Jen’s amazing lotus flower (research)

Lotus open 1

The beautiful and amazing sacred lotus flower is of great cultural and religious significance throughout Asia. Nearly all parts of the plant are used in various Asian cuisines, the self-cleaning leaves have inspired modern engineering innovations, and it’s seeds have incredible longevity, some have even germinated when over1000 years old. One more trait makes the sacred lotus exceptional: it’s flowers can generate heat, and even maintain a constant temperature, just like warm-blooded animals. Ancient Hindu writings make many references to the sacred lotus and many Asian deities are depicted seated on a lotus flower.

Associate Professor Jennifer Watling, Head of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Adelaide, which houses the Environment Institute, has been studying the physiology of the sacred lotus and other plants. If you get the opportunity to speak with Jen about her work for any length of time you will come away inspired by her passion for exploring a deep understanding of some of the amazing life-support systems in the plant world. I have had the privilege of working on a small film project with Jen and ‘her amazing lotus flower’ stories. I have become totally enchanted by her tales about ‘thermogenesis’ – the way the lotus flower can generate heat and regulate it’s own temperature, in an almost human way.

Lotus pond 1            Lotus pond 2
Wading-Mike & Jen Watling2

Research by Jen and her collaborators into the pathways which drive thermogenesis in plants has resulted in many papers, some of which have graced the covers of significant journals. This research shows that the ‘alternative pathway of respiration’ is used for thermogenesis by these plants and is absolutely foundational to our understanding of these types of mechanisms in all living things (including us!). Even more interesting are some of the stories which emerged when I asked ‘why might plants regulate their temperature’?

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Many of the theories as to why a plant might benefit from an ability to regulate temperature (up to 40 deg C above ambient) involve pollinators in a ‘birds and bees’ kind of way. The notion of a ‘thermal reward’ to the small bugs that crawl into the flower is rather interesting. The reward might be the cozy feeling of a warm hug or a warm place to spend the night in return for sexual favours. You could think of this as a bit like a ‘beetle nightclub’ in which the beetles crawl inside a warm, scented flower, and are treated to an all night party as the flower closes and temperatures rise. This is an area of research that deserves much more attention and support in my opinion. Heat is also likely to assist in the transmission of the scents which attract pollinators. Of course, heat is also useful in surviving the harsh effects of low temperatures on plants. Another area where more research is required is in understanding exactly how these plants sense the temperature they have become so good at regulating.


Fundamental scientific research on the physiology of plants by Jen, her collaborators and others who work in this area, is an important foundation for understanding not just how individual plants work, but also how plants influence our lives. From these foundations we can begin to understand similar mechanisms in all living things – including humans. There are implications for improved healthcare and innovations in seemingly un-related fields. The amazing properties of plants have long inspired religious writings of cultural significance and can now be examined and mimicked to create all sorts of products from medicines to self cleaning windows. Now do you see why I say “Jen’s amazing lotus flower?”.

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Made the comver of Plant Physiology April 2006 vol. 140 no. 4 1367-1373
“Contribution of the Alternative Pathway to Respiration during Thermogenesis in Flowers of the Sacred Lotus” Link:
Made cover of Journal of Experimental botany, Vol 59, No 3, 2008 doi: 10.1093/jxb/erm333 “Synchronicity of thermogenic activity, alternative pathway respiratory flux, AOX protein content, and carbohydrates in receptacle tissues of sacred lotus during floral development” Link:
New Phytologist: In the heat of the night – alternative pathway respiration drives thermogenesis in Philodendron bipinnatifidum – Miller – 2011 – New Phytologist – Wiley Online Library New Phytologist, 189: 1013–1026

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More Images:
Guest Post by Mike Seyfang, if you would like to contribute as a guest blogger on The Environment Institute Blog email

Biodiversity ‘Arks’ – anatomy of a Nature paper

Guest post by Mike Seyfang. Mike is a media coordinator with the University of Adelaide.

This special edition ‘Talking Paper’ takes a look behind the scenes at the PROCESS of crafting a Nature paper (with 216 Authors). So, what is the big deal about getting your science published in Nature? For many researchers it is a career highlight. For some it can be the launch of a stellar career. For an already distinguished scientist like lead author Prof. William F. Laurance, it can re-enforce a position of world leadership in a significant area of research. With some clever wording (e.g. ‘Biodiversity Arks’) and a little promotion, it may be possible to track the influence of your work as it reverberates through the global media, is talked about online and maybe even influences the tone of twitter for a short while! Follow this up with some discussion and engagement in online platforms like ‘the conversation’ to further broaden the reach and impact of your life’s work.

