More Forest Numbers and Tree-Planting Drones

Here’s a new idea under the sun… tree-planting drones.


Take a minute and think about all of the forest products you use in a day. I’m sitting on one right now as is my laptop. Anyone who’s bought school supplies in the last weeks has also consumed a fair amount. As an avid list-maker, I use my fair share of small pieces of paper for reminders and tasks to be done. Of course, let’s not forget the oxygen. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that forest products account for 4.5% of the total U.S. manufacturing gross domestic product at $190 billion in products annually and employing >900,000 people. There’s little room for doubt, forests are valuable both as they stand and as they fall.

I’ve mentioned before that numbers are important. In this context, numbers about forests can be extremely valuable. New research in Nature this week gives a new estimate of our global tree density. The good news… The earth has nearly an order of magnitude more trees than previously estimated by satellite imagery. The research team puts the total number of trees on the planet at 3.04 trillion. That’s more than 400 trees per person. To you, these numbers are likely just interesting statistics to impress your friends, but to scientists, conservationists and the forestry industry the new estimates of tree density are important for guiding management policies.

The new estimate is based on more than 400,000 ‘ground-sourced measurements of tree density from every continent except Antarctica.’ Translation: A lot of man-hours were spent by humans in a forest collecting tree density data. Of course, the team wasn’t able to count each and every tree, but this is more accurate data than estimating tree numbers from space. Check out the video below for a great data visualization of the world’s forests based on this new research.

If you were paying attention, forest numbers are not static. For various reasons around the globe forests are declining. Current estimates give a net loss of 10 billion trees a year. Some of this loss is due to forest fires, but for decades the forestry industry has become increasingly mechanized to efficiently harvest trees for all of those useful forest products. On the other side of the equation, replanting new trees has not experienced the same industrialization and relies heavily on meticulous man hours and dirty hands. The company BioCarbon Engineering seeks to change this and offers a new scalable model for planting trees using drones. Yes, drones for a noble purpose. The drones are engineered to shoot bullets wrapped in a biodegradable casing and containing soil with pre-germinated seeds into the ground. This could be used for replanting after forest fires or in other areas where forests need help with recovery.

From BioCarbon Engineering

From BioCarbon Engineering

They estimate that they can scale up to 1 billion trees per year. It greatly decreases the amount of human hours involved compared to hand-planting. It’s also more efficient relative to mass seeding because the seeds are pre-germinated, which will eliminate the loss due to bad seeds. The numbers are still not yet in the trees’ favor, but closing the gap with deforestation is a step in the right direction and the Lorax would be proud.


*Of course, BioCarbon Engineering could always enter into a relationship with that BIOS Urn company that uses your cremated ashes as the germination medium for tree seeds. Then you and your loved ones could have your ashes with tree seedlings shot almost anywhere to make a stand of trees somewhere in the wilderness rather than just one tree at a time with a single urn. But as I’ve mentioned before, that’s not exactly how photosynthesis and the carbon cycle works.

//The blog has been dark for a record length of time. Only for lack of time and not material. Regularly scheduled posts coming soon.

References and Links:

For more on the tree-counting research, check out this post over at The Quiet Branches blog.


The Fourth of July means red, white and blue to celebrate America’s birthday, but with our mild spring and ample rainfall this year it also heralds fig season in south Louisiana. If your experience with figs is limited to Fig Newtons or once upon a time you had fig preserves on toast, I am pausing for a moment of silence for your taste buds. A fresh fig picked and eaten just off the tree is something else altogether.


Fresh figs do not keep for any significant length of time and you’ll be hard-pressed to ever find them in the grocery store. So, if you’d like to try this summer delicacy, make friends with someone that has a fig tree or grow your own (surprisingly easy for anyone in hardiness zones with winters less than 800 chill hours).The most common varieties grown in the south are the Celeste and the Brown Turkey fig (Texas ever-bearing) which produce small brown figs. The LSU AgCenter has introduced several new varieties in recent years including the LSU Purple and LSU Gold, colored according to their namesakes. I have two LSU Gold trees and as far as taste goes, I cannot sing their praises enough. They have a delicate and very sweet taste. It’s what I imagine heaven must taste like. However, in my n = 2 experience these trees get huge in a hurry. It’s great if you’re impatient for your first fig crop, but beware if your backyard space is limiting. Typically it is not necessary to prune fig trees as with other fruit trees, but you may want to rein in an LSU Gold tree in a small backyard. This is less of a problem with Celeste or Brown Turkey figs.

