Posts Tagged ‘Photosynthesis’

I Like Lichen

May 6, 2015


Lichens are a strange and wonderful life form. They are composite organisms made up from as many as three biological kingdoms; fungus, algae and bacteria. While they all need each other in this symbiotic triangle of life, the dominant partner is a fungus.

Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture- lichenologist Trevor Goward

The fungus benefits from this relationship because algae and cyanobacteria produce food by photosynthesis. The algae or cyanobacteria benefit by being protected from the environment by the filaments of the fungus, which also gather moisture and nutrients from the environment, and usually provide stability. This little arrangement works very well as lichens can be found in almost every habitat and geographic area on the planet. It is estimated that 6% of Earth’s land surface is covered by lichen. They are also considered the world’s oldest living organisms. Cooperation is a powerful survival tool and it accomplishes what evolution alone cannot provide in a single creature.

Lichens grow where other things can’t such as desert sand and bare rock. Their trick is to hibernate or shut down metabolically during extremes of heat, cold or drought. When they get wet conditions they reawake to capture solar energy and let their true colors shine. This is because moisture causes the lichen’s surface skin to become more transparent, exposing the colorful photosensitive partner (the photobiont) to light. This transition can happen within minutes. The next time you see some dried-up lichen, sprinkle it with water and watch it wake up.

It has been a soggy week here in Boulder, the cloudy wet conditions are getting to me and I need some color. This is perfect weather for our tiny lichens to come out of hibernation and make the rocks glow with color. Finding them is easy, just seek a place with rocks. Maybe the name appealed to my wishful thinking but I decided to head up Sunshine Canyon (40° 2’1.35″N, 105°18’56.63″W) to see what’s on the rocks. As you can see, the lichen was full of color on this grey and rainy day…

The Rocks Were Alive

The Rocks Were Alive and Photosynthesizing in Sunshine Canyon. Green Algae in the Forest.

This called for my close-up lens (60mm macro). Now everything is revealed in this miniature world…






Lichen Abstract Art

The moss was pretty well soaked too…

Moss Droplets

I interrupted this Abert’s Squirrel’s lunch (this photo was taken with a 200mm zoom)…

Aberts Squirrel

Thanks to lichen It turned out to be a Colorful Colorado day despite the soggy weather.


A Super Weed to the Rescue

December 4, 2014

Sometimes little things can have mighty big consequences.  Here’s a tale about a tiny plant that has the potential to help provide us with clean energy, produce new medications, end world hunger and reduce water pollution. I found it on the way to the South Boulder Creek Trailhead from the East Boulder Community Center

On the Way to The Boulder Creek

On the Way to The South Boulder Creek

To the left of this sign I spotted a green pond full of life in what was otherwise a pretty dormant landscape…

A Splash Of Green

A Splash Of Green

At first I thought it was algae but upon closer inspection I realized that the pond was covered with small plants busy photosynthesizing …

Small Green Leaves Cover the Pond

Small Plants Cover the Pond and Absorb Solar Energy

The Leaves About 5mm in Length

Each is Less Than 5mm In Length

It wasn’t difficult to identify this small plant and to discover the big tales it has to share…

What Is This Little Plant Up To?

What Tales Can This Tiny Plant Reveal?

This was my first encounter with duckweed (Lemna minor) named for the ducks that love to eat it. It turns out that this diminutive plant is of great interest to scientists. Research into duckweed is promoted by the International Lemna Association and the International Committee on Duckweed Research and Applications. A comprehensive genomic study of duckweed was published in February 2014.

Here are some quick facts about this mighty little plant:

-The duckweeds (genus Lemna for water plants) are the smallest, simplest and fastest growing flowering plants known to people who know such things. These tiny plants can rapidly cover enormous bodies of still water such as this duckweed invasion in Lake Maracaibo in 2004

Green swirls of duckweed dominate the center of Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo in this Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) image acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on June 26, 2004.

Green swirls of duckweed dominate the center of Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo in this Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) image acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on June 26, 2004.

-Individual plants consist of a single, flat oval modified stem no more than ¹/4″ (5mm) in diameter

-The flowers are rare and are nearly invisible at ¹/₃₂ (1mm) in diameter…

Tiny Duckweed Flower

Tiny Duckweed Flower

-Despite its flowers, duckweed sexual reproduction is also rare. More often species propagate asexually by forming new plants from vegetative buds.

-Dense populations of duckweed are an important food source for fish and waterfowl. Because the plant contains more protein than soybeans, it is sometimes cited as a significant potential food source for humans as well. Since the late 1960s, scientists have studied duckweed for animal and human consumption (duckweed farming). Because each plant absorbs nutrients through its whole structure, and not just through a central root system, the tissue contains twice the protein, fat, nitrogen and phosphorus of other vascular plants. Millions of ducks can’t be wrong and duckweed may become the food of the future.

