5-6-5. The Role of Seed Plants
Without seed plants, life as we know it would not be possible. Plants play a key role in the maintenance of terrestrial ecosystems through stabilization of soils, cycling of carbon, and climate moderation. Large tropical forests release oxygen and act as carbon dioxide sinks. Seed plants provide shelter to many life forms, as well as food for herbivores, thereby indirectly feeding carnivores. Plant secondary metabolites are used for medicinal purposes and industrial production.
Animals and Plants: Herbivory
Coevolution of flowering plants and insects is a hypothesis that has received much attention and support, especially because both angiosperms and insects diversified at about the same time in the middle Mesozoic. Many authors have attributed the diversity of plants and insects to pollination and
Herbivory has been used by seed plants for their own benefit in a display of mutualistic relationships. The dispersal of fruit by animals is the most striking example. The plant offers to the herbivore a nutritious source of food in return for spreading the plant’s genetic material to a wider area.
An extreme example of collaboration between an animal and a plant is the case of acacia trees and ants. The trees support the insects with shelter and food. In return, ants discourage herbivores, both invertebrates and vertebrates, by stinging and attacking leaf-eating insects.
Animals and Plants: Pollination
Grasses are a successful group of flowering plants that are wind pollinated. They produce large amounts of powdery pollen carried over large distances by the wind. The flowers are small and wisp-like. Large trees such as oaks, maples, and birches are also wind pollinated.
Link to Learning
Explore this website for additional information on pollinators.
More than 80 percent of angiosperms depend on animals for
Scientific Method Connection
Testing Attraction of Flies by Rotting Flesh Smell
Question: Will flowers that offer cues to bees attract carrion flies if sprayed with compounds that smell like rotten flesh?
Background: Visitation of flowers by pollinating flies is a function mostly of smell. Flies are attracted by rotting flesh and carrions. The putrid odor seems to be the major attractant. The polyamines putrescine and cadaverine, which are the products of protein breakdown after animal death, are the source of the pungent smell of decaying meat. Some plants strategically attract flies by synthesizing polyamines similar to those generated by decaying flesh and thereby attract carrion flies.
Flies seek out dead animals because they normally lay their eggs on them and their maggots feed on the decaying flesh. Interestingly, time of death can be determined by a forensic entomologist based on the stages and type of maggots recovered from cadavers.
Hypothesis: Because flies are drawn to other organisms based on smell and not sight, a flower that is normally attractive to bees because of its colors will attract flies if it is sprayed with polyamines similar to those generated by decaying flesh.
Test the hypothesis:
Table 1. Results of Number of Visits by Flies to Sprayed and Control/Unsprayed Flowers
Analyze your data: Review the data you have recorded. Average the number of visits that flies made to sprayed flowers over the course of the five trials (on the first flower type) and compare and contrast them to the average number of visits that flies made to the unsprayed/control flowers. Can you draw any conclusions regarding the attraction of the flies to the sprayed flowers?
For the second flower type used, average the number of visits that flies made to sprayed flowers over the course of the five trials and compare and contrast them to the average number of visits that flies made to the unsprayed/control flowers. Can you draw any conclusions regarding the attraction of the flies to the sprayed flowers?
Compare and contrast the average number of visits that flies made to the two flower types. Can you draw any conclusions about whether the appearance of the flower had any impact on the attraction of flies? Did smell override any appearance differences, or were the flies attracted to one flower type more than another?
Form a conclusion: Do the results support the hypothesis? If not, how can this be explained?
The Importance of Seed Plants in Human Life
Seed plants are the foundation of human diets across the world (Figure 3). Many societies eat almost exclusively vegetarian fare and depend solely on seed plants for their nutritional needs. A few
Staple crops are not the only food derived from seed plants. Fruits and vegetables provide nutrients, vitamins, and fiber. Sugar, to sweeten dishes, is produced from the monocot sugarcane and the eudicot sugar beet. Drinks are made from infusions of tea leaves, chamomile flowers, crushed coffee beans, or powdered cocoa beans. Spices come from many different plant parts: saffron and cloves are stamens and buds, black pepper and vanilla are seeds, the bark of a bush in the Laurales family supplies cinnamon, and the herbs that flavor many dishes come from dried leaves and fruit, such as the pungent red chili pepper. The volatile oils of flowers and bark provide the scent of perfumes. Additionally, no discussion of seed plant contribution to human diet would be complete without the mention of alcohol. Fermentation of plant-derived sugars and starches is used to produce alcoholic beverages in all societies. In some cases, the beverages are derived from the fermentation of sugars from fruit, as with wines and, in other cases, from the fermentation of carbohydrates derived from seeds, as with beers.
Seed plants have many other uses, including providing wood as a source of timber for construction, fuel, and material to build furniture. Most paper is derived from the pulp of coniferous trees. Fibers of seed plants such as cotton, flax, and hemp are woven into cloth. Textile dyes, such as indigo, were mostly of plant origin until the advent of synthetic chemical dyes.
