Podcast Review: Botanical Mystery Tour

My interest is piqued any time plants are featured or plugged in popular culture. Hence my ongoing series of posts, Botany in Popular Culture, featuring Futurama, Saga of the Swamp Thing, etc. Plants just don’t get enough airtime, so it must be celebrated when they do. Which is why I was excited to learn about Chicago Botanic Garden‘s new podcast, Botanical Mystery Tour, in which the plants referenced in pop culture take center stage.

The hosts, as they state in each episode’s introduction, “dive into the botany hidden in our favorite stories.” To help with the discussion, they bring in experts that work at Chicago Botanic Garden to explore the science (and fiction) behind the plant references. In addition to discussing pop culture and the related science, the guests share details about the work they do at the Garden and some of the research they are working on.

In the first episode, Jasmine and Erica ask Paul CaraDonna about the drone bees featured in an episode of Black Mirror. Since many bee species are in decline, will we have to resort to employing robot bees to pollinate plants that rely on bee-assisted pollination? A great discussion about native bees and colony collapse disorder ensues.

(But maybe the idea of autonomous drone insects isn’t too far-fetched…)

In episode two, the hosts ask why humans are so obsessed with corpse flowers. Thousands of people flock to botanical gardens to see these humongous, stinky flowers on the rare occasions they are in bloom, so what is so appealing about Amorphophallus titanum? Patti Vitt joins the discussion to share details about this fascinating plant.

A corpse flower in bloom is a brief and uncommon occurrence, reminiscent of the Sumatran Century Flower in The Simpsons and the 40 Year Orchid in Dennis the Menace.

 

The third episode features the sarlaccs of Star Wars. It turns out, sarlaccs are carnivorous plants. This discovery spawns an interesting discussion with horticulturist Tom Weaver about what defines a carnivorous plant and the various ways that different carnivorous plant species capture and kill their prey.

The fourth (and latest) episode is an exploration into the magical world of mushrooms. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice encounters a large, hookah-smoking caterpillar sitting atop a giant mushroom. Are there mushrooms big enough that a person could actually sit on them like Alice does? Greg Mueller joins the podcast to address this and many other mycology-based questions. The conversation includes a great discussion about why a botanical garden (whose main focus is plants) would be interested in fungus.

The discussions in this podcast are fun and enlightening. The hosts shine the spotlight on often overlooked characters in popular media, and with the help of their guests, lead captivating conversations about the science related to these characters. With only a handful of episodes available so far, it will be easy to get caught up. And then you, like me, will find yourself anxiously looking forward to embarking on another Botanical Mystery Tour.

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Is there a plant-themed podcast or podcast episode you would like to recommend? Please do so in the comment section below.

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A Few Fun Facts About Pollen

Sexual reproduction in vascular plants requires producing and transporting pollen grains – the male gametophytes or sperm cells of a plant. These reproductive cells must make their way to the egg cells in or order to form seeds – plants in embryo. The movement of pollen is something we can all observe. It’s happening all around us on a regular basis. Any time a seed-bearing plant (also known as a spermatophyte) develops mature cones or flowers, pollen is on the move. Pollen is a ubiquitous and enduring substance and a fascinating subject of study. In case you don’t believe me, here are a few fun facts.

Bee covered in pollen – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen is as diverse as the species that produce it. Pollen grains are measured in micrometers and are so tiny that the only reason we can see them with the naked eye is because they are often found en masse. Yet they are incredibly diverse in size, shape, and texture, and each plant species produces its own unique looking pollen. With the help of a good microscope, plants can even be identified simply by looking at their pollen. See images of the pollen grains of dozens of plant species here and here.

Pollen helps us answer questions about the past. Because pollen grains are so characteristic and because their outer coating (known as exine) is so durable and long-lasting, studying pollen found in sediments and sedimentary rocks helps us discover all sorts of things about deep time. The study of pollen and other particulates is called palynology. Numerous disciplines look to palynology to help them answer questions and solve mysteries. Its even used in forensics to help solve crimes. Criminals should be aware that brushing up against a plant in bloom may provide damning evidence.

