On Thursday and Friday last week over 40 people gathered to hear John Innes Centre scientist Karen Lee talk about ‘Discovering Carnivores’: the kind that belong to the plant world.
Karen gave her talk in the John Innes Centre Rare Books Room, one of two special rooms built to house the John Innes Foundation Historical Collections. Bringing Karen to the collections provided an opportunity to showcase some of the Centre’s wonderful array of seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century botanical illustrations. The books we displayed included works by John Gerard, Erasmus Darwin and Charles Darwin, and examples of the carnivorous plants pictured in the leading botanical journals of the day (including Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Sowerby’s English Botany, and the weekly horticultural magazine Gardeners’ Chronicle).
These books recall a time when plant hunters across the globe were collecting new ‘insectivorous plants’ for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; specialist nurserymen bought and sold novel seeds and plants, and the well-to-do grew them as curiosities in their hothouses. Carnivorous plants were as much a source of fascination to these earlier generations as they are to us today.
No-one could be more enthusiastic about them than Karen who commented: ‘They seem to turn the natural order around by being able to entice, capture and consume animal prey, when we normally think of plants as passive suppliers of nutrition for the animal world’. She started her talk by introducing different families of carnivorous plant which have cup shaped leaves, from tropical pitcher plants or ‘monkey cups’ (Nepenthes), the trumpet pitchers of North America (Sarracenia), and the Albany pitcher plant (Cephalotus), which only grows in Western Australia, to the more widespread bladderworts (Utricularia), which can be found in many wetland environments.
To watch an Optical Projection Tomography movie of carnivorous plants with cup shaped leaves (including pitcher plants Cephalotus, Sarracenia, Nepenthes and Utricularia bladderworts) click here:
Karen explained the strategies carnivorous plants use to attract and entrap insects. Their weapons include fluorescing surfaces which act like ‘landing lights’ to guide flying insects in and underwater bladders which can create a partial-vacuum to suck the unfortunate water fleas inside.
Karen then talked in more detail about her research at JIC which is on the bladderwort Utricularia gibba, a vigorous wetland inhabitant that will take over your watercourse if you let it. Using special live imaging techniques which show the fine structure of the plants (Optical ProjectionTomography or OPT), together with time-lapse and long-exposure photography, and state-of-the-art mathematical modelling, Karen and her colleagues are capturing leaf shape and growth in 3D to understand the genetic mechanisms controlling leaf development from the earliest stages of growth to maturity. The imagery was indeed impressive, and even more so when we learned that the software to visualise the 3D volumes in transparent structures like the Bladderwort suction traps had taken ten years to develop.
For a movie of Utricularia gibba, click here:
After the talk there was an opportunity to view the display of living carnivorous plant specimens that Karen had brought into the main Library from the John Innes glasshouses and to see the bladders and pitchers under the microscope.
Karen works in Enrico Coen’s lab which is part of John Innes Centre’s research programme in Cell and Developmental Biology. She and co-workers specialise in understanding the genetics behind leaf development. A good way to keep up to date with the project is to visit the ‘Inner Worlds’ website http://innerworlds.jic.ac.uk. The appeal of this site was shown when it featured on the Scientific American blog under the attractive title ‘Carnivorous Plants in 3D: The Stuff of Horror Films!’ http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psi-vid/2013/03/27/carnivorous-plants-in-3d-the-stuff-of-horror-films/. You can also follow Inner Worlds on Twitter https://twitter.com/InnerWorlds1 and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/InnerWorldsJIC
The ‘Discovering Carnivores’ event was part of the Norwich HEART Heritage Open Days which takes place every year in early September across the city (http://www.heritagecity.org/hods/). HEART (Heritage Economic and RegenerationTrust), as the name suggests, is a charitable trust which manages and promotes Norwich and Norfolk’s heritage to attract visitors and give a boost to the local community and economy. The idea behind the Open Days is that the usually locked away pieces of local built heritage and history are opened up for the public to see and enjoy. I don’t think you can underestimate the thrill of gaining access to a hidden property or collection and for many Norfolk residents and visitors this is a highlight of their calendar, one of the things you can look forward to as autumn approaches.
This was our third Norwich HEART event and we hope to open up our Rare Books Room for many more! In our first year (2008) we invited Norwich Blue Badge Guide Barbara Miller to talk about the life and work of Norwich botanist James Edward Smith (1759-1828), a towering figure who brought the immensely valuable plant and research collections belonging to Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus over from Sweden to his home in Surrey Street, Norwich, before founding the Linnaean Society to look after them (http://www.linnean.org/The-Society/aboutus ). We have many fine volumes by Linnaeus and Smith in the John Innes collection. Our second HEART event (2010) featured ‘Tulips at the John Innes: a story of expeditions and discoveries’. We illustrated the talk with photos from our Alfred Daniel Hall archives, and a selection of the many botanical books influenced by the ‘Tulipomania’ which gripped Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This year’s event on carnivorous plants was nevertheless something of a new departure for us because we were connecting up-to-the-minute research from the labs at the John Innes Centre with historical material. I think it worked well but let us know what you think!
Finally, a big ‘thank you’ to Karen Lee and everyone who attended, asked questions and generally made our event a success.