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Phytochromes are the eyes of a plant, allowing it to detect changes in the color, intensity, and quality of light so that the plant can react and adapt. “They control all aspects of a plant’s life,” said Professor Clark Lagarias, senior author on the study. Typically about 20 percent of a plant’s genes are regulated by phytochromes, he said. Phytochromes use bilin pigments that are structurally related to chlorophyll, the molecule that plants use to harvest light and use it to turn carbon dioxide and water into food.
Lagarias’ laboratory in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at UC Davis studies these phytochromes and their properties. Phytochromes from land plants, Lagarias said, respond to red light — plants absorb red and reflect green light, which is why they look green. Red light does not penetrate far into water, and some marine and shore-dwelling algae lack phytochrome genes. But others do not, so Lagarias and colleagues looked at the properties of phytochromes from a variety of algae. They found that phytochromes from algae, unlike those of land plants, are able to perceive light across the visible spectrum — blue, green, yellow, orange, red and far-red.
Illustration: the colonial forms of unicellular green algae: A, Pediastrum, the plants of the colony being arranged in a flat plate. B, a view of the outer cells of the colony showing the formation of a new colony. C, one of these new colonies. D, a plant of the water net containing a young colony. E, enlarged view of one of the meshes of a net showing the geometrical arrangement of the plants.
Carlton C. Curtis, Nature and Development of Plants (New York: Henry Holt Company) c. 1800s.