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, 4 April 2014

UK PlantSci 2014 conference - Day 1: Monday 31st March

Associated with a beautiful Minster, Richard III, Rowntrees Fruit Pastilles…and now world leading plant science! My excitement mounted as I browsed the programme of the UK PlantSci conference – “Plant Science – sustaining life on earth” – on the train. Fortunately, York is only a short hop from Sheffield so arriving in good time to register at 10.00 wasn’t too uncomfortable.
I feel so much more professional with an official badge!
The first series of talks set a depressing forecast for the future. With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and with changing diets in developing countries to take into account, agricultural production will need to step up by at least an additional 60%. This challenge – considerable in itself – also faces the hurdles of sustaining biodiversity, conserving diminishing water sources, lowering nutritional inputs and coping with a more irascible climate. It seems there has never been a time when plant scientists have been needed more…

A key point, however, was that food security is about much more than food production but also access and management. As up to a third of food is lost as waste and obesity costs the NHS billions each year, it is clear that there are staggering discrepancies in food availability. Addressing these issues alone could achieve some progress. In addition, everybody could “do their bit” by resolving to eat fewer meat and dairy products. If one person decides to forgo just one burger a week, over a year this would save the equivalent in Green House Gas emissions as taking a car off the road for 320 miles. Food for thought indeed…. yet there is still the need for innovative science, particularly as our climate is already changing. Sadly, it seems that we are definitely on course for a world which is 4 degrees warmer. Although this may not sound so much in itself, the main problem from an agricultural point of view is that weather variability will also increase.  This directly impacts crop yields; for instance, although the UK average yield for wheat is 8 tonnes per hectare, this could diminish to 2-3 tonnes per hectare in some years. Not just “a bad year for farmers” but a stressful time for consumers – imagine it; staggering prices in the supermarket, customers fighting over loaves of bread…it is little wonder that civil unrest correlates with food prices.

So…plant science to the rescue!!??

Several of the talks on the first day focused on the challenge of “doing more with less” – particularly regarding water use. Adam Price, of the University of Aberdeen, described the pioneering technique of “Alternate Wetting and Drying” for rice. This water-saving technique involves alternately flooding rice plants, rather than keeping them constantly inundated. Water levels are monitored by means of a “field water  tube” – when the water level drops to a certain point, the field is “topped up” with pond water. Besides saving up to 30% of water inputs, for some cultivars this method can actually increase yields by up to 33%. An innovative, practical solution…and cheap!

Meanwhile, Carla Turner of the University of Sheffield described how water use efficiency could also be improved by manipulating the number of stomata; the pores on leaves which enable gas exchange but are also the main route of water loss. Key regulators in stomatal development have been identified and over expressing these can lead to fewer stomata and plants that thrive on low moisture regimes.

Other talks addressed the problem of plant diseases, which claim 40% of global food production (before we waste a third of it!). A particular worry is how plant pathogens will be affected by climate change and whether we can expect diseases to broaden their range to encompass more growing regions. There was discussion on using climate forecast modelling to predict disease movements and a clear call to implement greater monitoring schemes, particularly in developing countries.

It is shocking how the global agricultural system has come to depend on such a limited range of crops. In an increasingly variable world, it is likely that new “star players” will emerge as the crops of the future. One candidate is Sorghum, a highly drought resistant grain and forage crops. Presidor Kendabie, however, the University of Nottingham, turned our attention to the bambara groundnut, a tropical legume. Advantages include an ability to fix nitrogen, drought tolerance and a good range of amino acids. In addition, although similar to the peanut, this species contains no allergens. A convincing contender for the supermarket shelves of the future…

A busy day of talks and still more to come! But first, an overnight breather to try and take it all in so far.
Posters and trade stands (freebies) in the atrium

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