Mining the World of Science for Ideas and Language to Expand Your Poetry

This is based on a talk I’m giving at the 2019 Bay to Ocean Writers conference Saturday, March 9th.

Much like ekphrasis, which uses visual art as a jump off point, science articles offer both unique phenomena and highly specific vocabulary to build the scaffolding of poetry.  And the substructure of ideas provides space for more esoteric, even spiritual explorations that link questions about grand design with the granularity of a narrator’s voice.

In general, science articles provide examples of deep, underlying, non-linear patterns found in nature that can be mined for the bones of ideas that allow space for authentic emotional voice to emerge. And the observational phenomena appeals to the Imagist Poet in me. Scientific vocabulary and the specificity of meaning can be a barrier and a benefit. There’s a fine line between expecting readers to look up words and to learn ideas as part of their engagement with the poem, and locking them out with material that does not invite them into the poem.

During the rewriting and shaping process, I keep returning to the question of accessibility. I often turn to intelligent lay readers for feedback on whether they felt left out of or included in  the poem. I look for unique language and phenomena to weave interesting lines and phrases.

The poem in the example below, published in the The Syzygy Poetry Journal 2015, was sourced from several articles about the science of weather in the upper atmospheric layers. We live with our head down or lack awareness of events beyond the cloud layer. The poem asks what if we were creatures of air? And what does it mean to return to being human by falling to earth? The question has been asked before without the aid of scientific knowledge. The lineation and rhythmic structure supports the sense of being airborne and falling:

A Theory of Air

Gaia’s magnetic field snaps back
displeased at being rubbed
the wrong way.
An aurora borealis pungent
and teeming spills over
the invisible edge.

We are all creatures of air.

Hurricane speed currents plunge
ice crystals down to earth’s surface
as electrostatic discharge
organized in previously unexplored
directions, seeding nimbus dust
with reproducing bacteria
on the troposphere mist.

Our cellular progenitors, we carry
their imprint of sky, engulf
other ephemeral bodies
in symbiont desperation, a reverse
sublimation into mutlicellularity,
Gaia intending our existence
to be a lighter resurfacing
less of the organized, arrogant
tissue we now drag through air.

Another example, published in The Broadkill Review 2015, originated as an investigation into the developmental pattern found in Boneseed lilac (Osteospermum spp.) flowers, and how the elaboration of biological function was tied to a Fibonacci sequence (each number is the sum of the previous two numbers, geometrically creating a nautilus-like shape).

It became a bit of a rabbit hole, pursuing Fibonacci, the mathematician and his effort to popularize Hindu–Arabic numeral system in West, which advocates numeration using digits 0–9 and place value. The math in those cultures had far surpassed western thinkers. Adoption of the new numbering system was transformational.

The worm hole eventually took me into researching Pascal’s contribution to probability theory, specifically, Pascal’s wager – An infinite gain will always outweigh even a finite loss or gain. Therefore, it’s always more rational to bet that God exists.

At some point the poem forced me to pull back so I could understand what I was actually seeing and to create the physical phenomena that would become the structure for the personal narrative to unfold.

Bone Seed Lilac

Poised on this final cusp
of summer, florets settle
into opposing spirals,
tenderly
bleed magenta.

A Fibonacci sequence floats
outward from the zero point,
self-similar
and counting itself into existence.

Osteospermum,
one of the smaller daisy tribes,
reminds us of how
Hindu numbering emerged
elegant and bathed in spectral
light, its wind sway
establishing resonance,
a field pattern negative
of wrens in flight.
The hard decay of its seed
will hint at dark matter,
Pascal’s wager of infinite
loss, our reliance on small
gods of fixed dimension, ignoring
the rhythm of deeply
repeated patterns,
fractal emanations
altering topography so life
might begin again.

At the end of the day, the creative process allowed me to push away from ensuring that everything was scientifically accurate. The song found in the structure and rhythm of the language, the sense of entering into new and potentially sacred space, all this needed to be present, to invite the reader into the adventure of finding out what poem was waiting to emerge.

