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 30 January 2014

Something interesting

A landmark achievement, representing years of painstaking research, was quietly acknowledged by the media recently. Consumer oriented, genetically modified purple tomatoes are due to go on sale in Canada.
These plants, however, were developed by a British team at the John Innes Centre in Norwich ( where I once did an eight week summer research placement researching temperature sensing mechanisms in plants). However current EU law forbids the sale of these GM crops, hence the group have looked to North America, which has a more favourable climate towards engineered crops. What makes this case particularly interesting is that the introduced trait has the supermarket customer, not the farmer, in mind. Rather than being herbicide tolerant, resistant to insects/bacteria or drought tolerant, these plants are particularly high in anthocyanin, an antioxidant. This class of molecules forms part of the body's natural defence against free radicals: unstable molecules with an excess of energy. These can damage cell components and it is thought that the damage they cause to DNA may provoke the mutations that lead to cancer. Free radicals are also believed to promote the ageing process. Antioxidants help to neutralise these dangerous molecules, absorbing the excess energy.
You might be asking 'What about Benefort√© Broccoli?  Isn't that the same thing?' . Benefort√© broccoli, also developed by the John Innes Centre, is high in glucoraphin, which our bodies convert to sulforaphane. This acts as a phytonutrient, stimulating enzymes involved with detoxifying free radicals. However, this superfood was developed using the traditional plant breeding methods which created the range of fruit and veg available in all greengrocers. As such, it is exempt from EU restrictions on GM food and can be bought from many supermarkets in this country. The purple tomato, however, contains an introduced gene from another plant, the snapdragon. This encodes a transcription factor ( a protein which regulates individual or sets of genes) that stimulates anthocyanin production. When fed to mice with cancer, the modified fruit was able to extend their lifespan.

So why pick the tomato? Consider how versatile this fruit is - tomato juice, an ingredient for salads, a pizza topping, a sauce for pasta... For now, however, the product will only be sold in the form of tomato juice; this avoids the problem of GM seeds escaping into the environment. Although this development will eclipse the British population, at least for now, it does give a window onto a world where we have access to a range of nutrient enhanced fruits and vegetables and can tailor our diets to address specific concerns or ailments. Clearly the principle is acceptable; we already eat cereals fortified with folic acid and white bread with added calcium after all. But it may take a while for the European public to stomach the method. I would be interested to hear your comments- are GM foods the future or are they dangerous frankenfoods?

On a different note, I was delighted to hear that my Stem Cell lecturer at Durham University, Professor Colin Jahoda, has succeeded in regenerating  human hair using stem cells. This is another rapidly developing and highly exciting field of science, which also gives incredible visions for the future. Although some might argue that regenerating hair is a low priority compared with regenerating organs, this offers hope to sufferers of conditions such as alopecia and also victims of disfiguring burns. As a cynical thought, perhaps it is easier to attract funding if there can be a cosmetic element involved.
For more information on regenerating human hair, see www.bbsrc.ac.uk/nmsruntime/saveasdialog.aspx?lID=12059

Friday 17 January 2014

A setback

Unfortunately I am off work at the moment as I picked up an infection and was advised to go to hospital to have it checked out. It should be ok but I don't know how long I will be here for. It shouldn't affect my work as my experiments for this year hadn't really got underway but I can't wait to get back and get started again.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

A Happy Start to a New Year...

It is hard to believe that I am actually being paid now to do science, but it is still a wonderful feeling to earn a little money by my own initiative. As you have probably gathered, I love to write, especially about science, and I have been very lucky in the past to have had two articles accepted by Catalyst magazine, a resource for secondary school and A Level science students. This publication is designed to complement the school syllabus but to broaden the horizons of interested pupils. My previous articles were nothing to do with plants - one explored the physiology of diving mammals (how can whales and dolphins stay submerged for so long without breathing?) and the other gave a basic introduction to stem cells.

At the close of this year, I was thrilled to hear that another of my articles had been accepted; this one explored "Turing mechanisms" as a way to explain how animal patterns (tiger stripes, leopard spots, etc) spontaneously arise in nature. I had found this a tricky subject to understand at university and enjoyed the challenge of trying to explain it to a new audience. They say the best way to understand something is to teach it to somebody else! I was especially pleased that this article even made the cover! (see below).

But more was to come. Over the summer, I had also written an introduction to the world of parasitic plants - this wasn't related specifically to my work but to parasitic plants in general, including the more well-known stem-parasites mistletoe and dodders. You may have also seen my June posts on the IUPS (International Union of Physiological Sciences) Conference held in Birmingham this year. I used this as an opportunity to produce an article entitled "What is a scientific conference?", using photographs I had taken at the event (having obtained permission from the organisers first!). I was particularly pleased with it as it felt very "home grown" - I had taken all the pictures myself and even mustered the courage to approach people for quotes (and discovering that most people are really quite friendly once you've said hello!). I divided the article into sections including the lectures, seminars, poster sessions, trade stands and public outreach activities. Anyway, I was stunned to find that BOTH of these articles had been published in the most recent issue making me one of the main contributors! It is so lovely to see the finished articles in print (it's not the same as a computer screen!) and, although it's not Nature or Science, I am so grateful for this opportunity to publish my work and feel a bit like a proper science writer. Thank you Catalyst for making my year!

Thank you very much for reading and I wish you a very happy and healthful 2014!