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!

Saturday 1 February 2014

Something fishy...

Perhaps even more exciting than the purple tomato...the 'fishy flax'?!

Whilst genetically engineering tomato to express a snapdragon gene, this endeavour goes one step beyond, introducing traits not traditionally associated with the plant kingdom.
Omega- three polyunsaturated fatty acids are crucial for proper functioning of the brain and nervous system, besides playing a role in blood clotting, immune responses and blood pressure regulation. Hence, the widespread health advice to consume at least two portions of oily fish ( tuna, mackerel, sardines, trout) each week. Although plants can be sources of omega three fatty acids, they do not produce two specific kinds, eicosapentaenoic acid ( EPA ) and docosahexaenoic acid ( DHA ). These are mainly produced by photosynthetic marine organisms, such as diatoms and algae, allowing them to accumulate in large quantities when eaten by fish. In a world where the seas face increasing resource pressure, there has been a research drive into developing a crop which can manufacture EPA and DHA. Shockingly, up to 97% of fish oil produced is turned into fish meal for fish farming. It is clear that a more sustainable resource of omega-three fatty acids is needed. By studying the metabolic processes in marine algae, scientists at Rothamsted Research have 'tweaked' the biochemistry of false flax ( Camelina sativa ), to make a plant source of EPA and DHA. This wasn't as difficult as it might sound, as false flax is already abundant in a- linolenic acid, a precursor of DHA and EPA. A particular challenge for these researchers however was to specifically tweak the metabolic pathway of the host plant to only accumulate the fatty acids of interest. Biochemical pathways can be compared with a sort of 'factory conveyor belt' where an enzyme acts on a substrate, converting it to a new product. This product then becomes the substrate for a different enzyme, which performs another reaction. A complicating factor is that eicosapentaenoic acid ( EPA) can be converted to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), hence the right combination of genes ( seven in total) was required to prevent all EPA from being converted into DHA. In addition, accumulation of intermediate products on the chemical pathway had to be avoided as these could be detrimental to health. When dealing with biochemical pathways, nothing is ever straightforward! This incredible achievement could help vegetarians to achieve a nutrient balance more easily ( although it may be that many of those who make a conscious decision not to eat meat may also object to genetically modified crops). So what's next? No doubt further attempts to introduce relatively rare vitamins  and minerals with few sources into more widely eaten foodstuffs. How about selenium- enriched bananas? What would you make? Comments below!

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