Deforestation- whatever that is

By Anna Klucnika

Society is slowly forgetting about deforestation.

That’s not in the sense that we forget it’s happening, but rather forgetting to care. I am one of the few who consciously try to recycle, to use less paper, to switch off lights. My family only recycles because otherwise the normal bin will overflow. My roommate has commented that environmental issues have been made up, as it’s “convenient” to allows us Westerners to stop development in other parts of the world.

The Bornean Rainforest  - how long will it last?

The Bornean Rainforest – how long will it last?

Even Rhett Butler, the man who founded a website that tracks global deforestation and has “devoted tens of thousands of hours to the cause of protecting forests” is not promoting a change in society’s attitude. He unwittingly commented that “lately – for the first time, really – I’ve started seeing cause for optimism about the future of forests”. This was gloriously picked up by the Independent in an article titled “Rainforests ‘out of danger’ thanks to global giants”.

This is like thinking world peace will work out next year.

Now clearly Mr Butler did not mean his words to seem that all of the world’s deforestation issues are resolved. I’m also delighted to hear Sally Uren, head of the sustainable development charity Forum for the Future, say “there is a much greater sense of shared responsibility and I am feeling reassured by the seriousness with which many big multinationals are taking this responsibility”.

But these are just words and many people will jump for joy that they can jump off the eco-friendly bandwagon.

Visiting the rainforest of Malaysian Borneo has made the issue or tropical forest conservation real to me. Driving into the heart of the land you see the town turn into jungle. Then once you get into the core primary rainforest, you realize what you thought was jungle earlier is just the left-over bones. The growing demand of palm oil (have a look at most labels and you’ll find it, probably mixed in with “vegetable oils”) has lead to dramatic fragmentation.

The new forests: Oil Palm plantation

The new forests: Oil Palm plantation

Fresh research by Benny Yeong has revealed that rainforest fragments below a certain size do not yield viable seedlings. This means that the forest will not regenerate. With an increasing proportion of the world’s forests being restricted into national parks, funded by ecotourism, this is a bad omen. Humans must intervene to help sustain forests. Conservation is no longer about stopping deforestation and conversion of land. It’s too late for that. Instead what precious forest we have left must be managed.

But with attitudes concentrating on tree hugging to prevent logging, society’s’ interest is fading. Instead there must be a new green revolution. Just as we try to prevent animal population declines and manage the populations of nearly-extinct species, we must do the same for forests.

Just go into your local bit of woodland and just experience the sense of awe. The sensation that a forest can provide is just as wonderful as that awe of watching wild animals. Forests are an evolutionary masterpiece of conquests, coalitions, and competitions. Since mankind has had such an impact on the Earth, we can no longer rely on the environment sorting itself out. Intervention is needed in a structured and positive manner. Some people are thinking in this way and making plans. But that does not mean that the cause should be abandoned. We must fight on for our forests.

Photos by Anna Klucnika

The Green Killers: Poisonous Plants in History

By Liam Elliott


‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk’

                                                               John Keats


The word poisoning conjures up, to many imaginations, images of deadly dinner parties straight from an Agatha Christie novel or a world of cold war espionage. Whilst these depictions are perfectly justifiable, they often relied on the variety of deadly inorganic or synthetic poisons. Look further back into history, however, and there emerges the use of naturally occurring plant poisons, entwined with some of the most classical and romantic of legends. Scientifically, toxic compounds that may be found in plants often originate as secondary metabolites of which over 100,000 are known.

Secondary metabolites are, by definition, generally not considered to be essential for plant life and are derived from the smaller pool of primary metabolites. Some of these compounds we use every day including caffeine and theobromine whilst others, hopefully in less frequent usage, include cocaine and morphine. Some plants produce highly toxic secondary metabolites however and the historical use of some of these to silence an unwanted voice, or as forms of execution, is well documented

Let’s have a look at some of the most notorious poisonous plants and their history.


Atropa belladonna: Deadly Nightshade

Belladonna’s attractive berries and flowers have helped to entrain its place in mythology.

Belladonna’s attractive berries and flowers have helped to entrain its place in mythology.

Perhaps one of the best known poisonous plants and commonly known as belladonna (literally: beautiful woman), this plant produces a variety of poisonous alkaloids including atropine and hyoscine. The plant is a member of the Solanaceae family which also includes potatoes. Belladonna’s attractive berries are very poisonous and it is therefore somewhat ironic that the plant has a long history of medicinal and cosmetic use. Macbeth of Scotland, immortalized by Shakespeare, is said to have used the plant to poison an invading English army.

Aconitum: Monkshood

Also known as wolf’s bane and devil’s helmet, plants of this genus synthesise toxic aconitine via the terpenoid synthesis pathway. Aconitine is a neurotoxin which targets sodium channels in mammalian neurons. The striking flowers of these plants resemble the hooded clothing of monks and whilst their natural distribution is largely restricted to mountainous regions of the northern hemisphere they are reasonably common features in gardens. Nazi Germany is known to have used bullets coated in aconitum during WWII.

Abrus precatorius

Abrus precatorius berries as recently seen by some enthralled Part II students.

Abrus precatorius berries as recently seen by some enthralled Part II students.

A legume which produces the protein toxin abrin. This is similar to the infamous poison ricin, only around upwards of 70 times as toxic making it perhaps the most potent of plant poisons. The abrin produced is mainly confined to the seeds and the ingestion of a single one may be fatal to an adult human (whilst around 7 ingested berries of the legendary belladonna provide a fatal dose). Traditionally used to make jewelry in areas of South America, aphrodisiacs have also been historically produced from the plant.