Pollen oddities. While all pollen is different, some plants produce particularly unique pollen. The pollen grains of plants in the orchid and milkweed families, for example, are formed into united masses called pollinia. Each pollinium is picked up by pollinators and transferred to the stigmas of flowers as a single unit. A number of other species produce other types of compound pollen grains. The pollen grains of pines and other conifers are winged, and the pollen grains of seagrass species, like Zostera spp., are filamentous and said to hold the record for longest pollen grains.

The pollinia of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) look like the helicopter-esque fruits of maple trees. photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen tube oddities. In flowering plants, when pollen grains reach the stigma of a compatible flower, a vegetative cell within the grain forms a tube in order to transport the regenerative cells into the ovule. This tube varies in length depending on the length of the flower’s style. Because corn flowers produce such long styles (also know as corn silk), corn pollen grains hold the record for longest pollen tube, which can measure 12 inches or more. Species found in the mallow, gourd, and bellflower families produce multiple pollen tubes per pollen grain. Hence, their pollen is said to be polysiphonous.

Pollen is transported in myriad ways. Plants have diverse ways of getting their pollen grains where they need to be. Anemophilous plants rely on wind and gravity. They produce large quantities of light-weight pollen grains that are easily dislodged. Most of this pollen won’t make it, but enough of it will to make this strategy worth it. Hydrophilous plants use water and, like wind pollinated plants, may produce lots of pollen due to the unpredictably of this method. Some hydrophilous plants transport their pollen on the surface of the water, while others are completely submerged during pollination.

Employing animals to move pollen is a familiar strategy. Entomophily (insect pollination) is the most common, but there is also ornithophily (bird pollination) and chiropterophily (bat pollination), among others. Plants that rely on animals for pollination generally produce pollen grains that are sticky and nutritious. They attract animals using showy flowers, fragrance, and nectar. The bodies of pollinating insects have modifications that allow them to collect and transport pollen. Certain bees, like honey bees and bumblebees, have pollen baskets on their hind legs, while other bees have modified hairs called scopae on certain parts of their bodies.

Pollen is edible. Some animals – both pollinating and non-pollinating – use pollen as a food source. Animals that eat pollen are palynivores. Bees, of course, eat pollen, but lots of other insects do, too. Even some spiders, which are generally thought of as carnivores, have been observed eating pollen that gets trapped in their webs.

Pollen is thought to be highly nutritious for humans as well, and so, along with being taken as a supplement, it is used in all sorts of food products. To collect pollen, beekeepers install pollen traps on their beehives that strip incoming worker bees of their booty. Pollen from various wind pollinated plants, like cattails and pine trees, are also collected for human consumption. For example, a Korean dessert called dasik is made using pine pollen.

pine pollen – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen makes many people sick. Hay fever is a pretty common condition and is caused by an allergy to wind-borne pollen. This condition is also known as pollinosis or allergic rhinitis. Not all flowering plants are to blame though, so here is a list of some of the main culprits. Because so many people suffer from hay fever, pollen counts are often included in weather reports. Learn more about what those counts mean here.

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Book Review: Weeds Find a Way

At what age do we become aware that there are profound differences among the plants we see around us? That some are considered good and others evil. Or that one plant belongs here and another doesn’t. Most young children (unless an adult has taught them) are unaware that there is a difference between a weed and a desirable plant. If it has attractive features or something fun to interact with – like the seed heads of dandelions or the sticky leaves of bedstraw – they are all the same. At some point in our trajectory we learn that some plants must be rooted out, while others can stay. Some plants are uninvited guests – despite how pretty they might be – while others are welcome and encouraged.

But weeds are resilient, and so they remain. Weeds Find a Way, written by Cindy Jenson-Elliot and illustrated by Carolyn Fisher, is a celebration of weeds for their resiliency as well as for their beauty and usefulness. This book introduces the idea of weeds to children, focusing mainly on their tenacity, resourcefulness, and positive attributes rather than their darker side. “Weeds are here to stay,” so perhaps there is a place for them.

