Listening in on Plant Defenses

It’s enchanting to consider that classical music might help plants grow better, like something out of a fairy tale. A simple Google search shows that a lot of people are interested in it, from the throngs at Yahoo Answers to marijuana growers looking for an edge. Mythbusters tested it, with mixed results. Academic researchers have explored the effects of tones on plant growth, finding frequency-specific gene regulation and growth responses. But it remains unclear what evolutionary benefit sensitivity to sound could provide, and a solid understanding of what is sometimes called ‘plant bioacoustics’ eludes researchers.

In a widely-reported study released last year, two researchers over at the University of Missouri, Columbia tested the effects on plant defenses of the vibrations caused by a caterpillar chewing on a leaf. Although much of the reporting fell prey to the temptation to claim the plants “heard” the chewing and responded, the real answer is both more complicated and more interesting. I had the opportunity to attend a talk Drs. Appel and Cocroft gave at Washington University a few months ago where I learned more than I could have extracted from their paper, published in Oecologia, alone.

Sound waves are longitudinal. Insect vibrations are transverse

Dr. Cocroft studies insect communication, especially the ability of insects to find mates and prey by sensing the vibrations of other insects on a plant. Like sound, the information is encoded in vibrational waves passing through a substance. Instead of a pressure wave like sound that varies in the same direction of travel—a longitudinal wave—insect vibrations on plants are transverse waves, moving up and down like a wave on the ocean (see figure).

We could never hear these kinds of waves ourselves, but their frequency can be directly translated to sounds we can hear. Cocroft played a number of humming soundscapes recorded with a laser on a wild prairie—the result of hundreds or thousands of insects communicating silently on stalks of grass. A plant, Cocroft noted, is a great conductor for these vibrations, flexible yet strong. His field studies how insects benefit from communicating this way, but he joined forces with Appel to ask: Do plants respond to the vibrations of insect herbivores in an adaptive way?

One major defense that plants have against pests is producing noxious compounds to deter feeding. Appel and Cocroft hypothesized that Arabidopsis plants would produce more defense compounds if they were exposed to the vibrations of herbivorous insects before actually being attacked. This effect is called priming, and could help defend against a second wave of insect damage.

To test this, the researchers first used lasers to record the vibrations of caterpillars allowed to eat the leaves of Arabidopsis plants. To play the vibrations back to undamaged plants, Cocroft attached leaves to tiny pistons driven, essentially, by speakers, ones that could replicate the vibrations of an insect chewing. Then caterpillars were allowed to feed on either the leaf that was vibrated or another, untouched leaf.

Both vibrated and distant leaves responded more vigorously to caterpillar attack than leaves on untouched plants. The plants that were primed by recorded caterpillar vibrations produced more glucosinolates, or mustard oils, than those of unvibrated plants. This is evidence of an adaptive response to insect vibrations, but leaves open the possibility that any vibration encouraged plant defenses.

To see if the effect really was specific to the herbivorous caterpillars, Appel and Cocroft played back vibrations of harmless insects, wind, or caterpillars on different plants and again measured defense compounds—this time anthocyanins, responsible for the deep reds and purples of many plants. Only caterpillar vibrations could prime plants to increase their defense response to herbivory; wind and the neutral insects had no effect.

One important caveat: although the researchers looked for an effect of vibrations alone, they found none. Only vibrations plus actual insect feeding induced higher defenses; the plants were primed for future attack, but vibrations alone made no difference. Of course, a real insect is more than just its vibrations. Herbivore attack is a physical, chemical, and auditory assault, and plants likely respond to each stimulus in different ways.

But how are plants able to sense the vibrations of caterpillars, and even differentiate them from similar sounds in nature? It’s entirely unknown. A very good candidate is a diverse group of proteins bound together by their responsiveness to physical forces—mechanoreceptors. These proteins can signal within a cell in response to vibration or touch and are potentially behind the priming effect that Appel and Cocroft observed.

In fact, to test this, the Haswell lab is working with Appel and Cocroft to see if our favorite mechanosensitive ion channels are part of the vibrational-response pathway. I got to see Liz’s face pop up in the corner at the end of their presentation over on the medical campus as they told us that work was underway. We’ll just have to wait to find out.