Conium maculatum: Poison Hemlock

Native to the Mediterranean, the alkaloids produced by hemlock target neuromuscular junctions and can cause eventual respiratory paralysis and an unpleasant death. The famous Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to be executed in 399BC by drinking an infusion of hemlock. It has also been suggested that, in contradiction to traditional beliefs, that the final pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra, killed herself by drinking a hemlock-based poison. On the Greek island of Kea, where euthanasia was a societal norm in ancient times, the elderly are said to have drank hemlock infusion once they passed a certain age.

Plant toxins, and their often medicinal potential, give an example of the key place of plant sciences within society. Moreover, a basic level of plant biochemistry and history can give a fascinating insight into the way plants have shaped humanity.

The Future is No Clockwork Orange

By Nathan Smith

Imagine a life without citrus. No glass of orange juice in the morning. No slice of lemon for your iced tea. No having to segregate the green jelly babies because no one honestly likes them and you don’t understand why they continue to be produced. It would be a very different world indeed, but perhaps one we need to start considering.

Credit Father.Jack

Down with the green jelly babies… (Credit Father.Jack)

The threat to our favourite sources of Vitamin C comes from the double-pronged assault of the bacterial diseases citrus canker and huanglongbing (or citrus greening disease), which are currently having a massive impact on the citrus industry. To make matters worse there are few signs of resistance among the plants. This is mainly because the majority of citrus fruits aren’t natural species, they’re cultivars which are the result of varying inter-specific crosses. A few examples are the sweet orange, which is the result of a cross between a male mandarin and a female pomelo; and the grapefruit which is the result of a cross between a male sweet orange and a female pomelo.


The invincible kumquat (Credit Acongagua)

A study by a group from Pakistan tested how various citrus cultivars responded to the citrus canker disease and found that some are more susceptible (like Valencia Oranges) than others (like Pigmented Oranges). While two cultivars were identified as highly resistant, Tahiti Lime and Kozan Sweet Oranges, all the cultivars showed some levels of disease. Unfortunately this indicates that all would eventually succumb to the ravages of citrus canker. That is, all except for the kumquats!  Both cultivars of kumquat tested (Meiwa and Naghmi) lacked the canker-caused lesions that unfairly graced the other plants. This may be because kumquats are only citrus fruits in the loosest sense. Unlike most of these other fruits, which belong to the Citrus genus or are products of genetic crosses within the genus, kumquats belong to the genus Fortunella. This makes them distinctly different to oranges and lemons genetically and means they may be a non-host for citrus canker and perhaps by extension for other diseases plaguing citrus; though reports of a huanglongbing-type disease in Kumquats in Taiwan suggests otherwise.

Even so resistance to citrus canker is promising. Humanity may learn to adapt and a future without oranges certainly seems brighter with the potential for Kumquat Flavoured Jelly Babies. At the very least they might taste better than the green ones.



The Impossible Cheeseburger

By Stephan Kamrad

I have previously written about Just Mayo, a vegan mayonnaise that contains “pea proteins” instead of egg yolk. Another start-up company founded by Patrick Brown, Professor of Biochemistry at Stanford University, makes not only the condiment but the entire burger vegan. Their Impossible Cheeseburger is made entirely from plants and imitates beef in taste, texture and appearance almost perfectly (according to tasters).

Medicago italica root nodules

Medicago italica root nodules

Just imagine a perfectly grilled burger: Juicy and just a tiny bit bloody in the middle. The molecule responsible for the characteristic red colour and distinct, slightly metallic taste is a complex molecule called haem. Haem contains a co-ordinated iron ion and is part of haemoglobin, the protein that transports oxygen in our red blood cells.

The Impossible Cheeseburger gets its haem not from the blood of kettle but from a plant of the legume family (which includes beans, peas and peanuts). These naturally produce leghaemoglobin which is functionally and structurally akin to mammalian haemoglobin. It is red in colour, also contains the haem co-factor and apparently makes a fake burger just as bloody as real beef.

Legumes live in symbiosis with Rhizobia bacteria that populate specially formed nodules in the roots. Those bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to ammonium (NH4+) which the plant is then able to use for growth and development. In exchange, the bacteria are supplied with sugars. Nitrogenase, the bacterial enzyme that fixes N2, is sensitive to oxygen and it is thus important that oxygen levels in the nodule are as low as possible while still being high enough for the bacteria to live. And this is where leghaemoglobing comes in: It is present at high levels in root nodules and buffers oxygen at a constant but low level. All that the scientists at ‘Impossible Food’ had to do was to harvest root nodules and extract the haem (which was probably a lot harder than it sounds).

Whatever your reason to eat vegan is (and there are plenty), there is an emerging industry that will allow you to do so without changing your actual eating habits or losing flavour. While this is potentially a great thing for the customer and the planet, it is important to realise that this product –while being vegan- is in no way natural. It was born in the lab, created not only by chefs but also by biochemists who miraculously turn vegetables into meat. The “Recipe” and exact ingredients remain (just like in the case of Just Mayo) the company’s secret which makes it increasingly difficult for us as consumers to know what exactly we are eating.

The Impossible Cheeseburger will not be available in stores for another few months. If you can’t wait that long, check out this vegan burger recipe based on carrot, kidney beans and cumin.