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 3 July 2014

Life in the slow lane...

Today has felt rather more quiet ... Although our press releases have been picked up and are going live, there have been few enquiries for me to deal with and no telephone interviews today. My favourite 'reinterpretation' was for the article on scorpion burrows...Israeli scientists have found that scorpions design their burrows to include a long shelf, where they can warm up in the suns heat safely before going out to hunt, but also a cool, dead end chamber deep underground as a refuge in the heat of the day. This was summed up by Discovery News as 'Scorpions build mansions with sun rooms and cool beds!'

Attending a Plenary Lecture in the main Theatre

I also received my first piece of 'hate mail' in this position. A single lined response to Dr Hamilton's study on the memory powers of African cichlids - 'what a waste of tax payers money!'. I didn't respond but I was intrigued by the motivation behind this. What was this person looking for? Did they want me to agree with them? Did they want to be interviewed? Or were they just purely 'sounding off?' I also received a long account from an aquarium hobbyist detailing how they trained their Cichlid to feed from their hand. Again, I'm not sure if they are expecting me to respond to this.....

The SEB careers stand... my "home from home" during the conference!

I did use some of my "free time" to attend the WoolHouse lecture, given in memory of Harold Woolhouse, director of the John Innes Centre between 1980 and 1989.  George Coupland gave a fascinating account of the differences in environmental sensitivity between annual and perennial plants. Many plant species can only flower after being exposed to cold temperatures (known as vernalisation"). In annual plants, once the flowering process is underway, vegetative growth ceases and the plant dies afterwards. Perennials, however, revert back to vegetative growth after flowering and can survive for another growing season. By studying flowering mutants in the model organism Arabidopsis (thale cress), including plants that can flower without requiring vernalisation, researchers have identified a gene that appears central to controlling these differences. PEP1 - which stands for Perpetual Flowering 1 - acts as a transcription factor; a protein which controls the activity of other genes. Active PEP1 prevents flowering however PEP1 itself is inhibited by vernalisation. In annuals such as Arabidopsis, PEP1 remains stably repressed but in perennials, PEP1 is only transiently inhibited and becomes active again. However, PEP1 cannot be the only agent controlling the flowering transition as when very young shoots are exposed to vernalisation (causing PEP1 to be repressed) flowering still does not occur. Such shoots are described as "non-competent" - but what is it that makes them so? Recently, plant scientists have found that short transcripts of ribonucleic acids (similar to DNA), known as "micro-RNAs" determine the competency of plant meristems. In young shoots, miR156 seems to inhibit flowering, but this becomes downregulated by age. The whole flowering transition, however, requires both PEP1 AND mrRNA156 to be inactive, ensuring that only competent shoots that have been exposed to cold temperatures can flower. Just another of the exquisite control systems that plants demonstrate - which is partly why I am so fascinated by them!

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