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Communicating uncertainty about climate change

By | Climate change, News, Science communication | No Comments

The ways climate scientists explain their predictions about the impact of global warming can either promote or limit their persuasiveness.

The more specific climate scientists are about the uncertainties of global warming, the more the American public trusts their predictions, according to new research by Stanford scholars.

But scientists may want to tread carefully when talking about their predictions, the researchers say, because that trust falters when scientists acknowledge that other unknown factors could come into play.

In a study in Nature Climate Change, researchers examined how Americans respond to climate scientists’ predictions about sea level rise. They found that when climate scientists include best-case and worst-case case scenarios in their statements, the American public is more trusting and accepting of their statements. But those messages may backfire when scientists also acknowledge they do not know exactly how climate change will unfold.

“Scientists who acknowledge that their predictions of the future cannot be exactly precise and instead acknowledge a likely range of possible futures may bolster their credibility and increase acceptance of their findings by non-experts,” said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford professor of communication and of political science and a co-author on the paper. “But these gains may be nullified when scientists acknowledge that no matter how confidently they can make predictions about some specific change in the future, the full extent of the consequences of those predictions cannot be quantified.”

Effects of communicating uncertainty

Predicting the future always comes with uncertainty, and climate scientists routinely recognize limitations in their predictions, note the researchers.

“In the context of global warming specifically, scientific uncertainty has been of great interest, in part because of concerted efforts by so-called ‘merchants of doubt’ to minimize public concern about the issue by explicitly labeling the science as ‘uncertain,’” said Lauren Howe, who was a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford when she conducted the research with Krosnick and is first author on the paper.

“We thought that, especially in this critical context, it was important to understand whether expressing uncertainty would undermine persuasion, or whether the general public might instead recognize that the study of the future has to involve uncertainty and trust predictions where that uncertainty is openly acknowledged more than those where it is minimized,”

Howe said.

To better understand how the public reacts to scientists’ messages about the uncertainties of climate change, the researchers presented a nationally representative sample of 1,174 American adults with a scientific statement about anticipated sea level rise.

Respondents were randomly assigned to read either a prediction of the most likely amount of future sea level rise; a prediction plus a worst-case scenario; or a robust prediction with worst-case and best-case scenarios, for example: “Scientists believe that, during the next 100 years, global warming will cause the surface of the oceans around the world to rise about 4 feet. However, sea level could rise as little as 1 foot, or it could rise by as much as 7 feet.”

The researchers found that when predictions included a best-case and worst-case scenario, it increased the number of participants who reported high trust in scientists by 7.9 percentage points compared with participants who only read a most likely estimate of sea level rise.

Changes in environmental policies, human activities, new technologies and natural disasters make it difficult for climate scientists to quantify the long-term impact of a specific change – which scientists often acknowledge in their predictions, the researchers said. They wanted to know if providing such well-intended, additional context and acknowledging complete uncertainty would help or hurt public confidence in scientific findings.

To find out, the researchers asked half of their respondents to read a second statement acknowledging that the full extent of likely future damage of sea level rise cannot be measured because of other forces, such as storm surge: “Storm surge could make the impacts of sea level rise worse in unpredictable ways.”

The researchers found that this statement eliminated the persuasive power of the scientists’ messages. When scientists acknowledged that storm surge makes the impact of sea level rise unpredictable, it decreased the number of participants who reported high trust in scientists by 4.9 percentage points compared with the participants who only read a most likely estimate of sea level rise.

The findings held true regardless of education levels and political party affiliation.

Not all expressions of uncertainty are equal, Howe said: “Scientists may want to carefully weigh which forms of uncertainty they discuss with the public. For example, scientists could highlight uncertainty that has predictable bounds without overwhelming the public with the discussion of factors involving uncertainty that can’t be quantified.”

Read the paper: Nature Climate Change

Article source: Stanford University

Author: Melissa De Witte

Image credit: Jody Davis / Pixabay

Photosynthesis olympics: can the best wheat varieties be even better?

By | Agriculture, News, Plant Science | No Comments

Scientists have put elite wheat varieties through a sort of “Photosynthesis Olympics” to find which varieties have the best performing photosynthesis. This could ultimately help grain growers to get more yield for less inputs in the farm.

“In this study we surveyed diverse high-performing wheat varieties to see if their differences in photosynthetic performance were due to their genetic makeup or to the different environments where they were grown,” said lead researcher Dr Viridiana Silva-Perez from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis (CoETP).

