Scientists discover a new flower of Shetland

Media captionThe flower is thought to have developed in the last 200 years

Scientists have discovered a brand new flower in Shetland.

It is a beauty.

A delicate golden bell of a flower, its throat flecked with tiny, blood-red spots – colours echoing the Lion Rampant.

It is a discreet beauty, though. Each flower is only slightly larger than a 50p piece.

Discreet and unique, because this is a new flower of Scotland. Or, more precisely, Shetland.

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Each flower is slightly larger than a 50p piece

The flower was discovered by a team from Stirling’s department of biological and environmental sciences led by post-doctoral researcher Dr Violeta Simon-Porcar, working with associate professor Dr Mario Vallejo-Marin at Stirling and Dr James Higgins at Leicester University.

It is being referred to as “Shetland’s monkeyflower”, because it is larger and its flowers are more open than previous monkeyflowers.

Its ancestor was a non-native species introduced to the British Isles just a couple of centuries ago, probably from Alaska.

It was the period in which – not content with possessing large chunks of the globe – Britain tried to bring home much of its flora and fauna.

The results were mixed but the yellow monkeyflower – mimulus guttatus – literally took root and spread rapidly.

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The flower was discovered by the side of the road near Lerwick

Then on Shetland something unusual happened. Mimulus guttatus doubled the number of its chromosomes.

It is a process known as genome duplication or polyploidy.

There lies the reason why the Shetland Monkeyflower has a bigger flower with a wider throat than its ancestors.

A disarmingly simple reason, really: if you have twice as many chromosomes you need bigger cells in which to keep them.

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Shetland Monkeyflower has a bigger flower with a wider throat than its ancestors.

Genome duplication is a common phenomenon in the history of flowering plants.

Many crops – like potatoes, tobacco and coffee – are polyploids.

But that duplication typically takes place far back in evolutionary history. For mimulus guttatus it happened in what is, on the evolutionary timescale, the blink of an eye: well under 200 years ago.

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Dr Vallejo-Marin says it is a major evolutionary step

Dr Vallejo-Marin, who specialises in the evolution of plants, says: “Evolution is often thought to be a slow process taking thousands or millions of years.

“Yet we show that a major evolutionary step can occur in less than a couple of hundred years.”

The new plant was discovered by chance during fieldwork near Quarff, south of Lerwick.

The team measured the size of the plant’s genome and surveyed 30 populations of monkeyflowers from Shetland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The plants were then grown under controlled conditions and their characteristics were measured to compare the effect of their duplicated genome.

The researchers carried out genetic analyses to investigate the relationship between the new plant and other similar populations in Shetland.

Genome duplication seems to be particularly common in hybrids between different species. But the new plant has doubled its genome without hybridisation – it has the same species as both its father and mother.

The team says a new polyploid plant like this represents an opportunity to investigate the early stages of an important evolutionary process.

Dr Vallejo-Marin says: “Human activities are transporting all sorts of animal and plant species well beyond their native habitats.

“This raises the possibility that non-native species may increasingly participate in major biological processes, including the formation of new types of plants and animals.”

  • The paper “Recent autopolyploidisation in a wild population of Mimulus guttatus (phrymaceae)” has been published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

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Radioactive ‘pooh sticks’ trace carbon’s ocean journey

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Scientists say iodine traces from Sellafield have travelled to the waters off Bermuda

Radioactive iodine from nuclear reprocessing plants in the UK and France has been detected deep in the waters near Bermuda.

Scientists say the contaminants take a circuitous route travelling via the Arctic Ocean and down past Greenland.

Researchers believe the radioactivity levels are extremely low and present no danger.

However, scientists can use the iodine to accurately map the currents that transport greenhouse gases.

Legally released

One scientific consequence that arose from the testing of nuclear bombs in the atmosphere in the 1950s was that their radioactive fallout provided a powerful global tracer of water circulation and deep-ocean ventilation.

Other sources of radioactive material for scientists to track water movements have been the nuclear reprocessing plants at Sellafield in the UK and at La Hague in France.

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Nuclear waste has been vitrified and stored at the La Hague nuclear fuel reprocessing plant

Contaminants have been legally released from these sites for more than 50 years. One in particular, Iodine-129 (129I), has been very useful for scientists tracing the ocean currents that help pull down greenhouse gases into the waters.

“What we have found is that by tracing radioactive iodine released into the seas off the UK and France, we have been able to confirm how the deep ocean currents flow in the North Atlantic,” said lead researcher Dr John Smith from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, in Canada.

“This is the first study to show precise and continuous tracking of Atlantic water flowing northward into the Arctic Ocean off Norway, circulating around the arctic basins and returning to the Nordic seas in what we call the ‘Arctic loop’, and then flowing southward down the continental slope of North America to Bermuda at depths below 3000 metres.”