[A version of this post first appeared on my lab's blog]

Visualizing Our Changing Cities

Photos by Brian Villa for St. Louis Public Radio and Richard
Moore via the Missouri History Museum
In 1950, St. Louis was the eight-largest city in America at a bulging 850,000 residents. It was a twentieth-century city, buoyed by diverse manufacturing and a busy port. It was also a highly-segregated city, split strikingly into a largely-black north city and whiter, richer south citybut the entire urban core suffered from flight to the suburbs and industrial Midwest decline.

Six decades later, the city is drastically different. The County bests the City's 300,000 population by three-to-one after sixty years of uninterrupted population loss.

Understanding the causes and consequences of urban decline and evolving city life is difficult. It requires ten-, fifty-, and hundred-year perspectives and a close knowledge of economic and political contexts. One way we can better appreciate how our cities have changed is to visualize the effects of time, in maps and data.

I was drawn to the hypnotizing displays of changing Midwest cities put together by the University of Oklahoma's Institute for Quality Communities. Simple sliders reveal cities universally carved up by the Interstate Highway System and uniquely altered by the effects of and responses to urban decline, such as the Arch grounds and Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis. In each case we can directly observe how dense, residential neighborhoods were transformed into offices, or simply wiped clean by population loss and decay.

One of my first exposures to the stark changes that St. Louis has undergone since its mid-century heyday was the simple and excellent Mapping Decline website to accompany Colin Gordon's book of the same name. Four maps show the great exodus from the city center and the racial covenants that forced black residents to remain in decaying neighborhoods, patterns that resulted in an intentionally divided region. The consequences of these policies and demographic shifts are felt now, decades later. Ferguson became a household name this past August in part because of unaddressed divides, seen clearly in Gordon's work.

Visualizing how my city has changed is simply fascinating as well, not always so serious. I stumbled upon Elizabeth McNulty's St. Louis Then and Now at Dunaway Books on South Grand, just the kind of architectural coffee table book I was keeping an eye out for. In almost 70 paired photographs, McNulty shows us a St. Louis rising at the end of 19th century, barreling into the 20th, and the state of its urban neighborhoods today. The dramatic shift from bustling port to sleepy, abandoned riverfront is especially striking to see. Similar sets of photos were assembled as part of St. Louis' 250th anniversary celebration, where streetcars make way for regular ones, and grand boulevards were once populated by throngs of downtown residents that have since left.

Cities are as dynamic as the people who inhabit them and bring them to life. Many Midwestern cities have struggled for several decades, while coastal cities have largely prospered. The pendulum may be swinging back now as peopleespecially the youngincreasingly seek out cities for their liveliness and density. These once-grand cities have serious problems to contend with, from racial divides to ailing school systems, but perhaps the twenty-first century will again see a rise of the cities that seemed to peak in the middle of the twentieth.

Local Politics at Work: Celebrating Cycling in St. Louis

24th Ward Alderman Scott Ogilvie
Around 30 people gathered this past Friday in the new bike shop Spoked in the rapidly changing Cherokee neighborhood. There were two half kegs of Civil Life beer on ice and free pizza from the wine shop next door. One wall is painted a bright, invigorating orange and the silvered tin ceiling looms overhead above bike rims hung up high. I met up with several friends and ran into others I knew from Gateway Greening and CityArchRiver who, like me, had come to bond over cycling, hear about new bike infrastructure and, yes, drink the free beer.

My mom was visiting too, and was by far the oldest person in the room. But she shared stories of biking in Boston almost 40 years ago and how she knew it was too cold to bike to work that day if her nose hairs froze on the way to the bike shed behind her apartment. Everyone was welcome.

Spoked was hosting a happy hour principally to celebrate the huge success of painting buffered bike lanes on Tower Grove Avenue ahead of the closure of the largest north-south thoroughfare in the city, which will divert traffic to Tower Grove and other detoursthis effectively preserves my only route for cycling to work.

Scott Ogilvie , the alderman for the 24th ward and an avid cyclist, leapt up on the counter to welcome everyone and entreat us to be active advocates for biking in St. Louis. He introduced Matt Wyczalkowski, the man who led the fight to stripe Tower Grove before the Kingshighway closure. Matt told us how he had used Tower Grove to commute to Washington University for years and felt passionate about this short mile that is so crucial to bike commuters in the city.

