De Aardappeleters / The Potato Eaters.

Every dog has its day

One of the great hopes of the 1980s (and as far back as the 1940s) was that one plant species would be typical of all plants and could be used as a model for the entirety of plant biology. The plant chosen for that singular honour was thale cress – Arabidopsis thaliana (e.g. Maarten Koornneef and David Meinke). In today’s more enlightened times, we now recognise that this tiny, weedy, short-lived member of the cabbage family is not the one-stop answer to all things rooted and photosynthetic. Accordingly, many plant species have been sought and exploited as models for different aspects of plant biology.

De Aardappeleters / The Potato Eaters.
De Aardappeleters / The Potato Eaters. Vincent Van Gogh / Wikipedia

Now, proudly added to that growing list are Solanum morelliforme and S. clarum. Why? Shelley Jansky et al. propose these two taxa as model species for study of the phenomenon of epiphytism.

An epiphyte is a plant that “grows harmlessly upon another plant (such as a tree)”. Epiphytes are therefore not rooted in the soil, from which medium more typical land plants extract water and nutrients using their roots. Although epiphytism might seem out of the ordinary, it’s a way of life that’s been adopted by almost 10% of vascular plants. This aerial existence – that is far removed from the norm and our familiar concepts of plants and how they interact with their surrounding such as the soil – challenges our views of plant biology gained from ‘model’ species like that non-epiphyte Arabidopsis. Understanding how such plants get their essential inputs – such as water and nutrients – is an intellectually-interesting question. But, it’s also a pressing issue as we contemplate a future where both water and nutrient availability – and humans’ and crops’ more efficient use of both – are major concerns. Study of epiphytism therefore requires an appropriate model organism.

However, recognising that the epiphyte lifestyle involves many differences from typical land plants, Jansky et al. nominate use of these two Solanum spp. specifically for investigating mineral uptake efficiency of epiphytes. And, in support of their suggestion, they cite such favourable properties as the species’ short life cycles (as befits 3-year funding regimes of PhDs..?), their ability to be propagated via tubers or cuttings (to bulk up clonal, replicated material…), and the ease with which they can be grown in controlled environments (to permit proper experimental investigation…).

Recognising also that transgenic manipulations and somatic fusions will allow the movement of genes from these epiphytes to cultivated potato (Solanum tuberosum), may we one day envisage our orchard trees to be decorated with dangling aggregations of potato tubers (like so many bunches of grapes *)? Well, you never know the heights to which research will take you! And that ‘arboriponics’ would release large areas of the soil for growth of other crops…


* But suitably protected to prevent their greening and containing harmful levels of glycoalkaloids, such as solanine

[Ed. – as interesting as that is, the real Solanum news story must surely be the newly-described species Solanum ossicruentum, whose name was “chosen with the help of 150 seventh grade life science students from Pennsylvania, USA”. Although, an even more intriguing newly-named plant taxon is the subgenus Jamesbondia in the Amaranthaceae (the amaranth and goosefoot family) described by Ivonne Sánchez-del Pino and Duilio Iamonico. Sadly, there are only four species in that group, not the 007 we’d love to see!]

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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