 

Both of these poems can be found in my book, The Acoustic Properties of Ancient People, published by Finishing Line Press.

Ecological Rational for Multiple, Plant Secondary Compounds

(Gossypium L.)
Image via Wikipedia

As I’ve studied medicinal plants, one intriguing question keeps cropping up – what is the biological rationale for plants investing in several classes of structurally varied plant secondary metabolites?. Certainly this question drives a number of researchers in the field of plant chemical ecology. Edwards et al (2008) provided some striking evidence from their study of bacteria resistant cotton (Gossypium hirsutum).

They detected flavonoid pigments, chrysanthemin and isoquercitin, at unusually high levels in epidermal tissue of young leaves in response to Xanthomonas infection. These cells clustered around infected cells that had died because of the plant’s hypersensitive resistance response.

A very different chemical, a  sesquiterpene, 2,7-dihyroxycadalene, acted as a light activated phytoalexin, destroying both bacteria and the infected plant cell. So what were the flavanoids doing to help out? The presence of the flavanoids in surrounding cells appeared to filter sunlight, limiting the generation of free radicals resulting from light activation of 2,7-dihyroxycadaline. How’s that for compartmentalizing your response to friends and enemies?

Good Wine, Good Fungi

A study of organic soils found that the those associated with organic gardening compared to conventional methods or native grasslands, was very similar in types and diversity of mycorrhizal fungal taxa to that of the native soils. Increasingly, viticulturalists have been promoting the sustainability of using organic techniques over the fungicide heavy approaches of conventional wine management practices, and that this fundamental investment in “terroir” makes better wine. One method is to restore the density and diversity of beneficial, symbiotic fungi in the vineyard soil. These fungi are seriously depleted in soils that have had extensive chemical fertilizers, fungicides or pesticides applied.

Mycorrhizal inoculum applied to new vines plantings and as a dressing to cover crop used to improve nitrogen availability in vineyard soils, associates with the vine roots and  increases both the available levels of organic carbon and the water holding capacity of the surrounding soils. And with healthy vines, and a biological approach to vineyard management in place, the rhizosphere community rich in mycorrhizal fungi can influence the quality of wine produced. 

Gabriele et al. (2016) investigated the effect of mycorrhizal inoculation of various Sangiovese wine grapes. The symbiotic relationships improved the oxidative stability, thus the potential ability of the wine to age, and increased 14 polyphenols compared to un-inoculated plants. The later effect may improve the structure and the flavor profile of the wine.

I’ve asked to join the downstream portion of the research team to investigate the impact of these changes on the consumers experience.

What’s the Best Way to Flirt with Mycorrhizal Fungi?

Signaling molecules from either plant or fungi are perceived by the other using receptors. Many plants monitor their ecosystem for bacteria or fungi using receptor-kinases, which as cell surface proteins activate a signaling cascade in the cell to change it’s function in some way. Research groups continue to unearth various themes on this mechanisms for plant/mycorrhizal communication.

One model, identified Lipochitooligosaccharides (LCO) as signal molecules used by nitrogen fixing bacteria (rhizobia) to alter how plant roots form a symbiotic relationship. Communication using LCOs allows plants to gain nitrogen from soil bacteria and bacteria to gain carbon in the form of plant sugars. Similar molecules are excreted by arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi. This research noted that a mixture of sulphated and non-sulphated lipochitooligosaccharides (LCOs) secreted from the AM fungi, Glomus intraradices, stimulated root branching and growth in the legume Medicago truncatula. Apparently, the diffusible chemicals activated plant root genes that code for a series of receptor kinase. In M. truncatula, rhizobium LCO secretions also stimulate the same symbiotic pathway. The researchers found this signaling effect active in diverse plant species.

