The sex lives of plants

The biology of sex determination has come to the forefront of the culture wars, but if you’re a plant biologist, the idea that sex determination is complex is old news. Jennifer Blake-Mahmud’s The Secret Sex Lives of Plants spent time last Fall improving Wikipedia articles on these topics.

A student in the class made major improvements to the environmental sex determination article, which prior to their work had focused mainly on animals. The student editor added sections about ferns, mosses, and flowering plants, while also adding a section discussing the adaptive significance. They also expanded the lead section of the article, something that new Wikipedia editors often neglect, but that’s actually one of the ways in which a person can have the biggest impact on the information the public sees. Because Google searches draw heavily from the leads of Wikipedia articles to populate its knowledge panel, updates to the lead teach far more people that do edits to the body of the article.

Plants undergo alternation of generations, with distinct haploid and diploid stages. In ferns and mosses these stages are quite distinct, and people often forget that they’re also important in seed producing plants like conifers and flowering plants, and Wikipedia’s gametophyte article reflected this. Thanks to two student editors in this class, the information in the Wikipedia article is now much more complete, going into much more depth about gametophytes in seed plants.

Two pathways by which rooibos can respond to fire.
Two pathways by which rooibos can respond to fire.

Rooibos is a South African plant that’s the source of a popular caffeine-free tea. As a commercially important species that is endemic to a very narrow environmental zone that is prone to wildfire, its reproductive strategies in response to fire are important both ecologically and economically. By adding this information to the article, a student editor was able to fill an important gap in Wikipedia’s coverage.

Other students in the class made important contributions to a host of other articles including ovary (botany)Isoetes, and nucellar embryony. One student created a new article on antheridiogens, which are a class of chemicals that play a role in the production of male sex organs in ferns.

Roiboos diagram credit: Cmlaplante, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Hero image credit: ulleo on Pixabay, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


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