Scientists have used other molecules as tracers, specifically chlorofluorocarbons that were once used in refrigeration. But 129I, which has a half-life of 15.7 millions years, retains the initial imprint of its input history over a long period of time.

Another advantage for researchers is that 129I is relatively easy to detect at extremely low levels.

“In many ways this is a bit like the old ‘stick in a stream’ game we used to play as kids,” said Dr Smith.

“What people call ‘pooh sticks’ in England, where you would drop a buoyant object in the water and observe where it comes out. Of course, it would be much better if these markers were not in the ocean at all, but they are, and we can use them to do some important environmental science.”

This new study is part of an international project called GEOTRACES that uses geochemical markers to follow ocean currents.

The scientists say that 129I has been measured as far south as Puerto Rico, but the expectation is that it will continue to flow southward into the South Atlantic and eventually spread throughout the global ocean.

“The advantage of using 129I as a transient tracer in oceanography is the long half-life of this isotope compared to the circulation times, and the fact that it is largely soluble in seawater,” said Dr NĂºria Casacuberta Arola from ETH, Zurich, who wasn’t involved with the study.

“Now, major efforts are also devoted to find other artificial radionuclides with similar sources and behaviour than 129I so that the more tools we have, the better we will understand the ocean circulation.”

The research has been presented at the Goldschmidt2017 conference in Paris.

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Fracking: Shale rock professor says UK gas reserves ‘hyped’

Cuadrilla exploratory drilling siteImage copyright

The gas reserves in shale rocks in the UK have been “hyped”, an academic said.

Professor John Underhill from Heriot-Watt University said the UK’s potential shale deposits were likely to have been disrupted by shifts in the earth 55 million years ago.

He said the government would be wise to formulate a Plan B to fracking for future gas supplies.

But the fracking firm Cuadrilla said it would determine how much gas was present from its test drilling.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale, a sedimentary rock found worldwide.

The amount of shale gas available in the UK is acknowledged to be a great unknown.

Cuadrilla said estimates from the British Geological Survey (BGS) indicated a large potential gas reserve.

But Prof Underhill said his research on the influence of tectonic plates on the UK suggested that the shale formations have been lifted, warped and cooled by tectonic action.

These factors make shale gas production much less likely.

“The complexity of the shale gas basins hasn’t been fully appreciated so the opportunity has been hyped,” he told the BBC.

Big US deposits

This is very different from the US, where big deposits of shale gas were created in the continental heart of America, far from the movement of tectonic plates.

Prof Underhill’s comments are based on an unpublished paper on tectonics. He said he deduced the impact on shale formations by chance.

He said: “I’m neutral about fracking, so long as it doesn’t cause environmental damage. But the debate is between those who think fracking is dangerous and those who think it will help the economy – and no-one’s paying enough attention to the geology.

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Prof Underhill said UK shale basins had been partly formed by magma under Iceland

Prof Underhill said: “For fracking to work, the shale should be thick enough, sufficiently porous, and have the right mineralogy. The organic matter must have been buried to a sufficient depth and heated to the degree that it produces substantial amounts of gas or oil.”

Iceland magma

Professor Underhill said the UK had been tilted strongly by tectonic movement caused by an upward surge of magma under Iceland.

This subsequently led the shale gas basins to buckle and lift, so areas that were once buried deep with high temperatures which generated oil and gas, were then lifted to levels where they were no longer likely to generate either.

The basins were also broken into compartments by folds which created pathways that have allowed some of the oil and gas to escape, he said.

A spokesman for the BGS said it could not comment formally on Prof Underhill’s comments as it had not done the research.

‘Very large potential’

Cuadrilla’s technical director Mark Lappin told the BBC: “We have noted the BGS estimates for gas-in-place and consider that volume to be indicative of a very large potential reserve.

“It’s the purpose of our current drilling operations to better understand the reserve, reduce speculation from all sides and decide if and how to develop it.

“I expect Professor Underhill would be supportive of the effort to understand the resource including geological variation.”

The government’s opinion tracker showed public support for fracking has fallen to 16%, with opposition at 33%. But it also reported a lack of knowledge of the technology, with 48% of people neither supporting nor opposing it.

Professor Richard Davies, from Newcastle University, told BBC News: “It’s correct to say geology could yet surprise the companies who are investing. But the bottle neck, I think, is how many wells one can drill economically in a small space in the UK.

“Shale gas wells in the USA produce very small volumes of gas (2-6 billion cubic feet of gas each), and therefore thousands would be needed to impact on our reliance on imports.

“The BGS estimated resources in Northern England of 1,327 trillion cubic feet (2012). I estimated it would require c. 52,000 wells to produce 10% of this.”

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

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© Warren Fyfe