Botany is the scientific study of plant life. As a branch of biology, it is also sometimes referred to as plant science(s) or plant biology. Botany covers a wide range of scientific disciplines that study the growth, reproduction, metabolism, development, diseases, and evolution of plants.
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Scope and motivation of botany
As with other life forms in biology, plant life can be studied at a variety of levels, from the molecular, genetic and biochemical level through organelles, cells, tissues, organs, individuals, plant populations, and communities of plants. At each of these levels a botanist might be concerned with the classification (taxonomy), structure (anatomy), or function (physiology) of plant life.
Historically, botanists studied all organisms that were not generally regarded as animal. Some of these "plant-like" organisms include: fungi (studied in mycology); bacteria and viruses (studied in microbiology); and algae (studied in phycology). Most algae, fungi, and microbes are no longer considered to be in the plant kingdom. However, attention is still given to them by botanists; and bacteria, fungi, and algae are usually covered, somewhat superficially, in introductory botany courses.
So why study plants? Plants are an utterly fundamental part of life on earth. They generate the oxygen, food, fibres, fuel and medicine that allow higher life forms to exist. While doing all this, plants also absorb carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas, through photosynthesis. A good understanding of plants is crucial to the future of our society as it allows us to:
- Feed the world
- Understand fundamental life processes
- Utilise medicine and materials
- Understand environmental changes
Feed the world
Virtually all of the food we eat comes from plants, either directly from staple foods and other fruit and vegetables, or indirectly through livestock which rely on plants for fodder. In other words, plants are at the base of nearly all food chains, or what ecologists call the first trophic level. Understanding how plants produce the food we eat is therefore important to be able to feed the world and provide food security for future generations, for example through plant breeding. Not all plants are beneficial to humans, weeds are a considerable problem in agriculture and botany provides some of the basic science in order to understand how to minimise their impact. Ethnobotany is the study this and other relationships between plants and people.
Understand fundamental life processes
Plants are convenient organisms in which fundamental life processes (like cell division and protein synthesis for example) can be studied, without the ethical dilemmas of studying animals or humans. The genetic laws of inheritance were discovered in this way by Gregor Mendel who was studying the way pea shape is inherited. What Mendel learnt from studying plants has had far reaching benefits outside of botany.
Other important discoveries in plants have had a large impact on biology. Barbara McClintock is famous for discovering 'jumping genes' by studying maize. Less well known is her pioneering work on maize cytogenetics that led her to hypothesize the existence of telomere sequences at the end of chromosomes. Due to the high levels of DNA methylation in plants and its association with jumping genes, research in epigenetic inheritance has a long tradition in plant biology and has helped scientists understand imprinting in animals. In fact, both telomeres and epigenetics are now huge areas of interest due to the importance and relevance to animal cloning. More recently, work on gene silencing and the discovery of siRNA molecules in plants led to a whole new area of research in RNA interference (RNAi). These are a few examples that demonstrate how botanical research has an ongoing relevance to the understanding of fundamental biological processes.
Utilise medicine and materials
Many of our medicinal and recreational drugs, like cannabis, caffeine and nicotine come directly from the plant kingdom. Aspirin, which originally came from the bark of willow trees, is just one example. There may be many novel cures for diseases provided by plants, waiting to be discovered. Popular stimulants like coffee, chocolate, tobacco and tea also come from plants. Most alcoholic beverages, come from fermenting plants such as hops and grapes.
Plants also provide us with many natural materials: cotton, wood, paper, linen, vegetable oils, some types of rope and rubber are just a few examples that we often take for granted. The production of silk would not be possible without the cultivation of the mulberry plant. Sugarcane and other plants have recently been put to use as sources of biofuels which are important alternatives to fossil fuels.
These are just a handful of examples showing how plant life provides humanity with important medicine and materials.
Understand environmental changes
Plants can also help us understand changes in on our environment in many ways.
- Understanding habitat destruction and species extinction is dependent on an accurate and complete catalogue of plants provided systematics and taxonomy.
- Plant responses to ultraviolet radiation can help us monitor problems like the holes in the ozone layer.
- Analysing pollen deposited by plants thousands or millions of years ago can help scientists to reconstruct past climates and predict future ones, an essential part of climate change research.
- Recording and analysing the timing of plant life cycles is an important part of phenology used in climate change research.
- Lichens, which are sensitive to atmospheric conditions, have been extenisvely used as pollution indicators
So in many different ways, plants can act a bit like the 'miners canary', an early warning system alerting us to important changes in our environment. In addition to these practical and scientific reasons, plants are extremely valuable as recreation for millions of people who enjoy gardening, horticultural and culinary uses of plants everyday. Botanists also argue that botany is fascinating and rewarding topic of study in its own right.
Modern botany (since 1945)
A considerable amount of new knowledge today is being generated from studying model plants like Arabidopsis thaliana. This mustard weed was one of the first plants to have its genome sequenced. Other more commercially important plants like rice, wheat, maize and soybean are also having their genomes sequenced, although some of these are more challenging because they have more than two haploid (n) sets of chromosomes, a condition known as polyploidy. The "Green Yeast" Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (a single-celled, green alga) is another plant model organism that has been extensively studied and provided important insights into cell biology.