In other experiments, scientists found a hydrolase protein (D14L), which functions deep within the cell, modulating plant communication with AM fungi. This receptor had originally been characterized as a receptor for Karrikin, a plant hormone produced when plant material is burned. In species such as eucalyptus and the tobacco family, this hormone detects smoke and stimulates seed germination after fire has decimated an ecosystem. It allows those plants, known as fire chasers, to outcompete in the newly altered environmentWhat is particularly interesting – the same protein is part of early plant developmental interaction with light, and may have played an evolutionary role in plant emergence on to land.

So burn a little incense, light a candle, offer up something sweet and see if your mycorrhizal fungus responds. You don’t need to burn down the entire house!

Outpost Communication

Dr.  Martha Hawes has been a pioneering researcher on plant root border cells. I became fascinated with their role while researching the fungal/plant communication in the rhizosphere of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadendis) during my doctorate. I called her lab hoping someone might speak with me. She answered and spent an hour pointing out important research papers and suggesting approaches I might take to incorporate root border cell research. She was always open to helping anyone with a curious mind and passion for the subject into which she’d immersed her career efforts. I’m grateful to her for showing me generosity and kindness.

Plant root border cells are formed at the root tip where physical and biological interactions occur with the soil and microbe communities. The cells are genetically programmed to separate from the rest of the root structure and from each other. Cell-wall degrading enzymes dissolve cell wall matrix material that holds plant cells together. These “outpost” remain biologically active, excreting proteins and smaller molecules into the surrounding environment. Both types of molecules act as signals turning on/off gene expression to stimulate or prevent the growth of soil-borne bacteria and fungi. One important role appears to be in establishing a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi (see previous post).

Few plants such as the Arabidopsis thaliana, which do not produce root border cells, also do not form mycorrhizal associations. In most plants, the content of border cells are accessible only to microorganisms able to recognize and respond to specific root signals. Among the compounds located in root border cells of various plants, medicinally valuable isoflavonoids modulate stable ecological relationships between mycorrhizal fungi and plant root tissue. These fungi stimulate the production of isoflavonoid in plant root tissue, while simultaneously the isoflavonoids increase mycorrhizal spore germination. The spores are an important survival mechanism used by the fungi. Measuring the activity in root border cells in “real time” as they interact with fungi is one of the great challenges to plant biologists.

Here’s a short video showing the release of border cells from a plant root cap:

More in-depth readings:
Harrison, M. and Dixon, R. (1993) Isoflavonoid accumulation and expression of defense gene transcripts during establishment of vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhizal associations in roots of Medicago truncatula. Mol. Plant Microbe Interact. 6:643-654
Hawes, M,C. et al (1998) Function of root border cells in plant health: Pioneers in the Rhizosphere, Annual Review of Phytopathology, 36:311-327.
Hawes, M.C. et al (2003) Root Caps and Rhizosphere. J. Plant Growth Reg. 21:353.
Kape, R. et al (1992) Legume root metabolites and VA-mycorrhiza development. J. Plant Physiol. 141:54-60.
Phillips D.A. et al (2004) Microbial products trigger amino acid exudation from plant roots. Plant Phys. 136: 2887-2894

The Real Gumbo Recipe

I wanted to follow up requests in response to my post on Spices, and share the gumbo recipe I mentioned. 

It’s my mom’s from her mom, Nannie (Louise P. Curtis)

I’ve used Nannie’s original language

Start with 1 large TBS bacon, ham or sausage drippings in heavy saucepan

Chop 1 pound of okra, 1 large onion, 1 large bell pepper and 5 cloves of garlic

Fry in oil until wilted. Okra will lose stringiness.

Add 1-2 TBS of flour. Cook slowly about 30-45 minutes until okra gets drier.

Add 1 can tomato paste

Add hot seafood water, about 4 cups

Add seafood 1  lb crabmeat and 1 lb peeled shrimp

Add seasonings:

  • 2 drops Tabasco or cayenne pepper
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • a couple of bay leaves
  • chopped celery (1/4 cup)
  • green onions and parsley (optional)

Simmer for about 1 hour over very low fire

Serve over rice

 

Note: I always added olive oil and Louisiana Crystal Hot Sauce and opened a bottle of Jax or two.

