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!

Thursday, 16 October 2014

A bit of PLANT DIY...

Working in a lab involves a lot of sharing - of pipettes, bench space, chemical stocks besides skills and knowledge - but my wonderful supervisor has arranged for me to have a Conviron (Controlled Environment) Chamber all of my own! These take a lot of stress out of growing plants as everything, from the temperature, light levels and humidity can be precisely (and remotely) programmed. Hence, there are rice plants and all sorts of other tropical wonders growing under the department's car park!

Welcome to my chamber ...Conviron 502, waiting to be filled with plants

However, for all of the sophisticated, horrendously expensive fancy equipment, there are times when scientists have to engage in a bit of "do-it-yourselfery"... This year I will be working on the model plant organism Arabidopsis thaliana, unlike most of my lab, who work on crops. Consequently, whilst we have lots of rhizotrons (root observation chambers) perfectly sized for rice, I will need to make my own "mini-versions" using square petri dishes. In order for my plants to survive, they will need proper drainage... and the easiest way to introduce a drainage hole is using a hacksaw!

a) Don't give biologists weapons
b) Marking the place for a cut
c) Incision!

But why am I working on Arabidopsis when it is the effect of parasitic plants on crops that makes them so devastating? Simply put, it is a LOT easier to find things...especially genes potentially related to resistance. Arabidopsis has a weeny genome that has been well sequenced thanks to the efforts of a global network of researchers. Crops, however, have MASSIVE genomes, as many of their ancestors experienced "chromosome doubling" events. The maize genome, for instance, is approximately 2500 mega-basepairs, compared to 110 mega-basepairs in Arabidopsis. This makes looking for interesting genes (e.g. for drought tolerance, disease resistance, high yield) like looking for a needle in a haystack. However, many of these genes are present in Arabidopsis and can be found more quickly and sequenced. Cloned genes can then be used to find the related genes of interest in crops.

But first, I need my plants! I have 50 mini rhizotrons now but will need many more so I will be back at the workbench tomorrow!

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