverting to sources rather than sinks of carbon. Growth primary production was severely reduced, and respiration in plants and soil microbes fell dramatically. They suggested that increased extremes of temperature, as have been predicted if we fail to reign-in climate change, may counteract the effects of the mean warming and lengthened growing season.

This work was put into stark contrast by the 2005 and 2010 droughts in the Amazon. Usually, the Amazon acts as a vast carbon sink, absorbing 25% of atmospheric carbon, making it an important buffer against climate change. However, increased occurrence of droughts could lead to it becoming a net carbon source – a catastrophic positive feedback system which would cause a vast acceleration of climate change. The 2005 drought led to the release of approximately 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere, and as much as 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon could have been released from the Amazon during 2010. That is about one-quarter of global emissions from fossil fuel use. The Amazon is such a vast forest (25 times the area of the UK, to put it into perspective) that even low level drought damage can have a large overall effect, and this is likely to be impounded in the coming years by more frequent drought stresses, even at a low level.

400px-DroughtNonetheless, fear not – a report published last year by University of Exeter and Colorado State University cast a more positive slant on the situation. They believed that previous models had failed to take into account the amount of water that the forest itself is able to recycle during droughts. As moisture cycling is normally a source of a third of the water rainforest plants use, it has the potential to act as a buffer during times of drought. However, moisture cycling is severely impacted in disturbed forest, so in order for the Amazon to still withstand periods of drought, forest conservation measures must be strongly enforced.

Lets hope the academics from Exeter and Colorado are right, and that the Brazilian government are able to protect their amazing forest. In the mean time, do your own little bit – plant a tree!

For more information, see: 

Ciais et al, 2005. ‘Europe-wide reduction in primary productivity caused by the heat and drought in 2003’. Nature 437 doi:10.1038/nature03972

Super-domestication: making plants work for us

by Leanne Massie

Super-domestication is a relatively new term to describe plants that we have modified to extremes to fit our own needs. For example, crops that have huge yields with minimal negative effects on the environment could be called super-domesticates.

These crops are still works in progress though; the most notable super-domesticate-to-be is “C4 rice”. Rice is naturally a C3 plant, which means it uses a less efficient method to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Some plants that are adapted to hot, dry conditions have evolved a different carbon capture mechanism called C4 photosynthesis, which allows them to take up more carbon dioxide and lose less water in the process, a sort of supercharged version of photosynthesis. If C4 photosynthesis could be introduced into rice the benefits are staggeringly huge. Yields would be increased while at the same time water use would go down. In a world where water shortages are starting to affect everyone and where rice already provides more than one fifth of the total calories consumed worldwide, a C4 variety of rice would go a long way to ending world hunger.

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Credit: Dalgial

This isn’t an easy process though; introducing C4 into a C3 plant is like trying to compare pricing at a supermarket, extremely difficult!. It can be done but takes huge amounts of effort and determination.  But fortunately, C4 photosynthesis has evolved more than 50 times in nature so with the right tools it is very feasible. The C4 Rice Consortium, a foundation that has more than 600 scientists worldwide, has been working on introducing C4 photosynthesis into rice since 2008 and the researchers have collectively published over 400 papers relating to C4 rice since. The scientists are well on their way to making rice into a super-domesticate.

However, this is only rice. Wheat, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and peas are just some of the other crops that are also being studied to make them work harder for us. Imagine the possibilities that super-domestication could bring if all our crops were supercharged to their full potential.

For more information, see:

C4 Rice Project. http://c4rice.irri.org

D.A. Vaughan, E. Balazs, J. S. Heslop-Harrison (2007) From Crop Domestication to Super-domestication. Annals of Botany 100: 893-901