 

Plant Root Chemistry is Just an Invitation to Play

Flavonoid Basic Structure

Plants and organisms in the rhizosphere (area of soil surrounding plant roots) are living organisms and part of a complex ecosystem requiring communication skills. Two different classes of compounds are important communicators – flavonoids and strigolactones – both ubiquitous in plants across multiple taxa. Of note, strigolactones were originally detected (Bouwmeester et al.) in plant root exudate stimulating seed germination of parasitic plants (genera Striga and Orobanche). These weedy species parasites host plant roots for nutrients.

Flavonoid basal structures are highly varied, including flavones, flavonols, flavan-3-ols, flavanones, isoflavonoids, isoflavans and pterocarpans. They accumulate at root tips or root cap and makeup a large portion of root exudate. The fact these structures are easily modified and that their biosynthesis can be triggered by a numerous transcription factors points strongly to a role as elicited, signaling compounds. The conversation starters, the deal makers, they patrol the root neighborhood deciding who’s gonna join the party.

Hassan and Mathesius (2012) noted in more technical terms that this localization allows them to influence the rhizosphere environment – increasing the bioavailability of both phosphorous and iron, inducing Rhizobium nod genes (for nitrogen fixation), determining host specificity, and influencing bacterial quorum sensing. They also influence soil  fungi, both parasite and non-parasite, to investigate their environment by stimulating macronidial germination. These are spore structures that allow the fungus to remain in a dormant state until the surrounding soil supports their growth (Ruan et al.). Plants represent nutrient sources – the internal cell structures for parasites, and the substances released from plant root such as carbohydrates, organic acids, and proteins (root exudate) for non-parasitic fungi.

One of the most fascinating chemical conversations involves how both flavonoids and strigolactones trigger AM fungi to investigate the rhizosphere more actively, by stimulating sporulation (breaking out of their dormant state), hyphal branching (similar to send out runners), and root colonization. Interestingly, changes to flavonoid ratios in root exudate can alter the symbiotic relationship and defines how mature the relationship is developmentally.

Metabolic pathways in living organisms require dedicated gene expression. They tend to have been around a long time. Plants originated as aquatic organisms. They had no root systems. The prevalent theory on their terrestrial adaptation suggests that root exudate facilitated symbiosis with AM fungi, which allowed primitive land plants to survive by providing them an early “root system”.

A paper by Delaux et. al. (2012) tested whether the presence of strigolactones in the aquatic green algae lineage may have helped them adapt to and colonize terrestrial environments. The researchers used a bioassay to detect branching of a AM fungus, Gigaspora rosea, to show strigolactones were present in the green algae Charales corallina. They also applied a synthetic strigolactone to C. coralina, which stimulated rhizoid elongation in the algae. Rhizoids were early “root-like” structures. The results beg the question of whether strigolactone biosynthesis predates AM fungal colonization and reinforces the idea that what survives adapts to changes in habitat, since anchoring to land increased the plant’s ability to acquire water and nutrients.

Strigolactones General Chemical Structure

Experiments on potato found that  strigolactone may be involved in resource partitioning by maintaining phosphate and nitrogen homeostasis in plants (Pasare et al., 2013).  Researchers reported that strigolactones enhanced plant association with AM fungi by increased branching of the AM hyphae (Giovannetti et al.). We see the effect of this type of chemical conversation, both internally within the plant and externally, with the fungus, to stimulate exploration.

Strigolactones do also play a role as a plant hormone and appear to regulate axillary growth, lateral branching, and decreased apical dominance (Delavault et al.). This mimics the biological impact on fungi and suggestions that plants explore their aerial environment of air and sunlight.

Rasmussen et al. (2012) noted the ability of strigolactones to impact root exploration in plants, limiting adventitious rooting by inhibiting the initial formative divisions of founder cells. These phenomena may point to the plant directing both the timing and directionality of new root growth in response to the presence/absence of appropriate soil symbionts.

So then, what triggers strigolactone or flavonid secretions? What’s the chemical cross talk originating from the fungal side of the conversation?