Matt Wyczalkowski
When he learned that the planned bike lanes would be postponed until after the construction to allow more car traffic to use the routeessentially closing the street to all but the most diehard cyclistshe gathered a coalition of biking advocates and neighborhood associations. Together they held votes that convinced my alderman, Stephen Conway of the 8th ward, to expedite the bike lanes. It was done days later. Without Matt's intervention, Conway was prepared to let the planned striping lapse for two more years. At the behest of his constituents, persuaded by Matt, this important route is maintained.

I owe Matt two years worth of my biking commute: hundreds of hours worth of both pleasant and difficult exercise that starts and ends my working day.

Matt took questions and I asked him, "What's next for you?" His response was to ask me the same, and to point out how focused determination on a finite problem can lead to real results. His pet project was expediting bike lanes on a short stretch of his local street. If each of us in the room that day found our own tractable issue and pursued it by building coalitions of neighbors and friends, we could accomplish the same.

Rhonda Smythe
Rhonda Smythe, until recently the policy and advocacy manager at Trailnet, closed out the speeches by outlining her goal of including more people in the cycling community by reducing the barriers to biking. Outside of the spandex-wearing road cyclists, Rhonda wanted to get people who bike once a month to start biking four times a month. By creating low-speed, low-traffic routes through neighborhoods, she wanted to encourage families to bike for more of their short trips.

In my former neighborhood of Skinker-DeBaliviere, this takes the form of the Des Peres bicycle boulevard that improves through-access for cyclists over cars and has highly-visible markings to encourage more relaxed biking.

The owners of Spoked, Matt and Shane, also encouraged us to be advocates mainly by getting on our bikes and riding. Improving the visibility of the cycling community, they said, attracts the attention of neighbors and local leaders so they can internalize how vital it is for our city.

Somewhat unexpectedly, this event became the highlight of my week and a resounding lesson in the power of local politics that, I believe, lifted up everyone in attendance and left us all feeling energized and ready to act, alone and together, to make our home better.

Having an Impact: The Appeal of Mid-sized Cities to Millennials

“There is a vibrant bar and restaurant scene, social sports leagues through which hundreds of young people get together to play kickball and other games, even a monthly bike ride – sponsored by a group working to make [the city] less car dependent – in which participants dress up in costume and ride through the city.”

I thought I was reading about St. Louis and wanted to look up this monthly cycling event that sounded like the Naked Bike Ride but more frequent. The city in question is not Portland, either, but rather Baltimore. In a profile of “The New ‘Cool’ Cities for Millennials,” The Christian Science Monitor uses Baltimore as the example of a series of infamously rundown, increasingly vibrant and even hip urban centers that increasingly draw the urban Millennial generation. Cleveland. Detroit. Nashville. St. Louis. Mid-sized cities with cheap rent, storied histories, and surprising economic opportunities for a generation pummeled by the Great Recession but still searching for places to make their mark.

And although New York, San Francisco, and other metropolises draw the lion’s share of young, educated adults, these other, often overlooked cities are beginning to see rapid increases in these populations. Even as St. Louis has continued a six-decade population death spiral, the number of 25-to-34-year-olds with a college degree near the urban core has more than doubled, rising 138% from 2000 to 2010, the largest such surge in the country. Although this relative increase obscures absolute changes, St. Louis attracted more than half the demographic increase Seattle did over this same period (4,227 versus 8,209). St. Louis and other struggling cities have far to go, but they are going, and changing faster than many would have anticipated just a few years ago.

In St. Louis, Downtown, Midtown and other central corridor neighborhoods were the only ones to gain residents from 2000 to 2010, when the city overall saw an 8% drop in population, perhaps a bellwether of a turning tide in the exodus from the city center. These neighborhoods include startup incubators like T-REX and Cortex, revitalized loft apartments, and convenient public transit.

And St. Louis is the fastest-growing city for new technology jobs. ArchGrants, founded in 2011, provides non-equity funding to tech startups—as long as they remain in or move to St. Louis. LaunchCode, which rapidly trains new programmers and places them at area businesses, was recently lauded by President Obama for its successes and is expanding nationally. Tech may not be sufficient to power the city’s economy, but St. Louis’ low cost of living and access to capital make it a top place for starting other businesses as well. 

