Digital Biology Friday: Searching for synonyms

In last week's episode, your assignment was to think of an interesting plant trait and find a description about a gene, related to that trait, by searching PubMed.

Since coming up with an interesting trait might be a challenge for some people, let's think about how to approach this step.

Picking your trait.
i-db12e000398822734c5c78af9420201a-bee.jpgIf you're having a hard time thinking of a trait, it might be helpful think about where plants grow, why we grow plants, and why it might be hard or easy for plants to grow.

Some of the environmental factors that affect plant growth are: climate, soil composition, nutrient availability (nitrogen, potassium, trace elements), pH of the soil (is it too acidic or too basic?), amount of light, wind, salt concentration, availability of water, length of the growing season, and others that I can't think of at the moment. Plants must have a way to handle all of those challenges.

Then, there are the predators. Insects, deer, bacteria, viruses, protozoans, birds, people; there are many creatures who wish to consume plants. Plants need to protect themselves.

And then there's reproduction. Some plants need a little help in this area. They have to enlist friendly birds, bees, beetles, humans, and other creatures or the wind to provide some assistance, either in getting pollinated or in spreading their seeds around.

Now, we can think about the many things we (humans) do with plants. These are many: food, shelter, clothing, entertainment. We use plants in very diverse ways for many different things.

Finding traits with role playing
Another way to brainstorm and think of interesting traits, is to imagine yourself in different roles. Or, if you are a teacher, you could write different roles on notecards and hand them out to your students to help them come up with ideas.

Here are some ideas for different roles:

Artist or designer looking for a new color
Paper manufacturer
Cancer researcher
Environmental engineer working on cleaning up a polluted site
Builder
Clothing designer
Gardener
Nursery owner
A home owner in a neighborhood with lots of deer
Herbal medicine specialist
Coffee farmer
Bird watcher
Farmer
Maple sugar producer
Park designer
Child, allergic to peanuts
Gourmet chef

When you have a role, it's easier to think of traits that might be helpful or harmful.

What trait did I pick?

I picked: drought resistance.

I'm using that trait because of a former student of mine from Somalia, who reminded me that knowing how to find, and use this kind information could prevent people from starving.

Search for synonyms
Once you've got your trait picked, pick up a dictionary or, better yet, a thesaurus. Now, it's time to look for synonyms.

Write down as many you can and come back next week for more fun.

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