Lastly, it is more difficult to quantify the benefits of ornamental seed plants. These grace private and public spaces, adding beauty and serenity to human lives and inspiring painters and poets alike.
The medicinal properties of plants have been known to human societies since ancient times. There are references to the use of plants’ curative properties in Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chinese writings from 5,000 years ago. Many modern synthetic therapeutic drugs are derived or synthesized de novo from plant secondary metabolites. It is important to note that the same plant extract can be a therapeutic remedy at low concentrations, become an addictive drug at higher doses, and can potentially kill at high concentrations. Table 2 presents a few drugs, their plants of origin, and their medicinal applications.
Table 2. Plant Origin of Medicinal Compounds and Medical Applications
The relatively new field of ethnobotany studies the interaction between a particular culture and the plants native to the region. Seed plants have a large influence on day-to-day human life. Not only are plants the major source of food and medicine, they also influence many other aspects of society, from clothing to industry. The medicinal properties of plants were recognized early on in human cultures. From the mid-1900s, synthetic chemicals began to supplant plant-based remedies.
Pharmacognosy is the branch of pharmacology that focuses on medicines derived from natural sources. With massive globalization and industrialization, there is a concern that much human knowledge of plants and their medicinal purposes will disappear with the cultures that fostered them. This is where ethnobotanists come in. To learn about and understand the use of plants in a particular culture, an ethnobotanist must bring in knowledge of plant life and an understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures and traditions. The Amazon forest is home to an incredible diversity of vegetation and is considered an untapped resource of medicinal plants; yet, both the ecosystem and its indigenous cultures are threatened with extinction.
To become an ethnobotanist, a person must acquire a broad knowledge of plant biology, ecology and sociology. Not only are the plant specimens studied and collected, but also the stories, recipes, and traditions that are linked to them. For ethnobotanists, plants are not viewed solely as biological organisms to be studied in a laboratory, but as an integral part of human culture. The convergence of molecular biology, anthropology, and ecology make the field of ethnobotany a truly multidisciplinary science.
Biodiversity of Plants
Biodiversity ensures a resource for new food crops and medicines. Plant life balances ecosystems, protects watersheds, mitigates erosion, moderates climate and provides shelter for many animal species. Threats to plant diversity, however, come from many angles. The explosion of the human population, especially in tropical countries where birth rates are highest and economic development is in full swing, is leading to human encroachment into forested areas. To feed the larger population, humans need to obtain arable land, so there is massive clearing of trees. The need for more energy to power larger cities and economic growth therein leads to the construction of dams, the consequent flooding of ecosystems, and increased emissions of pollutants. Other threats to tropical forests come from poachers, who log trees for their precious wood. Ebony and Brazilian rosewood, both on the endangered list, are examples of tree species driven almost to extinction by indiscriminate logging.
The number of plant species becoming extinct is increasing at an alarming rate. Because ecosystems are in a delicate balance, and seed plants maintain close symbiotic relationships with animals—whether predators or pollinators—the disappearance of a single plant can lead to the extinction of connected animal species. A real and pressing issue is that many plant species have not yet been catalogued, and so their place in the ecosystem is unknown. These unknown species are threatened by logging, habitat destruction, and loss of pollinators. They may become extinct before we have the chance to begin to understand the possible impacts from their disappearance. Efforts to preserve biodiversity take several lines of action, from preserving heirloom seeds to barcoding species.
Angiosperm diversity is due in part to multiple interactions with animals. Herbivory has favored the development of defense mechanisms in plants, and avoidance of those defense mechanism in animals. Pollination (the transfer of pollen to a carpel) is mainly carried out by wind and animals, and angiosperms have evolved numerous adaptations to capture the wind or attract specific classes of animals.
Plants play a key role in ecosystems. They are a source of food and medicinal compounds, and provide raw materials for many industries. Rapid deforestation and industrialization, however, threaten plant biodiversity. In turn, this threatens the ecosystem.
Which of the following plant structures is not a defense against herbivory?
White and sweet-smelling flowers with abundant nectar are probably pollinated by
Abundant and powdery pollen produced by small, indistinct flowers is probably transported by:
Plants are a source of ________.
Biosynthesis of nectar and nutrient-rich pollen is energetically very expensive for a plant. Yet, plants funnel large amounts of energy into animal pollination. What are the evolutionary advantages that offset the cost of attracting animal pollinators?
Using animal pollinators promotes cross-pollination and increases genetic diversity. The odds that the pollen will reach another flower are greatly increased compared with the randomness of wind pollination.
What is biodiversity and why is it important to an ecosystem?
Biodiversity is the variation in all forms of life. It can refer to variation within a species, within an ecosystem, or on an entire planet. It is important because it ensures a resource for new food crops and medicines. Plant life balances the ecosystems, protects watersheds, mitigates erosion, moderates climate, and provides shelter for many animal species.