Although demographers cannot untangle the economic causes from the cultural behind the Millennial move toward cities, The Christian Science Monitor and other sources have identified a self-reported interest in dense, walkable, community-oriented neighborhoods over suburban sprawl among the young. The people profiled in the CSM piece—employees at tech startups and nonprofits—claimed Baltimore as a city where they could have an impact, where a vibrant urban lifestyle coincided with a small enough community to feel absorbed, not “carried along”.

St. Louis offers the same opportunities to contribute to a quirky, very much in progress revitalization of the city. Upstart politicians can win by a mere 90 votes against an entrenched incumbent; individuals can ensure that local representatives listen to their constituents about critical bike infrastructure projects; shuttered corner businesses can be reopened to create a new community space; a brand new brewery can be self-funded.

As a full-time graduate student, I can still find a way to contribute to outreach to the community gardening scene in St. Louis where other cities, San Francisco for example, might have those kinds of niches saturated by individuals who can commit more fully to single projects. In many areas of this city, there is both a need and room for interested individuals and small groups to get their hands dirty in making their communities better—the results are obvious, the actions of individuals visible.

Demographers quibble over whether the Millennial move toward cities is stable, or whether family life, schools, and age will push us back out to the suburbs in the next decade or two. Time will tell. But it may be that the economic forces that favor urban centers only reinforce an intentional return to lively, dense cities. And that St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland or Detroit offer the more civic-minded—and more financially constrained—of our generation an opportunity to help forge the cities we will inhabit for decades to come. 

The Limits of the DOJ Ferguson Report in a Fractured Region

The Department of Justice released the findings of its investigation into civil rights abuses in Ferguson this week. The report is unsparing in its indictment of intentional racial bias within the police department and city government, and the unequal application of the law on black residents without cause. Analysis by people familiar with the DOJ’s involvement with other police forces suggests that the DOJ will forcefully compel their suggested changes, or dissolve the police department entirely.

As striking as this report is—and as clear as it is to dispel the myth that race is not a factor—its effects are inherently limited. Ferguson is home to only 21,000 people, one of 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, which has a total population greater than one million. The independent City of St. Louis houses another 320,000 residents, more than half of whom are non-white. The DOJ may reform the Ferguson police department into an exemplary force, or dissolve it altogether and allow the St. Louis County police to patrol the town. Neither will sufficiently address the widespread problems facing the St. Louis region or the country as a whole.

St. Louis is fragmented, divided intentionally over decades into white and black, rich and poor. Many other cities are similarly fractured. Forceful reform of a single police department, representing barely one percent of the region’s population, is nearly meaningless. The divisions that have contributed to St. Louis’ problems must be addressed alongside raking the Ferguson police department over the coals. Unnecessary police forces should be dissolved, and many of their cities absorbed into larger municipalities. The City of St. Louis and the County should be reunited in order to work together, not compete. 

Only a region so strengthened will be poised to lead the nation in meaningful reforms. Only if we heal these longstanding divisions can we turn a conversation into action. Bust open Ferguson, break it down and build it up into a city and a police force that serves its residents proudly and well. But to stop at Ferguson would fail St. Louis to an extent we cannot afford. 

Reaching Across the Gap with Curiosity

"I think there is nothing so exciting as listening to someone think on the radio." — Jad Abumrad

On Wednesday, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab fame presented at Washington University’s first Ampersand Week, a series of events celebrating the ‘and’ of Arts and Sciences, or the value of liberal arts education over exclusive specialization. A perfect choice for such a purpose, Radiolab draws on the composing background of Jad and the inventive science journalism of Robert to explore scientific topics with a humanistic lens. The event took place in Graham Chapel, the pews filled with students, faculty, staff, and the public for the free event.

I was not sure what this presentation would entail. Would they present a live version of Radiolab? Or just introduce a series of archived podcast segments? The experience was somewhere between those two. Relying on existing tape, Jad and Robert discussed the production of Radiolab, the task of distilling technical knowledge from experts for a lay audience, and the musicality and intimacy of radio over other mediums.

Jad opened by acknowledging his mother, sitting in the front row, an obesity researcher here at Washington University, a professor in my program no less. I had no idea. On the large screen behind them, Jad put up a picture of his mother’s protein, what she studies every day, which helps bring fats into the cell. In fact, Jad grew up in a scientific home, with a medical doctor father and scientist mother, an environment that clearly influences his work to bridge the sciences and the arts.