The scientists found that the best performing varieties were more than 30 percent better than the worst performing ones and up to 90 percent of the differences were due to their genes and not to the environment they grew in.

“We focused on traits related to photosynthesis and found that some traits behaved similarly in different environments. This is useful for breeders, because it is evidence of the huge potential that photosynthesis improvement could have on yield, a potential that hasn’t been exploited until now,” says Dr Silva-Perez.

During the study, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Botany, the scientists worked in Australia and Mexico, taking painstaking measurements in the field and inside glasshouses.

“The results that we obtained from our “Photosynthesis Olympics”, as we like to call them, are very exciting because we have demonstrated that there is scope to make plants more efficient, even for varieties working in the best conditions possible, such as with limited water and fertiliser restrictions. This means for example, that breeders have the potential to get more yield from a plant with the same amount of nitrogen applied,” says CoETP Director Professor Robert Furbank, one of the authors of this study.

Photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert sunlight, water and CO2 into organic matter – is a very complex process involving traits at different levels, from the molecular level, such as content of the main photosynthetic enzyme Rubisco, to the leaf, such as nitrogen content in the leaf and then to the whole canopy.

“This work is an important result for the CoETP, which aims to improve the process of photosynthesis to increase the production of major food crops such as wheat, rice and sorghum. There is a huge amount of collaboration, both institutional and interdisciplinary, that needs to take place to achieve this type of research. Without the invaluable cooperation between statisticians, plant breeders, molecular scientists and plant physiologists, we would have never achieved these results,” says co-author Tony Condon from CSIRO and the CoETP.

Read the paper: Journal of Experimental Botany

Article source: Arc Centre Of Excellence For Translational Photosynthesis

Author: Natalia Bateman

Image credit: Dr Viridiana Silva-Perez/COETP

Utricularia-gibba-quadrifids-scalea-615x340

Carnivorous plant study captures universal rules of leaf making

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Leaves display a remarkable range of forms from flat sheets with simple outlines to the cup-shaped traps found in carnivorous plants.

A general question in developmental and evolutionary biology is how tissues shape themselves to create the diversity of forms we find in nature such as leaves, flowers, hearts and wings.

Study of leaves has led to progress in understanding the mechanisms that produce the simpler, flatter forms. But it’s been unclear what lies behind the more complex curved leaf forms of carnivorous plants.

Previous studies using the model species Arabidopsis thaliana which has flat leaves revealed the existence of a polarity field running from the base of the leaf to the tip, a kind of inbuilt cellular compass which orients growth.

To test if an equivalent polarity field might guide growth of highly curved tissues, researchers analysed the cup-shaped leaf traps of the aquatic carnivorous plant Utricularia gibba, commonly known as the humped bladderwort.

The team of Professor Enrico Coen used a combination of 3D imaging, cell and clonal analysis and computational modelling to understand how carnivorous plant traps are shaped.

These approaches showed how Utricularia gibba traps grow from a near spherical ball of cells into a mature trap capable of capturing prey.

By measuring 3D snapshots of traps at various developmental stages and exploring computational growth models they showed how differential rates and orientations of growth are involved.

The team used fluorescent proteins to monitor cellular growth directions and 3D imaging at different developmental stages to study the changing shape of the trap.

The computational modelling used to account for oriented growth invokes a polarity field comparable to that proposed for Arabidopsis leaf development, except that here it propagates within a curved sheet.

Analysis of the orientation of quadrifid glands, which in Utricularia gibba are used for nutrient absorption, confirmed the existence of the hypothesised polarity field.

The study which appears in the Journal PLOS Biology concludes that simple modulation of mechanisms underlying flat leaf development can also account for shaping of more complex 3D shapes.

One of the lead authors Karen Lee said, “A polarity field orienting growth of tissue sheets may provide a unified explanation behind the development of the diverse range of leaves we find in nature.”

The study, done in collaboration with the group of Minlong Cui at Zhejiang University in China

Read the paper: PLOS Biology

Article source: John Innes Centre

Image credit: Karen Lee, Yohei Koide, John Fozard and Claire Bushell.

tomatoes

A symbiotic boost for greenhouse tomato plants

By | Agriculture, News, Plant Science | No Comments

The colonization of tomato plants with a beneficial desert root fungus protects against effects of salt stress.

