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The mission of the International Association of Bryologists (IAB), as a society, is to strengthen bryology by encouraging interactions among all persons interested in byophytes.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Peat, whisky and genomes

Consumerism having taken over the world, it seems that every botany lecture has to start by explaining the value of the organism in question. Bryophytes (especially hornworts) can be a particularly hard sell; however, the peat moss, Sphagnum, is a notable exception.  It has historically been used as bandaging for wounds, even as recently as the First World War (Ayres 2013), due to its highly absorbent nature and some antimicrobial properties. Aside from the serious business of saving lives, peat (including Sphagnum) has more contemporary uses, such as flavouring some Scotch whiskies (Harrison et al. 2012, a video of traditional peat extraction), the twelve-century-old traditional procession of moss men in Salamanca, Spain (see this article) and moss bath mats (see this link).
Typical Sphagnum habitat in Costa Rica. Photos taken during the
"Cryptothallus hirsutus" hunt in Costa Rica  with Gregorio Dauphin
and Norman Wickett (2006)

            However, the most economically important role of peat mosses may well be the efficient trapping of CO2 in boreal forests. Bogs are a feature of temperate regions, where they serve an ecological role as carbons sinks (Gorham et al. 2012). The current warming of the planet may threaten to impact such fragile ecosystems, causing subsequent release of greenhouse gases. Although Sphagnum is not the only components of bogs and fens, it is by far the most abundant in terms of biomass, and the most charismatic. The rather distinctive gametophyte is arranged in a capitulum with spreading and pendent branches, while the leaf contains a network of alternating chlorocysts (chlorophyllous cells) and the hyalocists (dead cells) that give it its extraordinary water-holding capacity. The sporophyte is raised on an elongate pseudopodium of gametophytic tissue, rather than on a sporophytic seta. The capsule bears enigmatic pseudo-stomata and has a rather explosive nature (see the movie here); all this renders Sphagnum a morphologically isolated lineage.
Due to its high ecological importance, Sphagnum has been studied extensively and its nuclear genome is to be sequenced. This will make the first non true-moss sequenced (Physcomitrella and Ceratodon are true mosses), the most phylogenetically distinct of the three and only the fifth bryophyte to have a genome sequenced.
With nearly 350 species in four genera (Ambuchanania, Eosphagnum, Flatbergium and Sphagnum), the Sphagnosida may well be the most studied bryophyte class to date. High morphological plasticity of the species, high levels of introgression and hybridization make it a daunting task for taxonomists. Nevertheless, the biology of the plants can be captivating. Two recent papers illustrate the fascinating biology of Sphagnum. Karlin et al. (2010) demonstrate that a single multilocus genotype of Sphagnum subnitens exists along a 4,115 km track, all the way from Coos County, Oregon, to Kavalga Island in the Aleutian Islands. This monoicous plant seems to do extremely well despite its apparent lack of genetic diversity!
Secondly, Stenøien et al. (2011) show that the narrow Norwegian endemic Sphagnum troendelagicum originated prior to the Holocene (40-80,000 yrs ago), before the last Glacial Maximum. The authors have previously demonstrated that S. troendelagicum is a recent allo-polyploid, with Sphagnum tenellum as the maternal progenitor and S. balticum as the paternal progenitor. In contrast to the rather restricted nature of the hybrid, S. balticum is relatively widespread in North America, Greenland, the Nordic countries, Northern Asia and the Alps.
Sphagnum balticum (orange-coloured) among Sphagnum
at Muckle Moss in S. Northumberland.
Photo by R. Porley
            Sphagnum balticum (Baltic Bog-moss) is a member of section Cuspidata. It is dioicous, and sporophytes have not been found in Britain. It has a typical orange-brownish colour, and is generally restricted to nutrient-poor ombrotrophic bogs. The species is rather rare in the British Isles (Porley et al. 2013, see here a short review of the book), only known from a limited number of sites in Scotland and England. Porley describes a famous moss hunt organized by J. Turner in 2000 in Muckle Moss, Northumberland, to attempt to find S. balticum. The successful event gathered attention from the local press.
Sphagnum balticum appears to be sensitive to high nitrogen deposition, sulphur deposition and high temperatures, factors that are highly intertwined (Granath et al. 2009). Habitat quality seems to be one of the main factors of its rarity in Britain.  The lack of sporophytes in Britain is potentially worrying. If the UK populations derive from a highly restricted number of introductions their extinction threat could be higher than their scarcity alone might implicate.  A recent study (see Forsman et al. 2013) suggests that the level of phenotypic and genotypic diversity in colonizers has a great impact on successful establishment and spread of newcomers. The knowledge of the genotypic diversity of the species is essential to quantify how much variability exists and will provide a genetic argument for future re-introductions. However, given that we have earlier seen that a single Sphagnum subnitens clone spreads for over four thousand km in western North America, it seems that risk cannot be assessed on either genetic information, or rarity information, alone.
Genetic resources for bryophytes lag well behind those for vascular plants, particularly the crop-plant relative angiosperms. The two exceptions to this are Sphagnum and the funariod mosses. Highly variable microsatellites, transcriptome data and soon nuclear genomic data for Sphagnum will allow focused population studies on S. balticum that although rare in Britain is common across its entire distribution, but that is also the father of a truly rare taxon, the Norwegian Sphagnum troendelagicum.

Thanks to L. Forrest and E. Karlin for comments.

Preceding blogs in this series:

A short review of Ron Porley’s book on rare English bryophytes


  1. Nice blog post, but just to note that the Holocene wasn't 40-80,000 years ago!

  2. maybe I meant before.. :-).... thanks!

  3. Hello! I saw the Conservation and Endangered Species Grants on the site. Are they still available?