The first segment began by peeling back the curtain on how a formal interview with a scientist becomes radio drama. Robert spoke with Cynthia Kenyon, a C. elegans researcher at UCSF, about two genes that control aging in the tiny worms. One is a hormone receptor, which, when activated, represses the activity of a transcription factor. When the transcription factor is allowed to function, it controls the expression of many separate genes that work together to increase the lifespan of the worms several fold. Jad played the unedited interview, demonstrating how even a media-savvy researcher stumbled to translate the molecular action of genes into something a non-scientist could grasp, and even care about. It was awkward and difficult to keep track of.
But as Jad pointed out, Cynthia’s explanation naturally gravitated to exciting, narrative verbs. Spring. Inhibit. Leap into action. The nouns suffered from alphabet soup—scientists rely heavily on acronyms and jargon for naming genes—and specialized phrases. Receptor. Transcription factor. DAF-2. Radiolab’s job, then, was what Jad called “noun replacement therapy.” Keep the substance, but swap technical language with vernacular.

The translated version: The Grim Reaper Gene (hormone receptor) cue evil laugh battles it out with the Fountain of Youth Gene (transcription factor) cue toddler giggles for control of the aging process. Beat up on the Grim Reaper (mutate it) painful groans and the baby is free to keep cells, and the animal, youthful, blowing spit bubbles as it does.

To some scientists, this kind of translation may seem simplistic. (Cynthia produced the gene nicknames, it was not a liberty taken by Radiolab.) Robert even phrased it as having to ask, “How stupid do you want to be?” Always there is a trade-off between accuracy and understandability. Always. “You’re somehow trying to find a way to stay in the middle,” Robert said. Choosing that point, and then finding that point, is the challenge a show like Radiolab contends with for every topic. But to avoid any kind of simplifying is to wall off scientific research to the ivory tower, something far more damaging than “noun replacement therapy.”

This translation is not foreign to most of us, maybe just lost. Jad recalled trying to bridge the gap with his mom to explain her work when he was a kid, dinner plates standing in for cells and the salt shaker for her protein, the iterative process of trying to get closer to the truth one curious question after another. Our interest in understanding something new, something difficult, is dampened by a culture that discourages looking stupid, but it can be encouraged as well. Jad and Robert try to use the power of stupid questions asked with genuine curiosity to recapture that sense of wonder. “Yes, but why?”

Robert said that if they approach a scientist with sincere curiosity, about 60 percent will spend the time to tell them what they need to know. I wish that number were higher, but I am surprised it is that high. I think they may have a self-selecting group of scientists more inclined to work with the media than most. But I could not say for sure.

Beyond translation, the hour-long presentation delved into the frenetic production of the show, with layers of music and noise and swirling audio energy, a style that aims for a composer’s musicality and an authentic struggle for new knowledge. As a technically naïve but huge fan of radio, I appreciated seeing the depth of production at the software level that goes into making one of my favorite shows. Although hard to miss in a show like Radiolab, I know that most audio production is successful when it goes unnoticed, but it is good to be reminded of the work that goes into these programs.

The floor open to questions, I waited in line at the mic to ask: How can scientists help reach back out to the journalists, or the public, who have reached toward us to help bridge these gaps? I did not get an answer to my question, but I did get a good answer to a good question.

Robert instead answered the why. Why should scientists care about communicating their work? He couched it in militaristic, epic terms—scientific inquiry is the product of intellectual freedom, a resource that is constantly endangered. To tell a story of the science we do is an enchantment, one that can draw people in and convince them that the freedom required for this kind of work is worth demanding and worth preserving. No less than the ability to perform honest work is at stake in the communication of our research.

Jad again put on screen the structure of his mother’s protein, her life’s work, to help illustrate his partner’s answer on the value of free inquiry. He then answered a question closer to my own. “The story of science is in most cases the story of ceaseless failure, which is really the story of everyone who walks the earth,” he said. Tell that human story of vulnerability, confusion, failure, and occasional bright points of insight and success, and anyone can be reached.

Beer in the Garden

As humans first started to settle down from nomadic hunter-gatherers into early agricultural societies, they took what must have been an exceedingly keen understanding of the diverse plants in their environment and applied that knowledge to the cultivation of crops. Instead of relying on the bounty provided by nature, these people began to select the most appealing and nutritious plants to work deliberately. In so doing, they actively produced brand new crops and developed an even deeper relationship with the plant world.

