- Discuss the roles that plants play in ecosystems
Without seed plants, life as we know it would not be possible. Plants play a key role in the maintenance of terrestrial ecosystems through stabilization of soils, cycling of carbon, and climate moderation. Large tropical forests release oxygen and act as carbon dioxide sinks. Seed plants provide shelter to many life forms, as well as food for herbivores, thereby indirectly feeding carnivores. Plant secondary metabolites are used for medicinal purposes and industrial production.
Animals and Plants: Herbivory
Coevolution of flowering plants and insects is a hypothesis that has received much attention and support, especially because both angiosperms and insects diversified at about the same time in the middle Mesozoic. Many authors have attributed the diversity of plants and insects to pollination and herbivory, or consumption of plants by insects and other animals. This is believed to have been as much a driving force as pollination. Coevolution of herbivores and plant defenses is observed in nature. Unlike animals, most plants cannot outrun predators or use mimicry to hide from hungry animals. A sort of arms race exists between plants and herbivores. To “combat” herbivores, some plant seeds—such as acorn and unripened persimmon—are high in alkaloids and therefore unsavory to some animals. Other plants are protected by bark, although some animals developed specialized mouth pieces to tear and chew vegetal material. Spines and thorns (Figure 1) deter most animals, except for mammals with thick fur, and some birds have specialized beaks to get past such defenses.
Herbivory has been used by seed plants for their own benefit in a display of mutualistic relationships. The dispersal of fruit by animals is the most striking example. The plant offers to the herbivore a nutritious source of food in return for spreading the plant’s genetic material to a wider area.
An extreme example of collaboration between an animal and a plant is the case of acacia trees and ants. The trees support the insects with shelter and food. In return, ants discourage herbivores, both invertebrates and vertebrates, by stinging and attacking leaf-eating insects.
Animals and Plants: Pollination
Grasses are a successful group of flowering plants that are wind pollinated. They produce large amounts of powdery pollen carried over large distances by the wind. The flowers are small and wisp-like. Large trees such as oaks, maples, and birches are also wind pollinated.
More than 80 percent of angiosperms depend on animals for pollination: the transfer of pollen from the anther to the stigma. Consequently, plants have developed many adaptations to attract pollinators. The specificity of specialized plant structures that target animals can be very surprising. It is possible, for example, to determine the type of pollinator favored by a plant just from the flower’s characteristics. Many bird or insect-pollinated flowers secrete nectar, which is a sugary liquid.
They also produce both fertile pollen, for reproduction, and sterile pollen rich in nutrients for birds and insects. Butterflies and bees can detect ultraviolet light. Flowers that attract these pollinators usually display a pattern of low ultraviolet reflectance that helps them quickly locate the flower’s center and collect nectar while being dusted with pollen (Figure 2). Large, red flowers with little smell and a long funnel shape are preferred by hummingbirds, who have good color perception, a poor sense of smell, and need a strong perch. White flowers opened at night attract moths. Other animals—such as bats, lemurs, and lizards—can also act as pollinating agents. Any disruption to these interactions, such as the disappearance of bees as a consequence of colony collapse disorders, can lead to disaster for agricultural industries that depend heavily on pollinated crops.
Testing Attraction of Flies by Rotting Flesh Smell
Question: Will flowers that offer cues to bees attract carrion flies if sprayed with compounds that smell like rotten flesh?
Background: Visitation of flowers by pollinating flies is a function mostly of smell. Flies are attracted by rotting flesh and carrions. The putrid odor seems to be the major attractant. The polyamines putrescine and cadaverine, which are the products of protein breakdown after animal death, are the source of the pungent smell of decaying meat. Some plants strategically attract flies by synthesizing polyamines similar to those generated by decaying flesh and thereby attract carrion flies.
Flies seek out dead animals because they normally lay their eggs on them and their maggots feed on the decaying flesh. Interestingly, time of death can be determined by a forensic entomologist based on the stages and type of maggots recovered from cadavers.
