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!


Sunday, 29 October 2017

A tale of two cabinets...


One of the amazing things about plants is how flexible their development is compared with animals. You can take two plants of the same species, even with exactly the same genetic code, but put them in different conditions and they can end up looking completely different. Whereas for animals, their development is much less sensitive to the environment and pretty much determined by their DNA sequence. It’s one of the things that makes plants so interesting to study – and also why it is so important to include all the appropriate controls when doing experiments with them!

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about my current seed crisis and my ongoing struggle to obtain enough seed of the parasitic weed I study, Striga gesnerioides, to finish my PhD. To do this, I grew some tobacco seedlings as these are very sysceptible to Striga: my hope was that the parasite would infect them well enough to produce an abundance of flowering shoots that would eventually form seed pods. Unfortuantely, the few parasite shoots that did appear withered and died – despite me following my supervisors instructions from when they did it before a few years ago “and it worked perectly”.  At this point, I was at the stage where my seed supplies were so low, I was having to seriously cut down the number of experiments I could do. So for round two, I couldn’t take any more chances.
The growth cabinet I used in the first attempt, Conviron Number 502, is set to mimic a temperate British climate, with short days at 25 degrees. However, Striga gesnerioides is actually native to Sub-Saharan Africa, where it devastates cowpea crops. I reasoned that it was more than likely that they would fare better in a slightly more tropical climate. So this time, half my Striga-infected tobacco ‘babies’ went in Conviron 502 and the other half went to joint the rice plants in our tropical walk-in growth chamber. Up to that point, they had been treated exactly the same.
Unhappy looking tobacco plants in Conviron 502
So what happened? After only a week or two, the two sets of tobacco looked almost like different species. Those in Convrion 502 were small and squat, with dark green leaves, almost dwarfed by their pots. On the other hand, those in the tropical walk in grew vigorously and probably would have kept going if they had been in bigger containers. As for the Striga…..it was no contest. At first lots of parasite shoots appeared on both sets of plants, putting me in hope of a super-abundant harvest. But the ones in 502 were weak and weedy, flopping over the side of the pot or withering away as before. Meanwhile, the Striga shoots in the tropical cabinet stood up as straight as soldiers with a healthy purple flush to their stems. And they just kept on coming….whenever I felt down, I would go and run my hands over the surface of the soil, delighting in the feel of their buds forcing their way upwards.  
Much happier tobacco plants growing in the simulated tropics - they are even flowering!
Over the weeks that followed, I visited almost every day, agonising over whether I was giving them too much or too little water. I was paranoid that I would somehow kill them all off. But the Striga shoots stayed healthy and in time produced quite a wonderful display of tiny purple flowers. Eventually this colourful show came to an end, the petals fell to the ground, and the seed pods began to swell. And finally the moment I had waited so long for - the pods started to mature, turning  jet black, indicating that they were ripe. It was a happy day last week when I delicately cut the first shoots, taking great care not to agitate the seed pods too much, causing them to burst open. After months of trying, my first harvest at last!
Not again! Withered, dead Striga shoots
There is still a long way to go - the seed pods have to dry out for a few weeks in the 30 degree incubator - and this first harvest is unlikely to see me through to the end of my PhD. But I already have the latest generation of tobacco seedlings coming through ...in fact, I have quite a conveyor belt operation now, with new tobacco seedlings constantly moving along the system to make sure I always have new Striga- infected hosts coming along!

That's better! A beautifully infected tobacco plant with lots of flowering Striga shoots
Photograph by James Bradley
Plants can be frustratingly complex at times, but that does make them fascinating to study. The more we find out about their molecular systems, the more layers of control, regulation and interplay we discover. Which simply means there will surely be no end to the legions of PhD students stepping up to these challenges!

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