And here, at the very dawn of civilization, early agriculturalists took their growing understanding of plants, and perhaps a bit of serendipity, and developed something to rival agriculture itself—beer. Agriculture and brewing developed side-by-side because both required a deepening understanding of the plant world. Today, the increasingly popular hobbies of home gardening and homebrewing can bring us back to this early world thousands of years ago where an appreciation for and knowledge of the plant world translated into intoxicating, frothy, delicious brews.

This past Wednesday I was invited to give a presentation on the intersection between gardening and homebrewing at the wonderful, new(ish) Urban Chestnut bierhall in The Grove. I was invited by Gateway Greening, which runs a monthly seminar series called, appropriately, Pints ‘N’ Plants. Around fifty people came to learn and talk about the understanding of barley and hops that is required to make great beer, and the many plants we can grow right here in St. Louis to brew with.

Bread baking and brewing happened under the same 
roof in ancient Egypt. Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts
Barley of course provides the essence of beer, the sugars that yeast ferment into alcohol and carbon dioxide. But barley kernels straight from the field are full of starch, a form of sugar inaccessible to yeast. To unlock this sugar, maltsters control the germination of barley seeds, the developmental program that converts starch into sugar for the young seedlings. Instead of letting the seed continue to produce a whole new barley plant, maltsters instead dry and roast the sweet malted barley to halt the process and caramelize the sugars.

Fermented malted barley is all that is needed to make an intoxicating beverage, but it will result in a cloyingly sweet, unpalatable beer. Hops, the aromatic female flowers from the hop plant, perform the job of balancing the saccharine barley with bitter hoppiness while flavoring the beer as well. Hops took over from a diverse array of local herbs, fruits, and other plants around a thousand years ago to become the exclusive flavoring of most beer.

These earlier brews—called gruits—also relied on a strong sense of the qualities of local flora to produce drinkable beer that would not poison the drinkers. Hops likely superseded these hundreds or thousands of other plants because of their ability to protect beer from bacterial infections so well, but they also make a damn fine beer. The dozens of different varieties of hops lend distinct flavors and aromas from dry and earthy to bright and citrusy, helping to recover the diversity in flavorings lost with the gruits.

As any would-be usurper of the Busch crown will tell you, beer only requires barley, hops, yeast, and water. However, the craft beer and homebrewing renaissance has helped rediscover the variety of beer flavorings that harken back to an earlier time when all manner of local plants found their way into the brew kettle. Here, gardeners and homebrewers can join together in search of homegrown, quality ale.

Any number of bizarre plants can find their way into homebrewed beer. I covered just a handful to consider and get started in my talk, some I have experience with and some I do not. By far the easiest to grow is cilantro, the herb flavoring a lot of Mexican dishes. Instead of the leaves, however, brewers seek the bright, citrusy seeds called coriander. They have a completely different taste and are used in a very popular style of beer called Belgian witbier. This is the style of Blue Moon and is a very refreshing beer brewed with wheat, bitter orange peel, and coriander. In fact, the witbier is light on hops and calls back to the gruits that were flavored with an array of herbs and spices. Cilantro is so easy to grow it will even reseed itself from year to year, reliably producing pods of brown, crunchy seeds in the summer. Only about five tablespoons are required with an equal weight of orange peel to flavor the beer, an amount easy to acquire from just a plant or two.

I also covered how to grow and brew with pumpkin, chili peppers(!), and potted citrus plants. Perhaps the best plant to get in the ground this spring, however, is hops! A perennial, fast-growing vine, hops do well in community spaces where they can spread out and grow stronger year-over-year, or in the backyard of an enthusiastic gardener-brewer who has enough space for a sturdy trellis. Each spring, homebrew supply stores sell chunks of hop rhizomes, a root-like structure that overwinters to produce vines the next season. This vegetative means of propagation ensures that gardeners get only the female plants and clones of their favorite variety. After growing up to thirty feet high and maturing at the end of summer, the hops are ready to be tossed in the brew kettle for truly homegrown brewing.
My former community garden, Block 1035. Hops growing
on the common space trellis in the background.

