Research reveals the science behind this plant’s blue berries

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Lantana strigocamara in the Ramaley Greenhouse on the CU Boulder campus. Credit: Patrick Campbell / CU Boulder

On a beautiful fall day in 2019, Miranda Sinnott-Armstrong was walking down Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado when something caught her eye: a small, particularly shiny blue fruit, on a shrub known as Lantana strigocamara. While its tiny clusters of pink, yellow and orange flowers and blue berries commonly adorn the pedestrian mall in spring, city workers were ripping these common Lantanas out to prepare for the winter season.

Sinnott-Armstrong, postdoctoral researcher of ecology and at CU Boulder, quickly asked if she could take a specimen back to the lab. She wanted to know: What made these berries so blue?

Sinnott-Armstrong’s results are now published in the journal New Phytologist. The study confirms Lantana strigocamara as the second-ever documented case of a plant creating blue-colored fruits with layered fat molecules. She and her co-authors published the first-ever documented case, in Viburnum tinus, in 2020.

The two plants are among only six in the world known to make their fruits’ hues using a trick of the light known as structural color. But Sinnott-Armstrong has a hunch there are more.

“We’re literally finding these things in our backyards and on our streets, people just haven’t been looking for structurally colored plants,” said Miranda Sinnott-Armstrong, lead author on the new study. “And yet, just walking on Pearl Street, you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s one!'”

Structural color is very common in animals. It’s what gives peacocks’ otherwise brown feathers their brilliant greens, and many butterflies their bright blues. But this optical illusion of sorts is much rarer in plants, according to Sinnott-Armstrong.

Stacey Smith, co-author on the publication and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, peels the skin off of a Lantana fruit. Credit: Patrick Campbell / CU Boulder

To create its unique color, these blue fruits use microscopic structures in their skin to manipulate light and reflect the wavelengths our eyes perceive as blue, giving it a distinctive metallic finish. Pigmented color does the opposite, absorbing select visible wavelengths of light. This means structurally-colored berries have no color within themselves; if you were to squish them, they would not stain blue.

In fact, if you peel the skin off a Lantana and hold it up to the light, it looks completely translucent. But if you place it against a dark background, it looks blue again, due to the nanostructures on the surface responsible for reflecting the color.

The evolution of color

What’s especially unique about Lantana strigocamara—besides the fact that the color blue is quite scarce in nature, especially in fruits—is that it creates this structural color in its skin using layers of lipid molecules, or fats.

Stacey Smith, co-author on the publication and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, peels the skin off of a Lantana fruit. Credit: Patrick Campbell / CU Boulder

Viburnum tinus is the only other plant known to do the same thing, and Lantana and Viburnum last shared a common ancestor more than 100 million years ago. Meaning, the two plants evolved this shared trait completely independent of one another.

“It puts us on the hunt for other groups where this happens, because we know it can be done multiple ways,” said Stacey Smith, co-author on the publication and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

The researchers also chat often about why such a thing would evolve. Does structural color provide an ?

Some theorize that structural color could help with seed dispersal. While there are very few known structurally colored plants, they are globally widespread. Lantana itself is invasive in many parts of the world, especially in tropical regions. It’s possible that the metallic, shiny nature of the fruit provides strong contrast with surrounding foliage, attracting animals to eat them and disperse their seeds, according to the researchers.

Lantana strigocamara in the Ramaley Greenhouse on the CU Boulder campus. Credit: Patrick Campbell / CU Boulder

“But just being blue and sparkly might be enough for an animal to think it’s decorative,” said Smith.

The researchers noted that many birds, especially in Australia, like to use structurally colored fruits to adorn their bowers and attract mates. Humans, interestingly, may also be contributing to the spread of Lantana for the same reason.

“The fact that they made their way into horticulture suggests that we are susceptible to the same things are that other animals find attractive about them,” said Smith. “We’re like, oh, look at that sparkly, cute thing. I should put that in my garden.”

Another possibility is that the thick, fatty layer which creates this unique color is a protective mechanism for the plant, providing defense against pathogens or improving the structural integrity of the fruit, said Sinnott-Armstrong.

