New blog! The ARTFUL AMOEBA tells us about moss that swings both (all?) ways

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 30, 2009

My friend and fellow science writer Jen Frazer has started a new blog (well, two actually, but let’s start with the first). I don’t know how she can spend a whole day at work writing copy, and then come home and spin out gorgeous and witty prose, but, hey, she didn’t win the AAAS Science Journalism Award for nothing!  In the Artful Amoeba she explores charismatic microfauna, or the “weird wonderfulness of life on Earth.”  By way of explanation, she says:

I say: it’s not the taxonomy that’s important. It’s the learning about the diversity of life on Earth. We don’t have to go to Mars to find living wonders, and though I respect those that want to, I wish the 100% real living organisms on Earth could get half the attention the putative creatures on a planet millions of miles away do. The curiosity cabinet is long gone, but the curiosities are still here, just waiting for us. All 10,000 ferns. All 70,000 known fungi. All untold millions of species on Earth. I want to show you. I’m passionate about this stuff, and I like to make it fun. Please join me.

Go on.  Check it out. You know you want to.

Her other blog is Home Cooking Well – A blog about how your kitchen can enrich your life, your wallet, and your sense of humor.
As a teaser, here’s one of her recent posts on Moss That Swings Both (all?) Ways

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I’m sometimes greatly amused by the quality of press release science writing that is taking the place of professional science writing these days, since no one will pay for us to do it full time anymore (Science Daily, a major source of internet science news, is made almost entirely of press releases reprinted verbatim. And you’ll notice that this very blog is, so far, gratis).

For instance, a press release on one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time includes this sentence, seemingly lifted from Timmy’s 3rd grade report on mosses:

At first glance, mosses and human beings have little in common.

Gee, ya think? I’m imagining myself at a coffee shop holding a cup of steaming tea and sitting across the table from a noticeably uncomfortable bryophyte.

Cough. *Blink*

Cough.  *blink*

Me: So, read anything interesting lately?

Moss: No.

See? Not much in common. Strangely, this doesn’t differ greatly from most of my actual dates.

I don’t want to seem too hard on the author here, since 1. the release was probably first written in German, and 2. this is actually one of the clearer and more helpful press releases I’ve read. In any case . . .

Scientists from ETH Zurich and the University of Freiburg im Breisgau report that they were able to insert DNA from humans and bacteria into the moss Physcomitrella patens (sounds suspiciously close to “patent”) and the moss was able to manufacture human proteins without any further help. Yes, they basically cut and paste. And the moss said: OK! Cool!

The protonema of Physcomitrella patens. When the spore of this moss lands on a suitable spot, it starts growing into filaments like these. You can see the chloroplasts, or light harvesting equipent, as little green circles.

The protonema of Physcomitrella patens. When the spore of this moss lands on a suitable spot, it starts growing into filaments like these. Given enough time, these little filaments will grow into a full-grown moss plant. You can see the chloroplasts, or light harvesting equipment, as little green circles.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Way of the Cell, DNA makes RNA (with the help of proteins called RNA polymerases), and RNA makes proteins (with the help of cell organelles called ribosomes). The reason this moss-cular feat is astounding is that doing the same thing with flowering plants will get you nada. The mammalian gene start and end sequences have evolved themselves right out of business when placed in a similarly much-modified flowering plant. Not that there’s much of a reason that that would *ever* happen in nature. Now in an evil mad plant scientist laboratory, on the other hand . . . Belgians + petunias = Brussels sprouts. Mwa ha ha ha ha ha . . . . .

How is it mosses can do what so-called “higher” plants cannot? It’s a mistake to think of mosses as “primitive” in the sense of “inferior”. Both mosses and flowering plants have ancestors that were alive at the same time. What mosses are is “less-derived”, in biologist-speak. The lineage that gave us mosses just didn’t change as much over time as the lineage that produced flowering plants, because they found they were well-adapted as-is to their particular niche (forests, rocks, sidewalk cracks, and the sets of “Lord of the Rings” adaptations). Like sharks, they found a sweet gig and they stuck with it.

According to Ralf Reski, botanist and co-author of the paper announcing this discovery, as part of this cozying into a niche relatively early on for multicellular life (moss seem to have sprouted out of the ocean and then pretty much called it a day) mosses have stayed genetic generalists. And this easy-going gene-set enables them to translate a wide range of DNA. In fact, hold on to your hats . . .

This cross-kingdom conservation of mammalian and moss protein production machineries is phylogenetically profound, and has several implications for basic and applied research. Comparative genomics, as well as functional studies, have recently established major differences in metabolic pathways and gene function between flowering plants and P. patens, and have suggested that a substantial moss gene pool is more closely related to mammals than to flowering plants (Frank et al., 2007; Rensing et al., 2008).

Plant Biotechnology Journal, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2009. Pages: 73–86

Dude! An article in the Plant Biotechnology Journal just blew my mind!

Who knew? Well, maybe John Wyndham.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at what on Earth possessed these scientists to stuff human genes into a soft, green, cushiony object and at why biology is WAY cooler than nuclear physics. Stay tuned.

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Read more on Jen’s blog here.

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