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 21 February 2014

Four major challenges...

The UK Plant Sciences group (which includes Syngenta!), a special arm of the Society of Biology, has recently released a report outlining the key challenges facing plant science research in the immediate future. Worryingly, the report has also identified a significant shortfall between the need for targeted research to address these concerns and the availability of trained professionals to carry out the work. Although neatly categorised into four points, these challenges are formidable obstacles:

1.       Food security: maintaining sufficient production to feed a growing population, whilst accommodating changing diets (especially in rapidly developing countries) and climate change.

2.       Producing healthier foods containing higher levels of natural nutrients (e.g. Beneforte Broccoli) or novel health benefits (e.g. the purple tomato – see previous posts).

3.       Environmental sustainability: developing crops and systems that use resources (e.g. water, fertilisers) more efficiently whilst conserving natural ecosystem biodiversity.

4.       Developing a “Green Fuel Economy”, including the development of sustainable sources of biodiesel.

The report does acknowledge that much progress could be made without groundbreaking new insights. In developing countries, for instance, much food is lost after harvest through pests, inappropriate storage and disease. Furthermore, the report highlights the importance of conserving genetic diversity by cataloguing and “seed banking” wild relatives of commercial crops. This is imperative if we are to maintain a resource of genes conferring resistance to pests, extreme climate conditions and disease. New approaches to traditional practices may also be necessary; the recent wet summers and winter flooding have been disastrous for UK wheat and potato harvests – perhaps it is time to consider different crops? Meanwhile, improving agricultural systems should be combined with other measures as part of a holistic approach; these include developing infrastructure to deliver crops to market and investing in family planning education to help slow the rate of population growth.

Nevertheless, breakthroughs in key areas of research could have a significant impact. Developing crops that can associate with nitrogen-fixing Rhizobia bacteria, for instance,  could reduce the need for nitrogen fertilisers. Approximately 50% of fossil fuels consumed by agriculture are spent on producing nitrogen fertilisers, which also cause the emission of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide through natural soil denitrification processes. Hence, it is high time we ended our reliance on these chemical inputs. This would require a significant investment in pioneering research however, with the risk of eventual failure. Similarly, developing a method to extract biodiesel from algae would be a huge advance towards achieving energy sustainability but this is also only in the early stages of research.

It is clear that the UK is a “centre of excellence” for plant science research with the United States being the only country to have a greater impact value for plant science publications. The John Innes Research Centre alone generates £30.4 million each year for the UK economy. However, there is the sense that agricultural progress has stagnated somewhat in our country.  Apparently, UK agricultural output has not increased since 1986 and in the meantime we are increasingly relying on imports. Meanwhile, 96% of the organisations and research institutions questioned by the UK Plant Sciences group had identified a “skills gap” for trained plant scientists. Interestingly, there was particular concern about a lack of trained plant taxonomists – perhaps taxonomy isn’t a “dying science” after all? The current workforce seems to be accelerating towards retirement – apparently 62% of plant health specialists are over 50 years old! With this desperate need for plant scientists, why are so few students taking it up as a career? Especially if biology is “the most popular A Level”?

The report identified several reasons:

1.       Poor awareness about the careers available to plant scientists

2.       Reduced availability of plant science related degree courses and poor coverage of the plant sciences within standard biology degrees

3.       Sparse representation of plant sciences at GSCE and A Level

4.       Few available teaching staff/lecturers at Universities; because of the costly infrastructure often required for plant science research (e.g. controlled environment chambers!), many trained researchers are based at specialist research institutions, such as the John Innes Centre, which don’t provide regular teaching to new students.

For myself, the Gatsby Plants summer school was instrumental in shaping my desire to become a plant science researcher. This was a week long residential course which immersed me in a series of lectures, discussions and practicals with world-leading plant scientists. The location in the beautiful grounds of the Emergency Planning College in York may also have helped! However, this was only possible through the generous funding of the charitable arm of the Sainsburys Trust. So what did the report suggest could be done to encourage greater interest in the humble plants?