LSU Gold

LSU Gold

If you are new to fig tree culture, you may ask yourself, “I wonder what fig tree blossoms look and smell like? I am sure they must be equally heavenly.” Yes, that’s because the ‘fruit’ you are eating are actually a special type of inflorescence structure (read flower) with the botanical name syconium or synconium. It is basically a modified fleshy stem that encloses numerous ovaries (floral tissue). The inner pulp is the flowers.


You should also beware that fig stems (branches and where the fruit are picked) produce a milky latex material to which some people can be sensitive. It contains the enzyme ficin that will degrade proteins. In fact, this enzyme is used commercially to differentiate blood groups for transfusion purposes. Human blood types go beyond the standard A, B, O or even Rh designations. There are numerous antigens on the surfaces of our blood cells that can affect transfusion success. The Kidd antigen type on your red blood cells and kidneys is difficult to determine in its normal state, but treatment with the enzyme ficin aids in differentiation because the partially degraded product will be more reactive while other variants are resistant to ficin degradation.

Whether or not you care about the finer points of their plant biology or use in biochemical assays, once you have your own fig tree(s), you will inevitably become overwhelmed with the glut of fruit produced in the month of July. You can pawn them off to family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Drying them in halves is another great option and intensifies their flavor for use in cooking later. Hardcore enthusiasts will can them as preserves. Now, I was never taught the secret of my grandmother’s fig preserves, but I have read the protocol. Even with a PhD in biochemistry and finely honed protein purification skills at the lab bench, the multi-step process of successfully preparing fig preserves gives me pause. So, who wants figs this Fourth?



References and Links:

Writing the Discussion/Conclusion Section

This was part of a series of writing tutorials I wrote for my students. This series is compiled on the page A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Scientific Manuscripts.

The Discussion/Conclusions section is where you synthesize the information from multiple experiments into some new insights and make connections with the wider research world. Journals differ significantly in their formats for Discussion/Conclusions and Results. Some journals combine the Results and Conclusions sections so that you can incorporate the broader significance of your results as you write them. With this style, there may also be a very short (1-2 paragraphs) section dedicated to pure ‘Discussion’ where authors can make other connections to their research field. In the absence of this as an official section, authors typically use their final paragraph to reiterate the main points of the work, what they mean for new knowledge in the field and what outstanding questions remain. Other journals will have a dedicated Discussion/Conclusions section that is separate from the Results section. In this section, you have more space to write about the significance of your results. You should include references to other related studies for comparison and contrast to your conclusions. If there are any outstanding questions left by your research or obvious future directions, you can dedicate the very end of your manuscript to writing about that.

In either format, this is the last substantive writing that your audience will read. It is important that you package your work in some coherent way (new model, refuting a hypothesis, etc) so that the reader will understand the same accomplishment. It is important to strike the proper balance when interpreting your data and incorporating it into the larger knowledgebase of your scholarly field.

A weak Discussion/Conclusion section can leave the reader wondering why they started reading the article in the first place. “So, what?” This is not the way you want others to feel about _X_ years-worth of work on your part. Remember that your first readers are reviewers to decide your manuscript’s publication-worthiness. If they can’t figure out why they read this manuscript (other than the fact that they were assigned to by the editor), then they won’t want others to read it either, at least not without major revisions). You may have a particular interpretation of your data, but if it is poorly articulated or not explicitly stated, then your readers will be left to do this on their own. When this happens, your readers will begin to ask questions like, “Why didn’t you do this experiment?” In some cases, this is a perfectly valid point and you should’ve done that experiment. In other cases, their questions and other possible conclusions are not warranted because you should have more clearly explained how your controls or previous literature argue against certain interpretations.