The book begins by listing some of the “wondrous ways” that weed seeds disperse themselves: “floating away on the wind,” attaching themselves to “socks and fur,” shot “like confetti from a popped balloon.” And then they wait – under snow and ice or on top of hot sidewalks – until they find themselves in a time and place where they can sprout. Eventually, “weeds find a way to grow.”

Weeds also “find a way to stay.” We can pull them up, but their roots are often left behind to “sprout again.” Pieces and parts break off and take root in the soil. Animals may swoop in to devour them, but weeds drive them away with their thorns, prickles, and toxic chemicals. In these ways they are a nuisance, but they can be beautiful and beneficial, too.

This illustrated story of weeds is followed by some additional information, as well as a list of common weeds with brief descriptions. Weeds are defined as plants “thought to be of no value that grow in places where people do not want them to grow,” adding that even “misunderstood and underappreciated plants that are native to a region and have multiple uses” can be labeled weeds.

The concept of weeds as invasive species is also addressed; some introduced plants move into natural areas and can “crowd out native vegetation, block streams, and drive away wild animals.” That being said, weeds also provide us with “endless opportunities to study one of nature’s most wonderful tools: adaptation.” Weeds are problematic as much as they are useful, it’s simply a matter of perspective.

A criticism of this book might be that it doesn’t focus enough on the negative aspects of weeds. There is plenty of that elsewhere. The aim of this book is to connect us with nature, and as Jensen-Elliot writes, “you don’t need a garden to know that nature is at work.” When there is a weed nearby, nature is nearby. Weeds “adapt and grow in tough times and desolate places,” and they make the world beautiful “one blossom at a time.”

Summer of Weeds: Pineapple Weed

“The spread of the fruitily perfumed pineapple weed, which arrived in Britain from Oregon in 1871, exactly tracked the adoption of the treaded motor tyre, to which its ribbed seeds clung as if they were the soles of small climbing boots.” – Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants

Can a plant that is native to North America be considered a weed in North America? Sure. If it is acting “weedy” according to whatever definition we decide to assign to the word, then why not? Can “weeds” from North America invade Europe the same way that so many “weeds” from there have invaded here? Of course! Pineapple weed is just one such example.

Native to western North America and northeastern Asia, this diminutive but tough annual plant in the aster family can now be found around the globe. Matricaria discoidea gets its common name from the distinctive fruity scent it gives off when its leaves and flowers are crushed. Its scent is not deceptive, as it is yet another edible weed (see Eat the Weeds). Teas made from its leaves have historically been used to treat upset stomachs, colds, fevers, and other ailments.

pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea)

Pineapple weed reaches as few as a couple centimeters to a little over a foot tall. Its leaves are finely divided and fern-like in appearance. Its flower heads are cone or egg-shaped, yellow-green, and cupped in light-colored, papery bracts. The flower heads lack ray florets and are composed purely of tightly packed disc florets. The fruits (i.e. seeds) are tiny, ribbed achenes that lack a pappus.

Compacted soils are no match for pineapple weed. It is often seen growing in hard-packed roadways and through small cracks in pavement, and it is undeterred by regular trampling. It is a master of disturbed sites and is commonly found in home gardens and agriculture fields. It flowers throughout the summer and is often confused with mayweed (Anthemis cotula); the telltale difference is that mayweed gives off a foul odor when crushed.

Meriwether Lewis collected pineapple weed along the Clearwater River during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In their book, Lewis and Clark’s Green World, Scott Earle and James Reveal write, “There is nothing in the expedition’s journals about the plant, but it would seem that there was little reason for Lewis to collect the two specimens that he brought back other than for its ‘agreeable sweet scent.’ It is otherwise an unremarkable, rayless member of the aster family.” The authors continue their mild ribbing with this statement: “The pineapple weed deserves its appellation, for it is a common weed – although a relatively innocuous one – that grows in disturbed places, along roadsides, and as an unwanted garden guest.”

pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

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Quote of the Week:

From Weeds and What They Tell (ed. 1970) by Ehrenfried Pfeiffer

“Weeds are WEEDS only from our human egotistical point of view, because they grow where we do not want them. In Nature, however, they play an important and interesting role. They resist conditions which cultivated plants cannot resist, such as drought, acidity of soil, lack of humus, mineral deficiencies, as well as a one-sidedness of minerals, etc. They are witness of [humanity’s] failure to master the soil, and they grow abundantly wherever [humans] have ‘missed the train’ – they only indicate our errors and Nature’s corrections. Weeds want to tell a story – they are natures way of teaching [us] – and their story is interesting. If we would only listen to it we could apprehend a great deal of the finer forces through which Nature helps and heals and balances and, sometimes, also has fun with us.”

