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 September 2015

And my supervisor told me to get rid of them...

"Get rid of them" my supervisor told me "They're no use of you now, if there were any parasite seed that germinated they must have died by now".

'They' in question were my tobacco plants, Take Two. I had. lovingly raised from seed and, about two months ago, I had carefully transplanted them into pots of soil infested with dormant seeds of the root parasitic weed  Striga gesnerioides, the subject of my PhD project. As every plant scientist knows, the first thing you do when you start working on a new species/ mutant/ culitivar is BULK THE SEED, BULK THE SEED , BULK THE SEED! Especially if you only have one vial of it left that is fast running out...

So the idea was that, as a super susceptible host, the tobacco would act as a 'Striga-seed factory', and I would get hundreds of flowering Striga shoots emerging which would flower and hopefully give me enough seed for the rest of my PhD. So I waited and waited...

...and waited...

And nothing. It got to the stage where my supervisor decided enough was enough, we needed to move on to a different strategy. The tobacco were now taking up space and needed to be cleared out. This was at the end of June and I said I would get on to it, but , with one thing or another, I didn't quite get round to it before leaving for the Annual Meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology ( where I was attending as official science writer) in Prague. So, I put it on the 'To-Do' list for when I got back.

But when I did return....there seemed to be something poking out of the soil  surrounding one of the tobacco plants. A purplish-little dome with a bumpy surface  ...could it be?

I hardly dared to hope but nevertheless I decided to delay taking the tobacco to the tip. And the little something continued to emerge, and turned out to be a tightly closed bud supported by a delicate stem....unmistakably Striga gesnerioides. I was elated but , as the weeks went by, it seemed that this was not 'the first of many' but a fluke. No new shoots emerged and the only one that had eventually went on to flower, set seed and die. 

But then one Monday, as I checked on the plants after the weekend.... What was this??! Not one, but two, three, four....several shoots coming up now - at least one on each tobacco plant. They were finally coming!!! It actually worked!

I now think that I was watering the soil too much, causing the parasite seed to enter 'wet dormancy' (Striga gesnerioides doesn't like getting too wet). Whilst I was away, of course, they had plenty of time to dry out and wake up again!

I have a new favourite hobby now: counting my little darlings with today's  count being 36 parasite shoots in total, with 19 on a single host. My supervisor remains unimpressed though : "You need WAY more than that to get enough seed - I've seen sixty to eighty on a single plant!" Maybe so, but I'm inclined to keep hold of my tobacco for the meantime...after all, who knows what else may turn up?!

The 'Host with the Most' - Striga gesnerioides on tobacco 

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