At the other end of the spectrum, over-reaching your data and making grand interpretations that extend beyond what you have actually shown can also get you into trouble. As fellow scholars in your field with finely-tuned BS-meters, your reviewers will call you out on egregious cases of over-interpretation. This will usually come in the form of requests for numerous, difficult and time-consuming experimentation. If you want to make bold claims, you have to prove it. If you are ready to publish, you need to rein in your writing and tone down your claims. Research always continues, so it is reasonable to stand by a decision that enough experimentation has been done to form a publishable manuscript. Just make sure that any planned future experiments or outstanding questions that you raise aren’t critical to the work at hand. If more than one reviewer disagrees with you about your arbitrary stopping point, then you really should get back to the bench and collect more data.

Ideally, the Discussion/Conclusion section should tell the story you intended when you put your figures together. By this time in the process, you’ve finally found your groove for writing and it’s important to check yourself to see if you’ve found the right balance. Re-read the first draft of your Discussion/Conclusions section with fresh eyes alongside the figures with supporting data and look for any potential weaknesses. Should you do additional experiments or include other controls? Should you clarify your claims? Should you tone them down? Is there any other relevant literature that you should cite to facilitate interpretation? In the end, you should strike the proper balance so that your work is significant and interesting within the boundaries of sound data. Your reviewers will inevitably find something they would like you to change, either with writing or experimentation, but you should do your best to avoid baiting them right out of the gate. Even if you are making a conscious effort to objectively review your Discussion/Conclusions section, as an author you are biased and too close to your own data to see some potential flaws. Have another colleague outside the author list look it over prior to submission for publication.

One final note on grammatical formatting…

For this section, you can carefully marry past and present tense. When referring to specific data or experiments (which you will do only briefly; no need to completely repeat everything from the results section), use the past tense. When describing what it means in a bigger context, these things are true, will always be true and you can use the present tense. Grammar and clear writing are essential in all sections of your manuscript, but meticulous wording is critical for this section to avoid confusion about data vs. interpretation and past vs. present work.


Pyramid of Biochemistry Greatness

As I mentioned in my previous post, there’s at least one person in the world searching the internet with the phrase ‘everything aspiring biochemists should know.’ I feel obligated to share my pyramid for biochemist success. It’s based on Ron Swanson’s perfectly calibrated recipe for personal achievement. Click this link for context if you are not familiar with Parks and Rec.


Here is a link to the PDF with a little better resolution. Now, go achieve your dreams. I would say good luck, but as Ron says, “Luck is a concept created by the weak to explain their failures.”


2nd Blog-iversary

New Under the Sun Blog is 2 years old! Because WordPress keeps such detailed statistics, here’s the annual numbers rundown. Here is the link to the first year’s numbers. 

Followers: 928

Still not exactly sure how this gets counted, but I’m definitely up from last year (668) and still completely amazed that many people outside of my immediate family chose to follow a blog about photosynthesis, plants and biochemistry.

Total page views: 35679

This number is waaay higher than last year. Thanks Google and social media. My all-time most-viewed posts and pages are still my basics of the photosynthetic reactions. Lots of students seem to be still confused about this topic and many variations of ‘photosynthesis-related’ Google searches send clicks my way. I hope my pages were helpful.

I have a new winner for the all-time highest single day post: Two Tales of a Manuscript at 304 views that day (Big thanks to the Plant Cell Facebook page for posting a link!). It faded pretty quickly, but still a good long read about the process of science that struggling scientists and even non-scientists will appreciate.

Also, internet users search for ‘cotton’ a lot and end up clicking on my post from last Labor Day. It’s on pace to even out hit my post on the world’s tallest tree (Hyperion), which continues to be my most popular non-photosynthetic post.

I also like to troll the stats on the least common and crazier search terms that earn me a click. This year’s favorite ‘everything aspiring biochemists should know.’ This search term alone gives me hope for the future and I hope that the clicker found something useful on my site. In addition to the Rules of Biochemistry and the Molecular Biology Code, I do have plans for Dr. Roose’s Pyramid of Biochemist Greatness coming soon ala the Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness (coming soon).