Hypothesis: Because flies are drawn to other organisms based on smell and not sight, a flower that is normally attractive to bees because of its colors will attract flies if it is sprayed with polyamines similar to those generated by decaying flesh.
Test the hypothesis:
- Select flowers usually pollinated by bees. White petunia may be good choice.
- Divide the flowers into two groups, and while wearing eye protection and gloves, spray one group with a solution of either putrescine or cadaverine. (Putrescine dihydrochloride is typically available in 98 percent concentration; this can be diluted to approximately 50 percent for this experiment.)
- Place the flowers in a location where flies are present, keeping the sprayed and unsprayed flowers separated.
- Observe the movement of the flies for one hour. Record the number of visits to the flowers using a table similar to Table 1. Given the rapid movement of flies, it may be beneficial to use a video camera to record the fly–flower interaction. Replay the video in slow motion to obtain an accurate record of the number of fly visits to the flowers.
- Repeat the experiment four more times with the same species of flower, but using different specimens.
- Repeat the entire experiment with a different type of flower that is normally pollinated by bees.
|Table 1. Results of Number of Visits by Flies to Sprayed and Control/Unsprayed Flowers|
|Trial #||Sprayed Flowers||Unsprayed Flowers|
Analyze your data: Review the data you have recorded. Average the number of visits that flies made to sprayed flowers over the course of the five trials (on the first flower type) and compare and contrast them to the average number of visits that flies made to the unsprayed/control flowers. Can you draw any conclusions regarding the attraction of the flies to the sprayed flowers?
For the second flower type used, average the number of visits that flies made to sprayed flowers over the course of the five trials and compare and contrast them to the average number of visits that flies made to the unsprayed/control flowers. Can you draw any conclusions regarding the attraction of the flies to the sprayed flowers?
Compare and contrast the average number of visits that flies made to the two flower types. Can you draw any conclusions about whether the appearance of the flower had any impact on the attraction of flies? Did smell override any appearance differences, or were the flies attracted to one flower type more than another?
Form a conclusion: Do the results support the hypothesis? If not, how can this be explained?
The Importance of Seed Plants in Human Life
Seed plants are the foundation of human diets across the world (Figure 3). Many societies eat almost exclusively vegetarian fare and depend solely on seed plants for their nutritional needs. A few crops (rice, wheat, and potatoes) dominate the agricultural landscape. Many crops were developed during the agricultural revolution, when human societies made the transition from nomadic hunter–gatherers to horticulture and agriculture. Cereals, rich in carbohydrates, provide the staple of many human diets. Beans and nuts supply proteins. Fats are derived from crushed seeds, as is the case for peanut and rapeseed (canola) oils, or fruits such as olives. Animal husbandry also consumes large amounts of crops.
Staple crops are not the only food derived from seed plants. Fruits and vegetables provide nutrients, vitamins, and fiber. Sugar, to sweeten dishes, is produced from the monocot sugarcane and the eudicot sugar beet. Drinks are made from infusions of tea leaves, chamomile flowers, crushed coffee beans, or powdered cocoa beans. Spices come from many different plant parts: saffron and cloves are stamens and buds, black pepper and vanilla are seeds, the bark of a bush in the Laurales family supplies cinnamon, and the herbs that flavor many dishes come from dried leaves and fruit, such as the pungent red chili pepper. The volatile oils of flowers and bark provide the scent of perfumes. Additionally, no discussion of seed plant contribution to human diet would be complete without the mention of alcohol. Fermentation of plant-derived sugars and starches is used to produce alcoholic beverages in all societies. In some cases, the beverages are derived from the fermentation of sugars from fruit, as with wines and, in other cases, from the fermentation of carbohydrates derived from seeds, as with beers.