Early botany (before 1945)
Among the earliest of botanical works, written around 300 BC, are two large treatises by Theophrastus: On the History of Plants (Historia Plantarum) and On the Causes of Plants. Together these books constitute the most important contribution to botanical science during antiquity and on into the Middle Ages. The Roman medical writer, Dioscorides, provides important evidence on Greek and Roman knowledge of officinal plants.
In 1665, using an early microscope, Robert Hooke discovered cells in cork; a short time later in living plant tissue. The German Leonhart Fuchs, the Swiss Conrad von Gesner, and the British authors Nicholas Culpeper and John Gerard, published herbals that gave information on the officinal uses of plants.
- Agriculture, horticulture, forestry and soil science
- Ethnobotany, paleobotany and dendrochronology
- Plants, trees, fruit, and vegetables
- Herbs and spices
- Plant sexuality
- Seeds, germination and stratification.
- List of vegetables, list of flowers, list of domesticated plants
- List of botanists and list of botanical gardens
- Botany Bay
- List of plant science research institutions
- Important publications in botany
- List of botanical journals
Popular science style books on Botany
- Bellamy, D Bellamy on Botany, ISBN 0563106662 an accessible and short introduction to various botanical subjects
- Capon, B: Botany for Gardeners ISBN 0881926558
- Cohen, J. How many people can the earth support? W.W. Norton 1995 ISBN 0393314952
- Pakenham, T: Remarkable Trees of the World (2002) ISBN 0297843001
- Pakenham, T: Meetings with Remarkable Trees (1996) ISBN 0297832557
- Pollan, M The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the World Bloomsbury ISBN 0747563004 Account of the co-evolution of plants and humans
- Thomas, B.A.: The evolution of plants and flowers St Martin's Press 1981 ISBN 0312272715
- Walker, D. Energy, Plants and Man ISBN 1870232054 A presentation of the basic concepts of photosynthesis
Academic and Scientific books on Botany
- Agrios, G. N. (1997). Plant pathology. 4th ed. Academic Press. ISBN 012044564
- Blankenship, R.E. (2002) Molecular mechanisms of photosynthesis. Blackwell Science ISBN 0632043210
- Briggs, D. & Walters, S. M. Plant variation and evolution 3rd ed. C.U.P. 1997 ISBN 0521459184
- Buchanan, B.B., Gruissem, W & Jones, R.L. (2000) Biochemistry & molecular biology of plants. American Society of Plant Physiologists ISBN 0943088399
- Crawford, R. M. M. (1989). Studies in plant survival. Blackwell. ISBN 063201475X
- Crawley, M. J. (1997). Plant ecology. Blackwell Scientific. ISBN 0632036397
- Ennos, R and Sheffield, E Plant life, Blackwell Science, ISBN 0865427372 Introduction to plant biodiversity
- Fitter, A & Hay, R Environmental physiology of plants 3rd edition Sept 2001 Harcourt Publishers, Academic Press ISBN 0122577663
- Howell, S. (1998) Molecular genetics of plant development Cambridge University Press 1998 ISBN 0521587840
- Hull,R. (ed) Matthews' plant virology. 4th ed. Harcourt Academic Press, October 2001. ISBN 0123611601
- Lawlor, D.W. (2000) Photosynthesis BIOS ISBN 1859961576
- Marschner, H. (1995). Mineral nutrition of higher plants. 2nd ed. Academic Press. ISBN 0124735436
- Matthews, R. E. F. Fundamentals of plant virology Academic Press,1992.
- Mauseth, J.D.: Botany : an introduction to plant biology. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, ISBN 0763721344 – A first year undergraduate level textbook
- Nobel, P. S. Physiochemical and environmental plant physiology AcademicPress 1999. ISBN 0125200250
- Raven, P.H, Evert R.H and Eichhorn, S.E: Biology of Plants, Freeman. ISBN 1572590416 – A first year undergraduate level textbook
- Richards, P. W. (1996). The tropical rainforest. 2nd ed. C.U.P. (Pbk) ISBN 0521421942 £32.50
- Ridge, I. (2002) Plants Oxford University Press ISBN 0199255482
- Salisbury, FB and Ross, CW: Plant physiology Wadsworth publishing company ISBN 0534151620
- Stace, C. A. A new flora of the British Isles. 2nd ed. C.U.P.,1997. ISBN 0521589355
- Strange, R. L. Introduction to plant pathology. Wiley-VCH, 2003. ISBN 0470849738
- Taiz, L. & Zeiger, E. (1998). Plant physiology. 3rd ed. August 2002 Sinauer Associates. ISBN 0878938230
- Walter, H. (1985). Vegetation of the earth. 3rd rev. ed. Springer.
- Whitmore, T. C. (1998) An introduction to tropical rain forests. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198501471
- Willis, K (2002) The evolution of plants Oxford University Press ISBN 0198500653 £22–99
- Plant tissues, plant growth and the plant cell from Kimball's Biology Pages
- Botanical Society of America: What is Botany?
- Science and Plants for Schools
- A Study Guide to the Science of Botany ~ at Wikibooks
- American society of plant biologists APSB
- Why study Plants? Dept of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge
- David Attenborough – The Private Life of Plants
- Flora and other catalogues or databases of plants
- The Virtual Library of Botany
- List of major natural Plant Species in the UK, described in the National Vegetation Classification
- High quality pictures of plants and information about them from Catholic University of Leuven
- Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 1790–1856
- The Trees Of Great Britain and Ireland, by Henry John Elwes & Augustine Henry, 1906–1913
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