Now for the bad news as to why the sequel isn’t as good as the original- only 55 posts this year (about once a week)Sigh. In my first year, I was able to churn out 165! My only excuse is I had to keep my new day job. So, on this free site, you get what you pay for. This summer has been less than productive on the blog front as well. It is hard to write clever, informative posts now that Jr. PhD has hit the stage where he is constantly asking questions. Tonight’s topic- Why did the Giant Sloth go extinct? (We went to the library today and got an encyclopedia on dinosaurs and prehistoric animals.) I’m a plant person and I don’t have a short answer that he will accept.

I was able to finish out some series this year. Check out the Frozen Parody series for a new twist on plant science topics and the Holiday Plants series for the botanical companions to your holiday traditions (also available in almanac-form downloadable PDF for free!). Still working on finishing some others and I’ve definitely have no shortage of post topics- just time to write about them. Please be patient.

Here’s to another year of science blogging!


Writing the Results Section

//This is part of a series of tutorials I wrote for my students. Toward the end of the semester as deadlines were looming, they became more specific for the assignment in my course. So it’s taken me a while to modify them. Since part of this series got picked up over at the blog, I feel like I should really finish up this series. This series is compiled on the page A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Scientific Manuscripts.//

The results section is the main course of your manuscript. This is where you lay out all of your data in carefully arranged figures to build the case for your conclusions. Since you have already decided what data get to leave the pages of your lab notebook and have rendered them as informative figures, the majority of the work of your results section is finished.


The results section is written in the past tense because you are describing experiments performed and observations made previously. “The ADH purification procedure gave a 6-fold purification with a 20% yield.” In some contexts, your results will yield new truths about ADH, which will always be true. It would be appropriate to use the present tense in these contexts, but be careful how you do this. It is generally easier to restrict results to the past tense and save the new insights for the discussion section where they can be mentioned in the present tense. The reason for this is purely grammatical because it takes some practice to successfully blend tenses within sections/paragraphs without it turning into a hot mess.

Your figures and tables frame your story

The order of your figures is usually not the chronological order in which you did the experiments. Care should be taken in arranging your figures in an order that will best support your conclusions. The first figures typically describe the experimental system and its verification (creation and validation of a mutant, isolation of a protein, demonstration of a new analytical method etc). Subsequent figures show the application of the experimental system to a relevant question to generate new knowledge. These can be used to build evidence for a particular model of how you think something works or to eliminate possible explanations. Either way, the order of your figures should take the reader through a logical sequence that will culminate in your conclusions.

Tell the story

Once you have laid the groundwork with your properly assembled figure sequence, the text of your results section should guide the read reader through each figure and how your data lead you to new knowledge of your research topic. If your writing takes strange circuits or you have difficulty in transitioning between sections, you may want to re-think the order of your figures. It typically means there is some conflict between the data in your figures and the way you want to write about it. Speaking of sections, it is often useful to break up the text of your results into useful sections with headings that describe the analysis or main conclusion from the results.

While your figures should be clearly understandable with legends to describe what the reader is looking at, the text in your results section should give the context for that data and highlight the key findings. When you refer to your data, refer to them by their figure (and panel) or table number. Since you have multiple gels and graphs, you cannot just refer to them generically by experiment type without designating a specific figure without causing confusion. Also, it is more succinct to say ‘Figure 5A’ vs. ‘the graph of absorbance/activity vs. elution volume.’ In the context of the assembled manuscript, the figures and their legends will be pages and pages ahead of the results section. So, you must direct the reader to the proper place. In the final version of the manuscript that actually gets published, the figures will be re-sized and type-set into journal pages where they are closer to their results text, but never assume that your reader will be able to pick out the proper panel of a figure on their own.

Methods context and purpose

To set up the descriptions of your figures and what they possibly mean, it is important to give some context for the experiment. Describe the purpose for the experiment. The data in your figures should accomplish this purpose and you must describe how so in the text of your results section. Remember also that the details of the methods used will likely be pages and pages previous, so it’s perfectly acceptable to reiterate some method highlights for context, especially if they are important for interpreting the data in your figures. You should be able to read your results paragraphs and have a good understanding of what is being done without having to flip back to the methods section.

