How Breadfruit Can Solve Global Hunger

In a world where hundreds of millions of people are malnourished, there can be no shortage of proposed solutions that should be considered. Perhaps the most interesting I have heard yet involves a relatively obscure tropical plant from the Pacific Islands. As NPR reports:

A traditional staple in Hawaii, breadfruit is sometimes called the tree potato, for its potato-like consistency when cooked. Except breadfruit has higher-quality protein and packs a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals.

That’s why Ragone has spent years trying to cultivate this nutrient-rich staple for poorer, tropical parts of the world, where the majority of the world’s hungriest people live.

Breadfruit offers several advantages over other staples, says [Diane] Ragone [of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Breadfruit Institute]. The fast-growing perennial trees require far less labor, fertilizer and pesticides than crops like rice and wheat. They’re also more productive. A single tree yields an average of 250 fruits a year and can feed a family for generations.

If mass produced, breadfruit could provide a steady source of nutritious food for farmers and their families, and supplement their incomes.

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The Lazarus Plant

According to the New York Times, a team of Russian scientists has revived an ancient plant species from seeds that had been preserved in the Siberian permafrost for tens of thousands of years.  Apparently, they succeeded in extracting a tissue-culture and growing it in vitro in a laboratory. Though the plant species still exists, the older specimen may yield some fascinating insights into evolution and speciation.

The researchers published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The age of the seeds is estimated to be between 30,000 to 32,000 years old, making this the oldest organism ever to be “resurrected.” The team recovered them from burrows located very deep beneath the Siberian tundra, some of which contained as many as 600,000 seeds. They were gathered and stored by an ancient species of ground squirrel whose prolific collecting may yet yield more well-preserved samples of other ancient plants.

As of this post, the developments are still ongoing. It remains to be seen if this plant can successfully propagate, or if it will be viable for long. If anyone wants more detailed and expert information on the significance of this finding, I direct you to a great post in Why Evolution Is Trufrom biologist Jerry Coyne.

You can also read one of my earlier posts on yet another plant that was resurrected in a similar way. Though nowhere near as ancient, it was actually extinct until very recently.

Kryzwy Las: The Crooked Forest

I came across this image during some casual browsing through Facebook. It’s amazing what neat things you can stumble upon during such a seemingly unproductive activity. This forest is like nothing I’ve seen before: otherwise average pine tress that have grown into an unusual shape, despite being surrounded by normal specimens.

This fascinating and aptly named “Crooked Forest” (or Kryzwy Las in Polish), is today located in Western Poland – though it was planted in the 1930s back when the area was part of German Pomerania. It consists of about 400 such trees that have apparently been made to grow this way through human intervention, though how or why remains a mystery.

Interestingly, one friend of mine remarked on seeing similar trees around a nuclear facility in Russia. I initially would have assumed some sort of radioactive or chemical effect was responsible, but this forest’s emergence pre-dates anything capable of that. Another respondent noted how magnetism often influences the orientation of other living things, and that perhaps some highly magnetic anomaly is behind this.

Upon doing some minor research – there wasn’t much to find – I discovered that they were likely allowed to grow for 7 to 10 years before tree farmers kept then down. Perhaps its the same horticultural technique used to shape lucky bamboo and other plants – though that would take quite a lot of time, skill, and patience.  Again, why they went through the trouble to do this is unknown, but for all we know they just thought it’d be neat or something.

Which it very much is. The feedback I received upon sharing the first image was surprisingly enthusiastic. I merely expected some casual interest, but a lot of people were enamored by it. The peculiarities of nature or human aesthetics can be a captivating thing, even if it seems simple or minute in scale. I’m heartened to know I’m far from alone in being awed by the “little things” in life (of course, that’s why all the respondents are my friends).

As one friend of mine put it, the unusual curvature of the trees is like something out of Dr. Seuss. Another friend and fellow bibliophile noted how one could read on them – which, come to think of it, seems like a neat thing to do.

In fact, I think I’ll seriously chalk that up as something to do one of these days, given that I’ve always wanted to go to Poland anyway (plus, who how many people could say they’ve seen these trees in real life, let alone read on them?).

The Resurrection of the Judean Date Palm

In lieu of the many more topical events that I could write about,  I’ve decided to make a brief post about a rather interesting – and comparatively more lighthearted – scientific discovery.

Below is a picture of some seeds of the Judean Date Palm, a plant native to Israel.

I should say, was native to Israel – this variety of date palm has been extinct for around 2,000 yeas. It was once prolific throughout ancient Judea (today’s Israel and Palestine), with thick forests towering up to 80 feet long and stretching for miles; the entire Jordan River valley was blanketed by them from the Sea of Galilee in the north, to the shores of Dead Sea in the south. The palms were a defining characteristic of the landscape, as well as the people that lived there: Judean palms were taken up a symbols of the Kingdom of Judea, and even the Romans, upon conquering the area, minted new coins bearing the symbol in commemoration of their conquest. The trees may even have been indirectly referenced in Biblical literature several times.

Historical records also show that they were more than just symbols of state and beauty (the Jews called them tamar, loosely translated to mean elegant and graceful). The palms were said to bear among the most delicious and nutritious fruit in the region, such that even Pliny the Elder, a famed naturalist and author at the time, was said to take notice of them. They provided a source of food, raw materials for shelter, and shade – all of which were crucial in a harsh and dry environment. They were said to bear medicinal properties as well, including the curing of various diseases and infections, treatments for tumors, and even acting as a mild aphrodisiac. Needless the say, the plant was a stable of Judea’s economy, thanks to it’s useful properties and exquisite fruit.

Alas, it appeared the Romans contributed to wiping it out anywhere from 150AD to 500AD, though it’s hard to be sure if this is true, or how it happened. The Judean palm would be just another long-dead  form of life, nothing to cry about or even notice after nearly two millenniums.

Then, in the mid-1960s, excavations at Herod the Great’s palace revealed an ancient jar full of preserved seeds. They’d been isolated in a dry and protected locations for centuries, and were confirmed to have been around from at least 64AD, if not sooner. They were stored at a university for around 40 years until 2005, when some researches decided to give them a go following some pre-treatment in a special fertilizer solution. The end result:

Isn't it cute?

Only one of the seeds sprouted, but since this picture was taken just a few years ago, it’s thrived and is currently around six feet. Scientists are hoping it will bear fruit soon, so as to allow the species to be re-introduced into its old habitat (and no doubt to sample it’s supposedly delectable dates, and perhaps check if those properties aren’t all hype).

Maybe I’m putting a bit more attention into this topic than it merits, but I can’t help but feel intrinsically excited about a living thing being, well, brought to life. The fact that something extinct could still have a slim chance at being resurrected really fascinates me, especially as modern science may allow for us to accomplish this more than we could’ve imagined. Indeed, an article in the New York Times last year explored the possibility of bringing back dead species – including Mammoths – through clones. If seeing a tree spring to life from centuries old seeds is exiting, imagine a real-life woolly mammoth (practical implications aside).