Thanks to the Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide, I was able to spend an hour or so chatting with Professors Corey Bradshaw and Bill Laurance about the process underlying the publication, the motivation behind the years of work leading up to it and some of the key analaysis and findings. Even though my screen recording software failed, I am able to bring you the following fifteen minute video from that conversation.

Bill and Corey begin by introducing the basic idea of the paper “to look at the effectiveness of protected areas – the cornerstone of our preservation efforts”. A key motivation was to find out what is really going on at ground level, something that is not able to be determined from the vast amounts of satellite data that is currently available.


This work is based on two hundred and sixty two expert interviews which seek to extract and objectify years of knowledge from experts around the world. Corey and Bill discuss the joy and pain of getting the interviews done, fights over words, working with interview data the idea of BAD “Best Available Data”. Bill explains that getting all these people together and leading the endeavour was like herding cats. Scientists are trained to disagree, examine, pull-apart and ask questions. Work began when Bill was at the Smithsonian institute in Panama. There he had a well resourced team to get things started. “Substantial person power” is required for an endeavour like this one.

Corey played a significant role by performing quantitative analysis on interview data.  A whole bunch of information and over three thousand five hundred comparisons had to be distilled down into a nature paper “because those are just a couple of thousand words”. One of the key findings of the research is the importance of threats around protected areas. It was surprising “just how much of what happens outside of the park affects the inside of the park, regardless of the size of the park”.


Bill says “I Don’t know how else one could have tackled this kind of analysis”, where decades of work by (each of) hundreds of experts was gathered and analysed. He explains that it was hard work, and he is relived to see it accepted by Nature and will be pleased to have it see the light of day.

So, if you are considering a career in Science or Communicating Science, go back and look at the video again and ask yourself some questions like:

  • How did a scientist from the University of Adelaide get involved with research like this?
  • How did Prof Laurance get so many people to contribute to his research?
  • What did it take to persuade one of the world’s top journals to publish this work?
  • How many years of detailed learning is summarised in this paper?
  • Can I see myself leading an effort like this?

Hopefully some of you will be inspired to think about a career in science, or at least catch some of the infectious enthusiasm that I certainly felt as I spoke with Bill and Corey in preparing this article for you.

Guest Post by Mike Seyfang, if you would like to contribute as a guest blogger on The Environment Institute Blog email

Talking Papers: Bison Epigenetics – a new tool to study rapid adaption to environmental change

Guest post by Mike Seyfang. Mike is a media coordinator with the University of Adelaide.

Recent work from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) has attracted a lot of media attention with headlines such as “Ancient bison bones hold climate clues”, “How stressed bison got around the dictates of DNA” and “Bisons adapted to climate change”. I caught up* with Alan Cooper (Director ACAD) to find out what all the fuss was about and learned a lot more than I had expected in the process. It turns out that this area of research examines certain modified DNA bases that can control whether genes are turned on or off, and provide a means for adaptive traits to be stably inherited from one generation to the next. In effect, this provides a means for species to rapidly adapt to environmental change and ACAD researchers set out to see whether these  ‘epigenetic markers’ are also preserved after death and can be measured in extinct species. The work described in the paper “High-Resolution Analysis of Cytosine Methylation in Ancient DNA” gives scientists a new tool for probing mechanisms which have allowed populations to adapt rapidly to changed environments in ancient history. If you need a quick introduction to terms like ‘epigenetics’, ‘methylation’ take a peek at the definitions section at the bottom of this article.

The study of Ancient DNA brings with it many challenges. I asked Alan – “exactly how does one get one’s hands on a thirty thousand year old specimen of bison DNA?”. As he explains in this short (2:33) video:

Fieldwork in the Yukon region (Klondike goldfields) is amazing. In a harsh environment surrounded by ice, brown bears and dynamite the trick is to convince gold miners to let you crawl around picking up bits and pieces lying among freshly unearthed gold“. Judging by the smile on Alan’s face as he re-counts these adventures it is obvious he really enjoys the field work of collecting specimens of ancient DNA.



The next set of challenges will sound familiar to people who spend a lot of time working in labs. “it took us 6 bison to find one that contained good enough quality DNA” … then “the technique we use is to destroy everything except what you are looking for in tiny samples where you hardly have anything to begin with“. Currently, the standard technique maps cytosine bases that have been epigenetically modified with a methyl CH3 group by using a chemical that destroys all normal cytosines and leaves only the modified bases.  Alan describes this process as like looking for a needle in a haystack with a few clues to start with and the added challenge of being limited to a small number of attempts. Some of the clues were obtained by using a cow as a proxy for the bison. Studying methylation patterns in DNA from ‘fresh bovine tissue’ provided important clues about what to look for and where in the genetic sequence. Even with these clues the task was difficult because researchers didn’t know that the methyl group would still be there from 30-40 thousand years ago. There was some good fortune in this project, the team could see methylated bases and that they were often associated with 50/50 (half methylated, half not) signaling. This is encouraging because it is what you expect for a trait inherited from two parents, one epigenetically modified, one not. Soon, with the aid of new next generation sequencers, it will be possible to make equivalent measurements in real time, without destroying the sample.

A further challenge for this work was getting the paper published -“The medical people measure epigenetics but evolutionists aren’t really that interested“. It took about a year of getting bounced around from publisher to publisher to find a journal where anyone could be convinced that the study of epigenetics in (ancient) DNA was important.

In conclusion, Cooper and team have given researchers a new tool to examine how epigenetic markers (methylation patterns) change through time in response to climate and other environmental changes.  The next steps will be to refine the tools available through incorporation of next generation sequencing technology. Then it will be possible to take the method forward and study whole populations, measuring them as they go through extreme events such as the ‘last Galacial Maximum’ and asking questions such as ‘how do animals and populations adapt?’. We now have a way to measure a means of rapid adaption, we need to go out and get the funding to examine how this works in large numbers of Bison across space and time. As Cooper says, funding applications are the next step in the long line of science. Science that can give us answers to some of the really big questions we will face as our own environment changes with ever increasing speed.

Audio recording of full interview.

Some definitions:

Epigenetics: (video) the study of heritable changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence. In the words of the researchers: “Interposed between genes and environment, epigenetic modifications can be influenced by environmental factors to affect phenotype for multiple generations.”

Methylation: (video)

A methyl group (CH3) attached to something. When many cytosine bases are methylated genes can be turned off, a form of epigenetics.

Bison: (video) large ‘cow’ like creature , modern species include the American Plains and Woods Bison.

Bases: a group of nitrogen-based molecules that are required to form nucleotides, the basic building blocks of DNA and RNA. Nucleobases provide the molecular structure necessary for the hydrogen bonding of complementary DNA and RNA strands, and are key components in the formation of stable DNA and RNA molecules.

C’s: Carbon atoms.

Lamark (Lamarkian evolution):  see also “science in seconds” and this article.

Last Galacial Maximum: a period in the Earth‘s climate history when ice sheets were at their maximum extension, roughly between 23,000 and 18,000 years ago.



Environment Institute blog post

Some of the press:

Media: collectionimages more images

The paper

Guest Post by Mike Seyfang, if you would like to contribute as a guest blogger on The Environment Institute Blog email

Renewable energy powers SA councils

Listen to a case study presented by Roy Ramage.

The The City of Victor Harbor has recently launched a Research and Development program with the Environment Institute’s Centre for Energy Technology. This program will examine and produce a hybrid wind/solar energy system to be used for street lighting in Victor Harbor area. This comes in the wake of a solar panel rollout by the council in an effort to reduce the dependence on traditional energy sources. The City of Victor Harbor has enabled over 900 households to install solar panels via the Community Purchase of Renewable Energy Program (C-PREP) with the aid of ZEN Home Energy Systems.

At today’s Local Government Renewable Energy Forum, Mike Young, the Director of the Environment Institute along with members of the Centre for Energy Technology gave a panel discussion on the options for renewable energy sources and what the future holds for such technologies. The Economic Development Officer for the City of Victor Harbor, Roy Ramage, gave a talk on how the Victor Harbor Council is implementing and using renewable energies to power the area and the Centre’s role in producing the technology.

This symbiosis between the University and the City of Victor Harbor will aid in the development of relevant and applicable renewable energy solutions. These solutions are vital, if we want to reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy sources.

Roy Ramage and Jordan Parham

Roy Ramage from the City of Victor Harbor and Jordan Parham from the Environment Institute at the Local Government Renewable Energy Forum

yecsa – goodies from SA youth environment conference

The Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide are pleased to be involved with the South Australian Youth Environment Conference. This blog post contains goodies prepared and published on day one of the conference.

Podcast of Prof Mike Young at the conference dinner.


Photos from the day are beginning to appear

making paper


If you search twitter for ‘yecsa’ you will find some conversations about the event.

Peak Oil and Climate Change

Learn about Professor Kjell Aleklett’s vision for a transition to a new future in the face dwindling fossil fuel supplies.

Professor Aleklett is cofounder and current president of ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, he organized the first ever International Workshop on Oil Depletion in May 2002 at Uppsala University.

In 2005 Professor Aleklett was asked to give testimony on Peak Oil before the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. In 2007 he was asked to write a report for the OECD about future global oil production to serve as a background document for the first International Transport Forum in Leipzig, in May, 2008.

This seminar was held at the University of Adelaide’s North Terrace Campus on Friday June 5th, 2009.