Discussion within the results section

How much discussion you include in your ‘results’ section will vary depending on the journal for which you are submitting your manuscript. Some journals have a separate discussion section where you are allowed a designated space to expound upon the meaning of your results in a larger context, outstanding questions, links to previous studies etc. In this case, keep your results section focused on the data at hand. Don’t dwell too much on implications or what the results may mean unless those conclusions transition into your next figure. If there is no separate discussion section, then write your conclusions where appropriate, but overall your writing should still stay grounded in your data. Too much elaboration is a symptom of over-interpreting your results and reaching beyond what the data actually means. Stick to the facts and qualify the conclusions where appropriate. It’s always a good idea to connect your work to other studies, but too much may again be stretching your data more than is necessary. Too many conclusions or integrating your work into a complex model at the end also risks a call for additional experimentation by the reviewers that get the first look at your manuscript. If your data along with previously published work doesn’t support every aspect of your conclusions, they maybe you should do some more work in the lab. If that suggestion just made you throw up in your mouth a little, then maybe you should be more conservative in the interpretation of your results.


Superphotosynthesizer: Cat Island Baldcypress

Today May 18, 2015 is ‘Fascination of Plants Day,’ an initiative organized by the European Plant Science Organisation with other events organized by the American Society of Plant Biology. On this blog, there’s no shortage of reasons why plants are fascinating, but to most they are still just the scenery. Take some time today to consider all that these primary producers do for you. Here are just a few things plants do for us- food, forestry products, paper, pharmaceuticals, energy, and beauty.

Of course, I am partial to the oxygen that they provide for us. In that spirit, today’s post will feature another superphotosynthesizer: the Cat Island Baldcypress located on the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge in West Feliciana Parish, LA. This tree is the national champion of its species and also noted as the largest tree of any species east of the Sierra Nevada range.

It is located at the end of an easy walking trail (0.75 mile round-trip), but it only accessible for part of the year. Access to portions of the Cat Island NWR is prevented by levels of the Mississippi River since at least a couple of low bridges must be traversed to get you from the main road to the trailhead. If the river stage at Baton Rouge is greater than 20 feet, which is usually between February and June, there is no vehicle access to the trail. I was able to make a trip there in early February just before the river restricted access. It’s not quite clear whether the base of the tree itself is submerged at any point during the spring flooding because there is a really nice decking just before the tree at the end of the trail. As of today, the river stage at Baton Rouge is 27.8 feet, so it may still be another month before access is regained.


The tree is impressive. At 96 feet it is taller than all the other trees around, but it’s certainly not the tallest tree east of the Sierra Nevada. However, its girth is undeniably impressive. It has the characteristic buttressed-base of all baldcypress trees, which measures 17 feet in diameter and 56 feet in circumference.  It has knees as tall as me. Well, for those of you who know me in real life maybe that’s not so impressive, but for a random root outgrowth that is still significant.


This brings me to one of the real secrets of the swamp- cypress knees. These strange growths at the base of cypress trees have been puzzling botanists and plant biologists for centuries since Francois Andre Michaux wrote in 1819, “No cause can be assigned for their existence.” Many people have had theories as to how they contribute to cypress biology- increased aeration capability for growing in inundated swamps, methane (swamp gas) emission conduits, vegetative reproduction, mechanical support, nutrient acquisition, and carbohydrate storage. None of these hypotheses have really held up to analysis and the biological function* of these root outgrowths are still fascinating plant biologists today.


This is just one local fascinating plant example. Check out the links below for more information about Fascination of Plants Day or follow #FOPD on social media.



*These expendable appendages are painted and carved for folk art projects. They are also fairly proficient at disemboweling lawnmowers of homeowners with cypress trees in their yards and capsizing careless motorboat operators in the swamps. Perhaps this is a plant defense mechanism ahead of its time.

References and Links: