Plant Genes May Lack Off Switch, But Have Volume Control

By Jenna Gallegos

Scientists at the University of California, Davis have discovered that DNA sequences thought to be essential for gene activity can be expendable. Sequences once called junk sometimes call the shots instead.

Jenna Gallegos with an Arabidopsis plant. Arabidopsis thaliana or "thale cress" is a popular plant for laboratory studies.

Jenna Gallegos with an Arabidopsis thaliana plant. Sometimes called “thale cress,” Arabidopsis is a popular plant for laboratory studies.

Professor Alan Rose has been working for over two decades to unravel a mechanism called “intron-mediated enhancement.” I’m a graduate student in Rose’s lab, and we made an exceptional discovery in an unexceptional plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress.

Gene Salad: Lettuce Genome Assembly Published

Represents Most Successful Group of Flowering Plants 

By Pat Bailey

Today (April 12), UC Davis researchers announced in Nature Communications that they have unlocked a treasure-trove of genetic information about lettuce and related plants, releasing the first comprehensive genome assembly for lettuce and the huge Compositae plant family.

Lettuce flower

Lettuce belongs to a large Compositae family of plants. A lettuce flower shows the similarity to plants such as ragweed and sunflowers. (Gregory Urquiaga)

Garden lettuce, or Lactuca sativa, is the plant species that includes a salad bar’s worth of lettuce types, ranging from iceberg to romaine. With an annual on-farm value of more than $2.4 billion, it is the most valuable fresh vegetable and one of the 10 most valuable crops, overall, in the United States.

Bring On The Bats (And Birds And Raptors)

By Katherine Ingram

Spring is in the air in California’s Central Valley. Birds are bathing in puddles that dot the landscape, and bats are swooping in and out of streetlights at dusk. Both groups of wildlife are feasting on bugs emerging after this winter’s epic rains.

Bat

Bats are voracious predators of insects. Photo of Pallid bat by merlintuttle.org

The sight is a pleasant reminder of the abundance of wildlife that lives alongside us, performing tasks that inadvertently aid humans, such as natural pest control, pollination, and seed dispersal.

Soil Microbes to Help African Farmers Fight Striga

Sorghum is the fifth most important cereal in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, many farmers rely on this grain for food and feed. But Striga, a parasitic weed, can have a devastating impact on crop yield. With a grant of $8 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an international team including UC Davis researchers will now explore the potential of soil microbes to offer crop protection. The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) is coordinating the five-year project.

Striga on sorghum field

A sorghum field infested with Striga (purple flowers). The parasitic plant destroys up to half of Africa’s sorghum crop. (Taye Tessema, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research)

Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Soil Microbiome

By Lisa Howard

Soil Actually Has a Microbiome

Gut bacteria have been getting a lot of attention lately (yogurt, anyone?) but it turns out the soil in your own back yard is teeming with microbial life. According to Kate Scow, a professor of soil science and microbial ecology at UC Davis, a quarter teaspoon of soil can easily contain a billion bacterial cells. And she estimates there can be 10,000 to 50,000 different taxa of microbes in a single teaspoon. Soil is one of the most complex and diverse ecosystems on the planet, and it is one that is essential for human life through all the functions it provides: the breakdown of organic materials, food production, water purification, greenhouse gas reduction, and pollution cleanup, just to name a few.

Honey Bee Genetics Sheds Light on Bee Origins

Where do honey bees come from? A new study from researchers at the University of California, Davis and UC Berkeley clears some of the fog around honey bee origins. The work could be useful in breeding bees resistant to disease or pesticides.

A foraging honeybee. Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey.

A foraging honeybee. Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey.

UC Davis postdoctoral researcher Julie Cridland is working with Santiago Ramirez, assistant professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, and Neil Tsutsui, professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley, to understand the population structure of honey bees (Apis mellifera) in California. Pollination by honey bees is essential to major California crops, such as almonds. Across the U.S., the value of “pollination services” from bees has been estimated as high as $14 billion.

10-cent DryCard to Help Farmers Keep Harvest Safe From Mold

Molds that contaminate dry foods, especially ground nuts and maize cause significant postharvest losses in the developing world.  Mold contamination results in poor flavor, loss of dry matter, and most importantly, is a health hazard.  Aflatoxin, produced by several fungi, contaminates up to one quarter of the world’s food crops and is a particular problem in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. It causes acute poisoning, liver cancer and is associated with stunting and suppression of the immune system.  It is estimated to cause about 100,000 cases of liver cancer per year and a world-wide loss of 1-2 million daily adjusted life years per year.

Wheat Gene Database is Tool for Improved Yield and Nutrition

By Ann Filmer

Plant scientists and wheat breeders now have a new tool to develop more nutritious and productive wheat varieties: A public online database of 10 million mutations in wheat genes. Scientists at UC Davis and three institutions in the UK created the database, which will allow scientists worldwide to study the function of every gene of wheat. The research will be reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

UC Davis Plant Sciences Professor, Jorge Dubcovsky is working to improve the yield and nutritional value of wheat, one of the world's most important crops.

UC Davis Plant Sciences Professor, Jorge Dubcovsky is working to improve the yield and nutritional value of wheat, one of the world’s most important crops.

Livestock and Climate Change: Facts and Fiction

Dairy cows eat hay

Holstein cows eat lunch at the Dairy Cattle Facility at UC Davis. Credit: Gregory Urquiaga, UC Davis

By Frank Mitloehner

As the November 2015 Global Climate Change Conference COP21 concluded in Paris, 196 countries reached agreement on the reduction of fossil fuel use and emissions in the production and consumption of energy, even to the extent of potentially phasing out fossil fuels out entirely.

Both globally and in the U.S., energy production and use, as well as the transportation sectors, are the largest anthropogenic contributors of greenhouse gasses (GHG), which are believed to drive climate change. While there is scientific consensus regarding the relative importance of fossil fuel use, anti animal-agriculture advocates portray the idea that livestock is to blame for a lion’s share of the contributions to total GHG emissions.

Not so sweet: Why Pollinators Forage on Toxic or Bitter Nectar

Audio: Listen to this story on our podcast, Three Minute Egghead. 

By Kathy Keatley Garvey

Nectar doesn’t always taste so sweet, but honeybees and other pollinators still feed on it. Now UC Davis community ecologist Rachel Vannette has discovered why pollinators continue to forage on “toxic” or bitter-tasting nectar, despite what should be a deterrent.

In newly published research in the journal Ecology, Vannette notes that floral nectar is produced by many plants to reward pollinators, but this sugary secretion often contains chemical compounds that are bitter tasting or toxic, which should deter pollinators. Plants including citrus, tobacco (Nicotiana), milkweed (Asclepias), turtlehead (Chelone), Catalpa, and others produce nectar containing bioactive or toxic compounds.