1.       Involve plant scientists in the development of GCSE and A Level courses to make sure they reflect the latest cutting edge developments in plant science

2.       Provide training opportunities for GCSE and A Level teachers to allow them to increase their knowledge of plant science

3.       Increased opportunities for training schemes, industrial placements and apprenticeships at plant science employer institutions

4.       More public-private partnerships to translate plant science into practical research applications (I think this is the part of research that most interests the public – the “wow” factor, if you like: how does your research actually HELP people?)

5.       And of course…. More funding!!

It’s all very well KNOWING the challenges and what we can do about them…. But doing them is another matter. As for me, I hope I can do my small part through this blog, by encouraging interest in the plant sciences. Thank you for reading!

The full report can be read here:

Saturday 15 February 2014

A short update

It may have been a thoroughly wet Valentine's Day but that didn't dampen my mood as I was FINALLY discharged from hospital. If I had known at the start how "a few days" would turn into five WEEKs....! Thank you to everyone who was kind enough to send me cards and letters to keep me going in there. It was wonderful NOT to be woken up this morning for my "obs" to be done (temperature, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, etc). I won't be able to return to work just yet, until my GP declares me fit. For now though, I am just revelling in the freedom! (especially WiFi!)
Although it does mean I have to change the bed myself now...
Some of the many cards and letters I was sent in hospital. Thank you to all my kind nrighbours, family and friends!

Saturday 1 February 2014

Something fishy...

Perhaps even more exciting than the purple tomato...the 'fishy flax'?!

Whilst genetically engineering tomato to express a snapdragon gene, this endeavour goes one step beyond, introducing traits not traditionally associated with the plant kingdom.
Omega- three polyunsaturated fatty acids are crucial for proper functioning of the brain and nervous system, besides playing a role in blood clotting, immune responses and blood pressure regulation. Hence, the widespread health advice to consume at least two portions of oily fish ( tuna, mackerel, sardines, trout) each week. Although plants can be sources of omega three fatty acids, they do not produce two specific kinds, eicosapentaenoic acid ( EPA ) and docosahexaenoic acid ( DHA ). These are mainly produced by photosynthetic marine organisms, such as diatoms and algae, allowing them to accumulate in large quantities when eaten by fish. In a world where the seas face increasing resource pressure, there has been a research drive into developing a crop which can manufacture EPA and DHA. Shockingly, up to 97% of fish oil produced is turned into fish meal for fish farming. It is clear that a more sustainable resource of omega-three fatty acids is needed. By studying the metabolic processes in marine algae, scientists at Rothamsted Research have 'tweaked' the biochemistry of false flax ( Camelina sativa ), to make a plant source of EPA and DHA. This wasn't as difficult as it might sound, as false flax is already abundant in a- linolenic acid, a precursor of DHA and EPA. A particular challenge for these researchers however was to specifically tweak the metabolic pathway of the host plant to only accumulate the fatty acids of interest. Biochemical pathways can be compared with a sort of 'factory conveyor belt' where an enzyme acts on a substrate, converting it to a new product. This product then becomes the substrate for a different enzyme, which performs another reaction. A complicating factor is that eicosapentaenoic acid ( EPA) can be converted to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), hence the right combination of genes ( seven in total) was required to prevent all EPA from being converted into DHA. In addition, accumulation of intermediate products on the chemical pathway had to be avoided as these could be detrimental to health. When dealing with biochemical pathways, nothing is ever straightforward! This incredible achievement could help vegetarians to achieve a nutrient balance more easily ( although it may be that many of those who make a conscious decision not to eat meat may also object to genetically modified crops). So what's next? No doubt further attempts to introduce relatively rare vitamins  and minerals with few sources into more widely eaten foodstuffs. How about selenium- enriched bananas? What would you make? Comments below!