Use of saline water to irrigate crops would bolster food security for many arid countries; however, this has not been possible due to the detrimental effects of salt on plants. Now, researchers at KAUST, along with scientists in Egypt, have shown that saline irrigation of tomato is possible with the help of a beneficial desert root fungus. This represents a new key technology for countries lacking water resources. 

“Salt in irrigation water is one of the most significant abiotic stresses in arid and semiarid farming,” says former KAUST postdoc Mohamed Abdelaziz, who worked on the project team alongside Heribert Hirt. “Improving plant salt tolerance and increasing the yield and quality of crops is vital, but we must achieve this in a sustainable, inexpensive way.”

The root fungus Piriformospora indica forms beneficial symbiotic relationships with many plant species, and previous research indicates it boosts plant growth under salt stress conditions in barley and rice. While initial studies suggest the fungus can improve growth in tomato plants under long-term saline irrigation, the mechanisms behind the process are unclear. Also, little is known about the fungal-plant interaction throughout the entire growing season.  

“Plant salt tolerance is a complex trait influenced by many factors,” says Abdelaziz. “The salt-tolerance mechanism depends on the correct activation of salt tolerance genes, stresses on cell membranes and the buildup of toxic sodium ions. We monitored growth performance over four months in tomato plants colonized with P. indica and in an untreated control group, both grown commercial style in greenhouses. We examined genetic and enzymatic responses to salt stress in both groups.” 

The main threat to plants under salt stress is the buildup of sodium ions, which affects plant metabolism, and leaf and fruit growth. For example, excessive sodium in shoots and roots disrupts levels of potassium, which is vital for multiple growth processes from germination to enzyme activation. 

The team showed that colonization by P. indica increased the expression of a gene in leaves called LeNHX1, one of a family of genes responsible for removing sodium from cells. Furthermore, potassium levels in leaves, shoots and roots of the P. indica group were higher than in controls. P. indica also increased levels of antioxidant enzyme activity, offering further protection. 

“Colonization with P. indica boosted tomato fruit yield by 22 percent under normal conditions and 65 percent under saline conditions,” says Abdelaziz. “Colonizing vegetables provides a simple, low-cost method suitable for all producers, from smallholders to large-scale farming.”

Read the paper: Scientia Horticulturae

Article source: KAUST

Image credit: Capri23auto / Pixabay

stoma

How Plants React to Fungi

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Plants are under constant pressure from fungi and other microorganisms. The air is full of fungal spores, which attach themselves to plant leaves and germinate, especially in warm and humid weather. Some fungi remain on the surface of the leaves. Others, such as downy mildew, penetrate the plants and proliferate, extracting important nutrients. These fungi can cause great damage in agriculture.

The entry ports for some of these dangerous fungi are small pores, the stomata, which are found in large numbers on the plant leaves. With the help of specialised guard cells, which flank each stomatal pore, plants can change the opening width of the pores and close them completely. In this way they regulate the exchange of water and carbon dioxide with the environment.

Chitin covering reveals the fungi

The guard cells also function in plant defense: they use special receptors to recognise attacking fungi. A recent discovery by researchers led by the plant scientist Professor Rainer Hedrich from Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg in Bavaria, Germany, has shed valuable light on the mechanics of this process.

“Fungi that try to penetrate the plant via open stomata betray themselves through their chitin covering,” says Hedrich. Chitin is a carbohydrate. It plays a similar role in the cell walls of fungi as cellulose does in plants.

Molecular details revealed

The journal eLife describes in detail how the plant recognizes fungi and the molecular signalling chain via which the chitin triggers the closure of the stomata. In addition to Hedrich, the Munich professor Silke Robatzek from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität was in charge of the publication. The molecular biologist Robatzek is specialized in plant pathogen defense systems, and the biophysicist Hedrich is an expert in the regulation of guard cells and stomata.

Put simply, chitin causes the following processes: if the chitin receptors are stimulated, they transmit a danger signal and thereby activate the ion channel SLAH3 in the guard cells. Subsequently, further channels open and allow ions to flow out of the guard cells. This causes the internal pressure of the cells to drop and the stomata close – blocking entry to the fungus and keeping it outside.

Practical applications in agricultural systems

The research team has demonstrated this process in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress). The next step is to transfer the findings from this model to crop plants. “The aim is to give plant breeders the tools they need to breed fungal-resistant varieties. If this succeeds, the usage of fungicides in agriculture could be massively reduced,” said Rainer Hedrich.

Read the paper: eLife

Article source: University of Würzburg

Author:  Robert Emmerich

Image credit: Michaela Kopischke