Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Friday, 21 February 2014

Four major challenges...

The UK Plant Sciences group (which includes Syngenta!), a special arm of the Society of Biology, has recently released a report outlining the key challenges facing plant science research in the immediate future. Worryingly, the report has also identified a significant shortfall between the need for targeted research to address these concerns and the availability of trained professionals to carry out the work. Although neatly categorised into four points, these challenges are formidable obstacles:

1.       Food security: maintaining sufficient production to feed a growing population, whilst accommodating changing diets (especially in rapidly developing countries) and climate change.

2.       Producing healthier foods containing higher levels of natural nutrients (e.g. Beneforte Broccoli) or novel health benefits (e.g. the purple tomato – see previous posts).

3.       Environmental sustainability: developing crops and systems that use resources (e.g. water, fertilisers) more efficiently whilst conserving natural ecosystem biodiversity.

4.       Developing a “Green Fuel Economy”, including the development of sustainable sources of biodiesel.

The report does acknowledge that much progress could be made without groundbreaking new insights. In developing countries, for instance, much food is lost after harvest through pests, inappropriate storage and disease. Furthermore, the report highlights the importance of conserving genetic diversity by cataloguing and “seed banking” wild relatives of commercial crops. This is imperative if we are to maintain a resource of genes conferring resistance to pests, extreme climate conditions and disease. New approaches to traditional practices may also be necessary; the recent wet summers and winter flooding have been disastrous for UK wheat and potato harvests – perhaps it is time to consider different crops? Meanwhile, improving agricultural systems should be combined with other measures as part of a holistic approach; these include developing infrastructure to deliver crops to market and investing in family planning education to help slow the rate of population growth.

Nevertheless, breakthroughs in key areas of research could have a significant impact. Developing crops that can associate with nitrogen-fixing Rhizobia bacteria, for instance,  could reduce the need for nitrogen fertilisers. Approximately 50% of fossil fuels consumed by agriculture are spent on producing nitrogen fertilisers, which also cause the emission of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide through natural soil denitrification processes. Hence, it is high time we ended our reliance on these chemical inputs. This would require a significant investment in pioneering research however, with the risk of eventual failure. Similarly, developing a method to extract biodiesel from algae would be a huge advance towards achieving energy sustainability but this is also only in the early stages of research.

It is clear that the UK is a “centre of excellence” for plant science research with the United States being the only country to have a greater impact value for plant science publications. The John Innes Research Centre alone generates £30.4 million each year for the UK economy. However, there is the sense that agricultural progress has stagnated somewhat in our country.  Apparently, UK agricultural output has not increased since 1986 and in the meantime we are increasingly relying on imports. Meanwhile, 96% of the organisations and research institutions questioned by the UK Plant Sciences group had identified a “skills gap” for trained plant scientists. Interestingly, there was particular concern about a lack of trained plant taxonomists – perhaps taxonomy isn’t a “dying science” after all? The current workforce seems to be accelerating towards retirement – apparently 62% of plant health specialists are over 50 years old! With this desperate need for plant scientists, why are so few students taking it up as a career? Especially if biology is “the most popular A Level”?

The report identified several reasons:

1.       Poor awareness about the careers available to plant scientists

2.       Reduced availability of plant science related degree courses and poor coverage of the plant sciences within standard biology degrees

3.       Sparse representation of plant sciences at GSCE and A Level

4.       Few available teaching staff/lecturers at Universities; because of the costly infrastructure often required for plant science research (e.g. controlled environment chambers!), many trained researchers are based at specialist research institutions, such as the John Innes Centre, which don’t provide regular teaching to new students.

For myself, the Gatsby Plants summer school was instrumental in shaping my desire to become a plant science researcher. This was a week long residential course which immersed me in a series of lectures, discussions and practicals with world-leading plant scientists. The location in the beautiful grounds of the Emergency Planning College in York may also have helped! However, this was only possible through the generous funding of the charitable arm of the Sainsburys Trust. So what did the report suggest could be done to encourage greater interest in the humble plants?

1.       Involve plant scientists in the development of GCSE and A Level courses to make sure they reflect the latest cutting edge developments in plant science

2.       Provide training opportunities for GCSE and A Level teachers to allow them to increase their knowledge of plant science

3.       Increased opportunities for training schemes, industrial placements and apprenticeships at plant science employer institutions

4.       More public-private partnerships to translate plant science into practical research applications (I think this is the part of research that most interests the public – the “wow” factor, if you like: how does your research actually HELP people?)

5.       And of course…. More funding!!

It’s all very well KNOWING the challenges and what we can do about them…. But doing them is another matter. As for me, I hope I can do my small part through this blog, by encouraging interest in the plant sciences. Thank you for reading!

The full report can be read here:

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