Seed plants have many other uses, including providing wood as a source of timber for construction, fuel, and material to build furniture. Most paper is derived from the pulp of coniferous trees. Fibers of seed plants such as cotton, flax, and hemp are woven into cloth. Textile dyes, such as indigo, were mostly of plant origin until the advent of synthetic chemical dyes.
Lastly, it is more difficult to quantify the benefits of ornamental seed plants. These grace private and public spaces, adding beauty and serenity to human lives and inspiring painters and poets alike.
The medicinal properties of plants have been known to human societies since ancient times. There are references to the use of plants’ curative properties in Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chinese writings from 5,000 years ago. Many modern synthetic therapeutic drugs are derived or synthesized de novo from plant secondary metabolites. It is important to note that the same plant extract can be a therapeutic remedy at low concentrations, become an addictive drug at higher doses, and can potentially kill at high concentrations. Table 2 presents a few drugs, their plants of origin, and their medicinal applications.
|Table 2. Plant Origin of Medicinal Compounds and Medical Applications|
|Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna )||Atropine||Dilate eye pupils for eye exams|
|Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)||Digitalis||Heart disease, stimulates heart beat|
|Yam (Dioscorea spp.)||Steroids||Steroid hormones: contraceptive pill and cortisone|
|Ephedra (Ephedra spp.)||Ephedrine||Decongestant and bronchiole dilator|
|Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia)||Taxol||Cancer chemotherapy; inhibits mitosis|
|Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)||Opioids||Analgesic (reduces pain without loss of consciousness) and narcotic (reduces pain with drowsiness and loss of consciousness) in higher doses|
|Quinine tree (Cinchona spp.)||Quinine||Antipyretic (lowers body temperature) and antimalarial|
|Willow (Salix spp.)||Salicylic acid (aspirin)||Analgesic and antipyretic|
Biodiversity of Plants
Biodiversity ensures a resource for new food crops and medicines. Plant life balances ecosystems, protects watersheds, mitigates erosion, moderates climate and provides shelter for many animal species. Threats to plant diversity, however, come from many angles. The explosion of the human population, especially in tropical countries where birth rates are highest and economic development is in full swing, is leading to human encroachment into forested areas. To feed the larger population, humans need to obtain arable land, so there is massive clearing of trees. The need for more energy to power larger cities and economic growth therein leads to the construction of dams, the consequent flooding of ecosystems, and increased emissions of pollutants. Other threats to tropical forests come from poachers, who log trees for their precious wood. Ebony and Brazilian rosewood, both on the endangered list, are examples of tree species driven almost to extinction by indiscriminate logging.
The number of plant species becoming extinct is increasing at an alarming rate. Because ecosystems are in a delicate balance, and seed plants maintain close symbiotic relationships with animals—whether predators or pollinators—the disappearance of a single plant can lead to the extinction of connected animal species. A real and pressing issue is that many plant species have not yet been catalogued, and so their place in the ecosystem is unknown. These unknown species are threatened by logging, habitat destruction, and loss of pollinators. They may become extinct before we have the chance to begin to understand the possible impacts from their disappearance. Efforts to preserve biodiversity take several lines of action, from preserving heirloom seeds to barcoding species. Heirloom seeds come from plants that were traditionally grown in human populations, as opposed to the seeds used for large-scale agricultural production. Barcoding is a technique in which one or more short gene sequences, taken from a well-characterized portion of the genome, are used to identify a species through DNA analysis.
In Summary: The Role of Seed Plants
Angiosperm diversity is due in part to multiple interactions with animals. Herbivory has favored the development of defense mechanisms in plants, and avoidance of those defense mechanism in animals. Pollination (the transfer of pollen to a carpel) is mainly carried out by wind and animals, and angiosperms have evolved numerous adaptations to capture the wind or attract specific classes of animals.
Plants play a key role in ecosystems. They are a source of food and medicinal compounds, and provide raw materials for many industries. Rapid deforestation and industrialization, however, threaten plant biodiversity. In turn, this threatens the ecosystem.