-Some of the most exciting prospects in duckweed technology have been aimed at using this plant as a factory for biopharmaceuticals. This technology is making rapid strides towards practical commercialization.

-Since duckweed floats on the surface of the water it is easily harvested. This makes it effective not only as a food source but also as a way to remove pollutants and toxins from bodies of still water.

-These plants also may play a future role in water conservation because a cover of duckweed will reduce the evaporation of water when compared to the rate of a similar size water body with a clear surface.

-Duckweed is a good candidate as a biofuel because it grows rapidly, has 6 times as much starch as corn, and its cultivation does not contribute to global warming. Additionally, it does not compete for land in food production. It is being studied by researchers around the world as a possible starch-based feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production. Duckweed just might be a source of cost-effective, clean, renewable energy.

-Our knowledge of its complete DNA sequence yields insights into how duckweeds are adapted for rapid vegetative growth. Their trick is to genetically  mimic the rapidly growing juvenile stages of other plants. The research, simply titled The Spirodela polyrhiza genome reveals insights into its neotenous reduction fast growth and aquatic lifestyle was published in Nature Communications in February 2014. In simpler words, duckweed never grows up!  A trait which could come in handy.

We earthlings have a lot riding on this little super weed that refuses to grow up.

Thank You Duckweed

Thank You Duckweed


Deceptive American Calypso

July 6, 2013

A recent orchid alert by a photographer friend sent me off searching for what is arguably the most beautiful orchid in North America, the Calypso bulbosa var. americana (Eastern Fairy Slipper). Calypso (Kalypsō) was a nymph in Greek mythology. The etymology of Calypso’s name is from καλύπτω (kalyptō), meaning “to cover”, “to conceal”, “to hide”, or “to deceive”. The Calypso orchid lives up to the name.

The fairy slipper orchid has a circumpolar distribution, occurring in Europe, Asia and North America. In North America it occurs from Alaska to Labrador, south to northern California, Arizona, Michigan and Maine. Although they have a wide range they are uncommon and very hard to find. Fortunately here in Colorado there is a hiking trail which goes to a water feature named for this elusive beauty, the Calypso Cascades. After a 2.8 mi/4.5 km hike up the Wild Basin Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park I was rewarded with my second encounter with this uncommon 4-6in/10-15cm plant…

After a 2.8 mile hike I encountered Calypso bulbosa var. americana

After a 2.8 mile hike I encountered Calypso bulbosa var. americana

In autumn, generally around September, the single dark green leaf of the fairy slipper orchid sprouts from its stem. This leaf lasts through winter, even surviving under snow in the cold parts of its range. With the arrival of spring the orchid flowers and the leaf fades. This means the plant is leafless for most of the summer.

The single leaf has a very limited ability to photosynthesize and so cannot provide all the nutrients the plant needs. This orchid, along with many others in Colorado, is a parasite that grows by exploiting a fungus in the soil that shares nutrients taken from the roots of trees. This is why they cannot be successfully transplanted.

I grabbed my close-up lens and got down on the ground to capture this uncommon sight thereby attracting a queue of photographers waiting for a turn. Here are the results of my turn…

Calypso bulbosa-1

Calypso bulbosa-2

Like many orchids, the Calypso bulbosa has a deceptive flower that provides no reward for insect visitors. The scent and shape of the flower mimics those that do have nectar which lures bumble bees (Bombus species) to the bloom. The bees land on the lip of the flower and enter the pouch in search of food. Failing to find any nectar the bee exits the pouch rubbing against the overhanging column. Pollen is deposited on the bee and is then transferred to the next flower it visits. The deception consists of markings and an odor of vanilla both of which promise a nectar reward that does not actually exist. The flowering period of this species is synchronized with the emergence of naïve bumblebee queens. Individual bees subsequently learn to avoid these flowers and that avoidance is learned quite rapidly. Avoidance behavior by pollinators is detrimental to reproduction in Calypso. This negative effect is offset by small variations in flower color and pattern and by the large number of seeds produced in plants that successfully pull off this deception.

Calypso is said to be in decline particularly in the southern part of its range. Unfortunately habitat destruction is a threat for the fairy slipper orchid. Another significant threat to this stunning plant is the presence of people. We either accidentally trample them or deliberately remove the plants from the wild for unsuccessful attempts to transplant them to our gardens. In addition to being very fussy about where it grows, the fragile roots of the fairy slipper orchid make it susceptible to disturbance. A small rearrangement by a well-meaning photographer could kill the plant. The fairy slipper orchid is listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which means that any international trade in this species is carefully monitored. Hopefully this may lessen the threat of over-collection. In addition, this species is protected within many parks and reserves throughout its range.

Let’s hope this deceptive little parasite is here for generations of photographers…

Calypso bulbosa-5

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