Ancient herbs– magic or medicine?

By Sophie Harrington

Mix together some leek and garlic in a broth of wine and bullocks gall, and what would you get? It sounds like a rather odd kind of soup, but may in fact be an effective treatment of antibiotic-resistant Stapholococcus aureus, or MRSA. Derived from an old Anglo-Saxon recipe, this sounds like an April fools joke, or certainly not something that would be published in a scientific journal. However the history of medicine is littered with examples of traditional herbal remedies that turned out to have scientifically proven effects.

Peacetime in ancient Sumer, as depicted in the Standard of Ur, likely facilitated the creation of lists of medicinal herbs. (photo credit Alma E. Guinness)

Peacetime in ancient Sumer, as depicted in the Standard of Ur, likely facilitated the creation of lists of medicinal herbs. (photo credit Alma E. Guinness)

From the ancient Sumerians, where lists of medicinal herbs including opium and myrrh have been found, through to the herbal knowledge of the Benedictine monks and nuns, humans have long known that many plants have the ability to alleviate symptoms and even cure diseases. Yet today, the idea of “herbal remedies” is often tainted by association with other, less rigorous, forms of alternative therapies with little to no evidence behind them, such as homeopathy.

Our traditional herbal remedies, however, stem from the production of unique compounds in different plants, resulting in a huge variety of potential chemicals that can be, and are, tapped for medical use. These compounds, known as secondary metabolites, can be produced by plants to help defend themselves from herbivores and insect attacks, while others may define the unique scent of a flower.

One group in particular, the alkaloids, have had an immense impact on medicine. Defined by the presence of nitrogen-containing carbon rings, alkaloids include such common substances as caffeine and nicotine. The anti-malarial drug, quinine, is derived from the Cinchona tree. First used by the Quechua in South America, quinine is derived from the back of the Cinchona tree which is dried and powdered before use. Many of us know the bitter flavour of quinine from tonic water, which was used to provide protection against malaria to British officials and colonists in India and other tropical regions. Our tonic water today has much lower levels of quinine, however, so don’t rely on that for protection against malaria!

The anti-inflammatory properties of willow bark are well known, and the source of Aspirin (credit Gareth Williams- Flickr)

The anti-inflammatory properties of willow bark are well known, and the source of Aspirin (credit Gareth Williams- Flickr)

Even more common is aspirin, a go-to for headaches and muscles aches, that has its original medicinal uses dating back as far as the ancient Egyptians. Derived from the bark of willow, it was used to treat fevers and inflammation, just as it is today. Initially obtained through teas brewed from the bark of the willow tree, at the turn of the 20th century the drug company Bayer began marketing a less irritating, synthetic variant known as Aspirin, the drug we know today.

Of course there are some herbal remedies that no longer stand the test of time—many remedies were based on visual similarities, such as dandelion being thought to relieve jaundice due to their shared yellow colour. Yet the importance of natural plant derivatives in both historical and modern day medicines is often overlooked, or misunderstood. Is it that surprising, though, that our ancestors were able to discover which plants had special abilities to alleviate pain or illness? After all, we are an inquisitive bunch!

Plant factories: making organic pesticides?

By Tom Evans

In many peoples opinion, pesticides were one of the great tragedies of 20th century agriculture. They symbolized man’s dominance over nature: of the synthetic taming the organic – a cruelly ironic leitmotif of the modern world. In our post-Green Revolution era, most agricultural scientists see pesticides as anathema. Not only do they destroy the land and its biodiversity, but they also apply selection pressure onto insects to evolve resistant strains. The focal challenge of contemporary agriculture, then, is to devise new ways we can tame nature without inadvertently breeding resistance, or further damaging our precious ecosystems.

The bombyx mori silk moth

The bombyx mori silk moth

A recent paper in Nature Communications is part of a global effort to do just that. And, unsurprisingly, the answer comes through working with – not against – nature. A team of researchers from Kansas State University has genetically engineered a species of tobacco to produce chemicals known as pheromones. Plants do not usually make pheromones; in fact, they’re chemicals that insects produce, and they are usually involved in the communication systems of insects. For example, female silkmoths attract mates by producing a pheromone called bombykol. Male silkmoths can smell thispheromone from up to 10km away and follow the scent trail until they locate the female producing it.

So why has this group of scientists created a plant that makes pheromones?

The idea is we can harvest pheromones from plants and then use these natural chemicals in fields to control insects. At the moment industrially producing pesticides is bad for the environment, as well as the health of those working in pesticide factories. It’s also quite costly. By genetically engineering plants to synthesize pheromones, a so-called “plant factory” for pheromones could theoretically be established in the future, providing an environmentally friendly and cheap form of pest control. And moreover, the message is clear: nature is not our enemy, but our closest ally.