To combine gardening and brewing, with an eye for creativity and variety, is truly to travel back in time to eras when most beer was brewed at home alongside the baking of bread, and when a knowledge of local plants was required for making delicious brews. For a time it seemed we had lost both of these skillsets. But now with the ongoing popularity of home and community gardening and the rapid rise in homebrewing, we all have the opportunity to capture again that intrinsic link between the growing of plants and the brewing of beer. Prost!

[I relied heavily on The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing 3rd ed. by Charlie Papazian]

Update: Valentine's Day Isn't Completely Terrible

It's freezing outside and St. Louis is full of people so disappointed in their relationship status that they're all drinking at noon and fighting over plastic beads.

But let's not forget the upside to Valentine's Day. We're halfway to the vernal equinox. We've climbed just a little out of the unending darkness of the winter solstice. It's getting a little lighter out.

I conducted a scientific poll—a poll of scientists, not a representative sampling of the population—and it’s true! Seven out of seven plant biologists agree: it’s getting noticeably lighter outside, just in time for this big letdown of a holiday.

So if the chocolate is especially bitter today, just pause to reflect on the changing seasons. Nothing ever lasts forever, be it the cold dark or Mardi gras revelry or the failure to meet high expectations. The Earth keeps spinning around the sun and things grow brighter every day. 


Hamilton, E.S., Schlegel, A.M, Haswell, E.S. 2014. United in Diversity: Mechanosensitive Ion Channels in Plants. Annual Review of Plant Biology [link]

Hamilton, E.S., Bauer, M. 2013. Communicating Science to the Public: A New Graduate Course and Practicum [link]

Li, Q., Sadhukan, S., Bertiaume, J.M., Ibarra, R.A., Tang, H., Deng, S., Hamilton, E.S., Nagy, L.E., Tochtrop, G.P., Zhang, G.F. 2013. 4-Hydroxy-2(E)-nonenal (HNE) catabolism and formation of HNE adducts are modulated by β oxidation of fatty acids in the isolated rat heart. Free Radic. Biol. Med. 58C:35-44. [link]

Stucky, N. L., Gregory, E. Winter, M.K., He, Y., Hamilton, E.S., McCarson, K.E., Berman, N.E.J. 2011. Sex Differences in Behavior and Expression of CGRP-related Genes in a Rodent Model of Chronic Migraine. Headache. 51(5):674-92. [link]

Anderson, J., Sandhir, R. Hamilton, E.S., Berman, N.E.. 2009. Impaired Expression of Neuroprotective Molecules in the HIF-1 alpha Pathway following Traumatic Brain Injury in Aged Mice. J Neurotrauma. 26:1557-66. [link]

About Me

I am a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis pursuing a doctorate in plant biology. I am interested in problems of how to communicate science to the public, the culture of urban living, the media, and the intersection between these topics. I like to write about these issues and life as a graduate student in St. Louis.

My research is about mechanosensation in plants. That means I study how plants are able to sense and respond to the forces in the world around them. Plants are extremely sensitive to touch, gravity, even the vibrations of insects, and to the cellular forces of osmotic pressure. I work in the Haswell lab, where we study how a group of ion channels may help plants respond to all of these forces and exactly what they are doing.

Because I am interested in how to communicate science to non-scientists, I take opportunities to talk about plant science around St. Louis. I have been fortunate to work with Gateway Greening, a nonprofit supporting community gardens, to give several presentations about plant biology. I am also an assistant organizer for Washington University's Science on Tap seminar series, a monthly series of talks from WUSTL professors on a wide range of topics held at the Schlafly Bottleworks. I participated in the regional FameLab competition [video] held at Washington University in 2014, and collaborated with Melanie Bauer on an essay calling for better training in science communication, for which we won third place in a National Science Foundation competition. This essay grew out of our time at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference hosted at Washington University in 2013, where I proposed an ongoing collaboration between the plant science and urban agriculture communities in St. Louis. My work with Gateway Greening is part of this commitment. 

I am always looking for new opportunities to practice scientific outreach.

In a past life, I was a founder of the Farm Harvest Festival at my alma mater, Case Western Reserve University, where I received a B.S. in biology and a B.A. in chemistry. I was also a staff writer at CWRU's student newspaper The Observer in my senior year. 

I can be reached by email at or on Twitter @hamiltonerics.