In Praise of Poison Ivy

This is a guest post by Margaret Gargiullo. Visit her website, Plants of Suburbia, and check out her books for sale on Amazon.

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No one seems to like Toxicodendron radicans, but poison ivy is an important plant in our urban and suburban natural areas. Poison ivy (Anacardiaceae, the cashew family) is a common woody vine, native to the United States and Canada from Nova Scotia to Florida, west to Michigan and Texas. It is also found in Central America as far south as Guatemala. It is all but ubiquitous in natural areas in the Mid-Atlantic United States. It has been recorded in over 70 wooded parks and other natural areas in New York City.

Leaflets of three? Let if be. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). photo credit: wikimedia commons

Leaflets of three? Let if be. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Poison ivy does have certain drawbacks for many people who are allergic to its oily sap. The toxins in poison ivy sap are called urushiols, chemicals containing a benzene ring with two hydroxyl groups (catechol) and an alkyl group of various sorts (CnHn+1).

These chemicals can cause itching and blistering of skin but they are made by the plant to protect it from being eaten by insects and vertebrate herbivores such as rabbits and deer.

Poison ivy is recognized in summer by its alternate leaves with three, shiny leaflets and by the hairy-looking aerial roots growing along its stems. In autumn the leaves rival those of sugar maple for red and orange colors. Winter leaf buds are narrow and pointed, without scales (naked). It forms extensive colonies from underground stems and can cover large areas of the forest floor with an understory of vertical stems, especially in disturbed woodlands and edges. However, It generally only blooms and sets fruit when it finds a tree to climb. When a poison ivy stem encounters a tree trunk, or other vertical surface, it clings tightly with its aerial roots and climbs upward, reaching for the light (unlike several notorious exotic vines, it does not twine around or strangle trees). Once it has found enough light, it sends out long, horizontal branches that produce flowers and fruit.

Flowers of poison ivy are small and greenish-white, not often noticed, except by the honeybees and native bees which visit them for nectar and exchange pollen among the flowers. Honey made from poison ivy nectar is not toxic. Fruits of poison ivy are small, gray-white, waxy-coated berries that can remain on the vine well into winter. They are eaten by woodpeckers, yellow-rumped warblers, and other birds. Crows use poison ivy berries as crop grist (instead of, or along with, small stones) and are major dispersers of the seeds.

The fruits of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) - photo credit: Daniel Murphy

The fruits of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) – photo credit: Daniel Murphy

It is as a ground cover that poison ivy performs its most vital functions in urban and suburban woodlands. It can grow in almost any soil from dry, sterile, black dune sand, to swamp forest edges, to concrete rubble in fill soils, and along highways. It enjoys full sun but can grow just fine in closed canopy woodlands. It is an ideal ground cover, holding soil in place on the steepest slopes, while collecting and holding leaf litter and sticks that decay to form rich humus. It captures rain, causing the water to sink into the ground, slowing runoff, renewing groundwater, filtering out pollutants, and helping to prevent flooding.

Poison ivy is usually found with many other plants growing up through it – larger herbs, shrubs, and tree seedlings that also live in the forest understory. It seems to “get along” with other plants, unlike Japanese honeysuckle or Asian bittersweet, which crowd out or smother other plants. Poison ivy is also important as shelter for birds and many invertebrates.

While those who are severely allergic to poison ivy have reason to dislike and avoid it, Toxicodendron radicans has an important place in our natural areas. No one would advocate letting it grow in playgrounds, picnic areas, or along heavily used trail margins, but it belongs in our woods and fields and should be treated with respect, not hatred. Recognize it but don’t root it out.