How to Build the White Cliffs of Dover

By Tom Evans

The White Cliffs of Dover are one of Britain’s greatest natural wonders. Indeed, the oldest known name for our sceptered isle is Albion—based on the Indo-European root for “white”, an allusion to this majestic landscape. The cliffs, which reach up 110 metres high, are composed of a fine, soft chalk that mostly consists of layers of intricate structures known as coccoliths, thin plates of calcium carbonate.

public domain, no creditThe plates are produced by microscopic photosynthetic algae in the sea known as coccolithophores and these single-celled creatures assemble their plates to form a protective shell, known as a coccosphere. The most abundant of these algae is Emiliania huxleyi, or EHUX. This algae is famous for its ability to bloom: dense populations of the phytoplankton can cover up to 100,000 square kilometers and are easily visible by satellites in orbit as the chalk plates turn the colour of the water a milky white.

Eventually the bloom fades away as the algae gradually die. And remarkably, their cause of death is quite often a virus. We usually think of viruses living in the air or inside our bodies, but in fact the ocean is teeming with viruses – up to as many as 100 billion viruses can be found in just one litre of seawater! EHUX virus 86 infects the algal bloom, and just as quickly as they bloomed, the algae die off. When the algae die, their coccosphere sinks to the seabed. Their boom and bust lifestyle means it gradually accumulates. And if you wait a few million years you end up with the vast and glittering White Cliffs of Dover.

If you want to help a mammoth, buy them flowers….

By Charlie Whittaker

Mammoths have been in the news a lot lately, predominantly due to the recent discovery of a particularly well preserved specimen. There was talk of good condition blood being found, perhaps facilitating the extraction of DNA and the generation of new, 21st century edition woollies.


A gift for a discerning mammoth?
Credit Jamiesrabbits

But how did they die out in the first place? Everything from climate change, to comet impact, through to human based overhunting have been bandied as reasons for the loss of the majestic mammoth from the face of the earth. But a new study suggests the answer may be a little more mundane than that.

I am, of course, talking about a grass invasion. Anti-climax I know, but consider this: the primary staple of mammoths and other “megafauna” found in that region of the world at the time were broad leafed, flowering plants called “forbs”. This is a diverse family, including tansies and yarrow, and would have represented a key source of protein for the animals.

This all changed about 10,000 years ago: the composition of the flora inhabiting the Arctic shifted substantially, becoming dominated by grasses.

Past studies have failed to pick up this shift, due to their reliance upon pollen analysis. An exceptionally useful marker of flora presence, fossilised pollen found in permafrost or frozen soil can paint a vivid picture of the diversity and makeup of the vegetation inhabiting a region at a given time. This picture can be skewed however, particularly in the case of grasses, which produce huge amounts of pollen and therefore bias the picture of the landscape painted.

This study looked at plant genetic material found in numerous permafrost samples, as well as analysing the DNA found in the guts of fossilised faeces of 8 animals (4 wooly mammoths, 2 wooly rhinoceroses, 1 bison and a horse) that lived in the Arctic during that period.

All of this showed the forbs to be a stable in the diet of these animals: rich in protein and other nutrients, their continued perseverance in the Arctic landscape is thought to have been essential to continued survival of the animals there.

When these disappeared, 10-15,000 years ago, being replaced with comparatively non-nutritious grasses, the animals there were deprived of a staple foodstuff. This is thought to have massively hastened their extinction.

So, if we do eventually resurrect any woolly mammoths, and you want to be kind, then get on their good side and buy them flowers!

Read the full study here.

The Hidden Costs of Ethanol

By Sophie Harrington

For the last few years, biofuels have been a hot topic in the discussion of alternative fuel sources. The addition of ethanol to fuel, in particular, has helped spur the industry on. In the United States, 3.75 billion gallons of ethanol are required to be blended into petrol supplies.


Credit: Seth Anderson

However, as ethanol began to be added to petrol supplies, significant concerns were raised regarding the effect on corn prices. The initially small size of ethanol production failed to have much of an effect on corn prices as a whole. However, dramatic increases in the industry size have reached the point where ethanol is expected to soon become the predominant use for corn in the U.S., overtaking livestock feed.

The Food and Agriculture Administration (FAO) has claimed that the increasing demand for ethanol has drastically raised the prices of maize worldwide, nearly tripling between 2002 and 2012. In the United States, the Renewable Food Standard has been critical in driving the growth of the biofuels industry, primarily ethanol, by requiring a minimum fraction of petrol to be made up of biofuels. According to some reports, if only 10.6% of global corn production was diverted towards ethanol rather than towards food production, a 68% rise in global corn prices would be expected.

