08 November 2007

Biology Gangstas

Elodea canadensis by Bas Kers CC-BY-NC-SA
Show the picture on the left to any biology teacher worth his/her salt, and it will be quickly identified. "Elodea!" they will exclaim in rapturous delight. It's an aquatic plant, prized for its cell structure and thin leaves. Underneath the microscope, there are lots of big beautiful chloroplasts which are easily visible. There is often evidence of "cytoplasmic streaming," meaning that the skeletal structure inside the cell is circulating the chloroplasts in an effort to maximize exposure for photosynthesis. It's a great plant for many an experiment in biology. The cells readily show reactions to changes in concentration of salts, sugars, and water.

The only problem is that in Washington, it's illegal to sell. That's right, in this state, it's a bit of a contraband organism. It's not native to our area and far too many aquarium hobbyists (and bad bio teachers) have dumped their extra bits and pieces in lakes...where the plant is taking over. It grows rapidly and is squeezing out native species.
Elodea choloroplasts by albertstraub CC-BY

But what's a good bio teacher to do when she needs her some Elodea? It's not illegal to possess the plant---just to sell it. She can't go to a pet store or biological supply company to buy some. She's gotta call the godfather who has a free Elodea hook-up for her. That's what.

In talking about an upcoming lab with students, I mentioned the plant and its dubious distinction in our state. Most of them made the unfortunate association with another sort of weed and assumed that this plant is also controlled because it shouldn't be smoked. Um, no. They were completely disappointed by the real deal on this plant and that there are no pharmaceutical effects; however, the mystique has remained. I had told them that I was getting together with my "supplier" soon and we would have some to play with in the lab.

I couldn't have asked for a better setup for today. In one of my classes, the hand off was made in full view of the students...and they were enthralled. Mind you, it was one of the football coaches who brought it in---this big baggie of green weedy stalks floating around in aquarium water. The kids' eyes got big as they watched the happy delivery. "Look!" I exclaimed, after he left. "We have Elodea for tomorrow's lab!" Personally, I was ecstatic to get some of this delightful teaching tool. For the kids, however, they're sure that they've just been privy to some biology. Gangsta style.

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