The color blue itself could also be a clue.

Pigmented and structural color are not mutually exclusive in plants, but perhaps plants stumbled across structural as a way to make blue because it’s not as easy to create in other ways, she said.

Some researchers in Silvia Vignolini’s lab at the University of Cambridge—where Sinnott-Armstrong is currently based—are now trying to make colored paints, fabrics and more out of , by better understanding the assembly of cellulose nanocrystals in colored fruits.

Researchers hope to learn more about the possible evolutionary prompts for this mechanism, as more structurally colored fruits are discovered.

“They’re out there,” said Sinnott-Armstrong. “We just haven’t seen them all yet.”

Co-authors on this publication include: Yu Ogawa, Université de Grenoble Alps; Gea Theodora van de Kerkhof, University of Cambridge; and Silvia Vignolini, University of Cambridge.



More information:
Miranda A. Sinnott‐Armstrong et al, Convergent evolution of disordered lipidic structural colour in the fruits of Lantana strigocamara (syn. L. camara hybrid cultivar), New Phytologist (2022). DOI: 10.1111/nph.18262

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Research reveals the science behind this plant’s blue berries (2022, June 10)
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Hexbyte Glen Cove US firefighters optimistic over world's biggest tree thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove US firefighters optimistic over world’s biggest tree

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A dead tree (L) stands alongside living trees as smoke rises during the KNP Complex fire in the Sequoia National Forest near Red Fir, California on September 17, 2021.

Firefighters battling to protect the world’s biggest tree from wildfires ravaging the parched United States said Friday they are optimistic it can be saved.

Flames are creeping closer to the majestic General Sherman and other giant sequoias, as man-made worsens California’s fearsome fire season.

“We have hundreds of firefighters there giving it their all, giving extra care,” Mark Garrett, communications officer for the region’s fire department, told AFP, of the operation in Sequoia National Park.

Crews are battling the spreading Paradise and Colony fires, which have so far consumed 4,600 hectares (11,400 acres) of since they were sparked by lightning a week ago.

The blazes are threatening Giant Forest, a grove of around 2,000 sequoias that includes five of the largest trees on the planet—some up to 3,000 years old.

The biggest of them all, the General Sherman stands 83 meters (275 feet) tall.

On Thursday, General Sherman was wrapped in fire-proof blankets— intended to protect its giant trunk from the worst of the flames.

By Friday, managers felt they had the upper hand, thanks in part to clearing of undergrowth and controlled burns that starve the fire of fuel.

General Sherman, the world’s biggest tree, has been wrapped in foil to protect it from flames.

“I think the most challenging part is the terrain here,” said Garrett.

But “we haven’t seen explosive fire behavior; it really slowed down and gave us a chance to get ahead of it.”

Around 600 personnel are involved in the fight.

“We have folks up in the Giant Forest protecting structures and preparing everything.

“The fact is that they’ve been prescribed burning for the past 25 or 30 years so it is really prepared.”

Photographer Stuart Palley (L) takes photographs of giant sequoia trees among smoke filled skies in the “Lost Grove” along Generals Highway north of Red Fir during a media tour of the KNP Complex fire in the Sequoia National Park in California on September 17, 2021.

Millions of acres of California’s forests have burned in this year’s ferocious season.

Scientists say , stoked by the unchecked use of fossil fuels is making the area ever-more vulnerable to bigger and more destructive wildfires.

The enormous trees of the Giant Forest are a huge tourist draw, with visitors traveling from all over the world to marvel at their imposing height and extraordinary girth.

The fire-proof cladding that firefighters are using is the same material they deploy to protect vulnerable homes.

While not the tallest trees—California redwoods can grow to more than 300 feet—the are the largest by volume.

Smaller fires generally do not harm the sequoias, which are protected by a thick bark and often only have branches 100 feet above the ground.

But the larger, hotter blazes that are laying waste to the western United States are dangerous to them because they climb higher up the trunks and into the canopy.



© 2021 AFP

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US firefighters optimistic over world’s biggest tree (2021, September 18)
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