While certain groups have argued that the purported link between ethanol production and rising corn prices is merely a symptom of rising food prices as a whole, significant concerns have been raised regarding the effect of biofuel production on food security across the world.

Debate is currently ongoing in the US regarding the fate of the new Renewable Fuel Standard. Cuts to biofuel requirements are being considered, supported particularly by the oil lobby. Biofuel lobbyists are contending that removing federal support from the industry would only serve to increase reliance on foreign fuel and hurt investment in the industry. The revisions include a cut of between 1.25 and 2.25 billion gallons of the ethanol required to be blended into fuel.

Many have pointed towards second-generation biofuels as the answer to the food conundrum. After all, developing fuel from non-food crops would eliminate the concern that biofuels were driving up prices. Yet research into other sources of biofuels has yet to present alternatives with the same yield and profit margin as ethanol. Whether or not the changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard go into effect could potentially have a dramatic impact not only on the price of corn worldwide, but also on the research funding provided to second-generation biofuels.

For more information, see the Heritage Foundation’s report on the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Prototaxites: Fungal Obelisks or World’s Oldest Carpet?

By Nathan Smith

A long time ago in a galaxy far far aw…..well actually in our galaxy, indeed on our planet, there existed tree-like organisms up to 8.8m tall (that’s approximately 4.5 doors tall or, for a more enjoyable measurement, roughly the size of two T-Rexs standing one on top of the other with the one on top wearing a party hat) and 1.36m wide. Found between 420 and 370 million years ago, its internal structure consisted of tiny intertwining tubes less than 50 micrometres in diameter.

Prototaxites_Dawson1888Prototaxites existed well before the developments of trees; its surrounding environment consisted of mats of moss and liverworts, populated by giant invertebrates, such as an ancient form of scorpion that could reach up to a metre long. The historical views of these structures are that they are the fossilised remains of huge external fungal structures; organic statues standing defiant in an otherwise flat landscape.  There are also suggestions that these giant structures may have had algal symbionts, and therefore should be classified as a lichen. Amongst other things, this suggestion would give good reason for why such structures became ‘extinct’ —this being that they were outcompeted by the emergence of vascular land plants in terms of being able to access the light they required.

But maybe Prototaxites aren’t fungi. Maybe they aren’t even a unique organism. There is an alternative theory; one that suggests that these giant structures weren’t signs of fungal domination but rather the results of an epic battle between nature and itself. Specifically, it suggests that the giant structures are the result of mats of liverworts being pulled up from the ground and rolled up by means of wind, water, or gravity, with algae and fungi possibly being caught up in the mix. Its evidence for this suggestion comes from the similarity in microstructure between fossilised Prototaxites and artificially created liverwort rolls, the paper being published in the American Journal of Botany in 2009.

Whether tree-like fungi or sections of liverwort torn out of the ground, Prototaxites remain a fossilised oddity of a time long since forgotten.

Three in the bed make for a hot relationship

By Nathan Smith

A plant, a fungus, and a virus live together in an environment inhospitable to each partner on their own. This isn’t an absurdist sitcom that’s been written whilst high in the garden, but a genuine biological phenomenon.

The plant, a type of grass known as Panic Grass (Dichanthelium lanuginosum), can grow at temperatures of up to 65C (for a point of comparison, the lethal temperature for humans is about 40C). It is found growing in Yellowstone National Park but only when it has a fungal symbiont Curvularia protuberata and this in turn is ‘infected’ with Curvularia thermal tolerance virus (CThTV).


Too close for comfort? Not for Panic Grass, found near geysers in Yellowstone National Park in the United States

The ecological love-triangle was shown to be necessary for the plant-partner’s survival. This was done by infecting the plant with a ‘cured’ fungus (one that lacks the virus) and comparing it to a plant with both fungus and virus and a plant with no symbionts. The plants were then treated to growing conditions of 65C for 10hrs and 37C for 14hrs. At the end of the treatment, only plants with both partners remained healthy. Furthermore, all plants with both symbionts remained alive whereas the majority of the plants with only the fungus or nothing at all died before the experiment was completed.

However, panic grass isn’t that important or useful to us. It’s not eaten, nor is it cultured to produce fibre or biofuels. So is there any point to this knowledge? Well, the tri-kingdom system can be translated into more economically important crops. It has been shown that the fungal symbiont can colonise the roots of tomato plants and provide protection against higher temperatures, though not to the same extent as is provided to panic grass. It also suggests that the adaption to this system is widespread in nature, as panic grass and tomatoes diverged relatively early in the evolution of plants.

This certainly is hot stuff!