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Further Reading: Uva, R. H., J.C. Neal and J. M. DiTomaso. 1997. Weeds of the Northeast. Comstock Publishing. Ithaca, NY.

This piece was originally published in the New York City Dept. of Parks & Recreation, Daily Plant.

What Is a Plant, and Why Should I Care? part four

What Is a Plant?

Part one and two of this series have hopefully answered that.

Why should you care?

Part three offered a pretty convincing answer: “if it wasn’t for [plants], there wouldn’t be much life on this planet to speak of.”

Plants are at the bottom of the food chain and are a principle component of most habitats. They play major roles in nutrient cycling, soil formation, the water cycle, air and water quality, and climate and weather patterns. The examples used in part three of this series to explain the diverse ways that plants provide habitat and food for other organisms apply to humans as well. However, humans have found numerous other uses for plants that are mostly unique to our species – some of which will be discussed here.

But first, some additional thoughts on photosynthesis. Plants photosynthesize thanks to the work accomplished by very early photoautotrophic bacteria that were confined to aquatic environments. These bacteria developed the metabolic processes and cellular components that were later co-opted (via symbiogensis) by early plants. Plants later colonized land, bringing with them the phenomena of photosynthesis and transforming life on earth as we know it. Single-celled organisms started this whole thing, and they continue to rule. That’s just something to keep in mind, since our focus tends to be on large, multi-cellular beings, overlooking all the tiny, less visible beings at work all around us making life possible.

Current representation of the tree of life. Microorganisms clearly dominate. (image credit: nature microbiology)

Current representation of the tree of life. Microorganisms clearly dominate. (image credit: nature microbiology)

Food is likely the first thing that comes to mind when considering what use plants are to humans. The domestication of plants and the development of agriculture are easily among the most important events in human history. Agricultural innovations continue today and are necessary in order to both feed a growing population and reduce our environmental impact. This is why efforts to discover and conserve crop wild relatives are so essential.

Plants don’t just feed us though. They house us, clothe us, medicate us, transport us, supply us, teach us, inspire us, and entertain us. Enumerating the untold ways that plants factor in to our daily lives is a monumental task. Rather than tackling that task here, I’ll suggest a few starting points: this Wikipedia page, this BGCI article, this Encylopedia of Life article, and this book by Anna Lewington. Learning about the countless uses humans have found for plants over millennia should inspire admiration for these green organisms. If that admiration leads to conservation, all the better. After all, if the plants go, so do we.

Humans have a long tradition of using plants as medicine. Despite all that we have discovered regarding the medicinal properties of plants, there remains much to be discovered. This one of the many reasons why plant conservation is so important. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Humans have a long tradition of using plants as medicine. Despite all that we have discovered regarding the medicinal properties of plants, there remains much to be discovered. This is one of the many reasons why plant conservation is imperative. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Gaining an appreciation for the things that plants do for us is increasingly important as our species becomes more urban. Our dense populations tend to push plants and other organisms out, yet we still rely on their “services” for survival. Many of the functions that plants serve out in the wild can be beneficial when incorporated into urban environments. Plants improve air quality, reduce noise pollution, mitigate urban heat islands, help manage storm water runoff, create habitat for urban wildlife, act as a windbreak, reduce soil erosion, and help save energy spent on cooling and heating. Taking advantage of these “ecosystem services” can help our cities become more liveable and sustainable. As the environmental, social, and economic benefits of “urban greening” are better understood, groups like San Francisco’s Friends of the Urban Forest are convening to help cities across the world go green.

The importance of plants as food, medicine, fuel, fiber, housing, habitat, and other resources is clear. Less obvious is the importance of plants in our psychological well being. Numerous studies have demonstrated that simply having plants nearby can offer benefits to one’s mental and physical health. Yet, urbanization and advancements in technology have resulted in humans spending more and more time indoors and living largely sedentary lives. Because of this shift, author Richard Louv and others warn about nature deficit disorder, a term not recognized as an actual condition by the medical community but meant to describe our disconnect with the natural world. A recent article in BBC News adds “nature knowledge deficit” to these warnings – collectively our knowledge about nature is slipping away because we don’t spend enough time in it.

