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

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