The mounting evidence for the benefits of having nature nearby should be enough for us to want to protect it. However, recognizing that we are a part of that nature rather than apart from it should also be emphasized. The process that plants went through over hundreds of millions of years to move from water to land and then to become what they are today is parallel with the process that we went through. At no point in time did we become separate from this process. We are as natural as the plants. We may need them a bit more than they need us, but we are all part of a bigger picture. Perhaps coming to grips with this reality can help us develop greater compassion for ourselves as well as for the living world around us.

Tomato vs. Dodder, or When Parasitic Plants Attack

At all points in their lives, plants are faced with a variety of potential attackers. Pathogenic organisms like fungi, bacteria, and viruses threaten to infect them with diseases. Herbivores from all walks of life swoop in to devour them. For this reason, plants have developed numerous mechanisms to defend themselves against threats both organismal and environmental. But what if the attacker is a fellow plant? Plants parasitizing other plants? It sounds egregious, but it’s a real thing. And since it’s been going on for thousands of years, certain plants have developed defenses against even this particular threat.

Species of parasitic plants number in the thousands, spanning more than 20 different plant families. One well known group of parasitic plants is in the genus Cuscuta, commonly known as dodder. There are about 200 species of dodder located throughout the world, with the largest concentrations found in tropical and subtropical areas. Dodders generally have thread-like, yellow to orange, leafless stems. They are almost entirely non-photosynthetic and rely on their host plants for water and nutrients. Their tiny seeds can lie dormant in the soil for a decade or more. After germination, dodders have only a few days to find host plants to wrap themselves around, after which their rudimentary roots wither up. Once they find suitable plants, dodders form adventitious roots with haustoria that grow into the stems of their host plants and facilitate uptake of water and nutrients from their vascular tissues.

A mass of dodder (Cuscuta sp.) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

A mass of dodder (Cuscuta sp.) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Some plants are able to fend off dodder. One such instance is the cultivated tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) and its resistance to the dodder species, Cuscuta reflexa. Researchers in Germany were able to determine one of the mechanisms tomato plants use to deter dodder; their findings were published in a July 2016 issue of Science. The researchers hypothesized that S. lycopersicum was employing a similar tactic to that of a microbial invasion. That is, an immune response is triggered when a specialized protein known as a pattern recognition receptor (PRP) reacts with a molecule produced by the invader known as a microbe-associated molecular pattern (MAMP). A series of experiments led the researchers to determine that this was, in fact, the case.

The MAMP was given the name Cuscuta factor and was found “present in all parts of C. reflexa, including shoot tips, stems, haustoria, and, at lower levels, in flowers.” The PRP in the tomato plant, which was given the name Cuscuta receptor 1 (or CuRe 1), reacts with the Cuscuta factor, triggering a response that prohibits C. reflexa access to its vascular tissues. Starved for nutrients, the dodder perishes. When the gene that codes for CuRe 1 was inserted into the DNA of Solanum pennellii (a wild relative of the cultivated tomato) and Nicotiana benthamiana (a relative of tobacco and a species in the same family as tomato), these plants “exhibited increased resistance to C. reflexa infestation.” Because these transgenic lines did not exhibit full resitance to the dodder attack, the researchers concluded that “immunity against C. reflexa in tomato may be a process with layers additional to CuRe 1.”

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

A slew of crop plants are vulnerable to dodder and other parasitic plants, so determining the mechanisms behind resistance to parasitic plant attacks is important, especially since such infestations are so difficult to control, have the potential to cause great economic damage, and are also a means by which pathogens are spread. It is possible that equivalents to CuRe 1 exist in other plants that exhibit resistance to parasitic plants, along with other yet to be discovered mechanisms involved in such resistance, so further studies are necessary. Discoveries like this not only help us make improvements to the plants we depend on for food, but also give us a greater understanding about plant physiology, evolutionary ecology, and the remarkable ways that plants associate with one another.

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