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 27 May 2016

Pint of Science - taking research from the lab to the pub

Can there be a more potent mix than topical scientific debate and beer?! Last Wednesday I had a chance to find out when I volunteered at Sheffield's very first Pint of Science Festival. This now worldwide event brings researchers and the public together by staging interactive science talks in local pubs. Our venue for the night: The Doctor's Orders, a pub particularly favoured by the Hallamshire Hospital's medical students. Our topic: Food for the Future - how the latest plant science can help us feed the world. 

We are currently facing an impending food crisis. By 2050, we will have to produce enough food for an extra 2 billion people, yet the area of productive land is dwindling fast due to increased urbanisation and desolation of natural resources. On top of all this, more and more people and eschewing an agricultural lifestyle and looking to the city for employment. But whilst we may see a future mired in troubles, PhD student James Lambert has a vision of what will drive the next agricultural revolution: robots.
James Lambert with one of his drones
"Robots are particularly good for any jobs that are dull, dangerous and dirty' James explained. But forget Hollywood-style humanoid drones. . instead, James envisages that small, sleek modular machines will sweep across  the fields, completing jobs in a fraction of the time it would take a human team, and with medical precision. According to him, the days of the combine harvester are numbered. Because these place a heavy weight over a relatively small area, these mechanical beasts cause considerable soil compaction and stall easily in mud and sludge. Smaller robots, such as the Ladybird prototype, will be much more nimble and could even be completely automated - potentially allowing productivity time to double by extending into the night. 

But robots are also taking to the air, and James demonstrated how consumer drones are more than expensive playthings for farmers, using Blackgrass as an example. This notorious weed is common across the British Isles and is particularly difficult to detect since it emerges from within the crop itself. "It would be too time consuming for the farmer to walk the entire field so the only solution is to spray the entire fired with powerful herbicides" James said. Airborne drones, however, can quickly and efficiently pinpoint the hidden weeds, ensuring that chemical sprays are only applied where they are needed. Such  precision agriculture" is better for both the environment and the farmer's wallet and is an increasing trend within the industry. All it takes, said James, is 'to find the right robot for the right situation'.

During the break the audience members amused themselves by tackling our fiendishly difficult climate change quiz, watching a demonstration of photosynthesis from Roboplant and completing our Food-Miles challenge: who would have thought that Chinese Cabbage was actually grown in Norfolk?!
Professor Colin Osborne introduces  RoboPlant
Seed scientist James Thackery then took to the stage to introduce the divisive topic of genetic engineering using the context of his own research. Approximately 56% of our calories come from seeds - including wheat, rice, nuts, beans and sweet corn - and James is particularly interested in the genes that affect their size and nutrition. "Because seeds play such an important role in our diet, even small changes can have big downstream effects" he said. But efforts to do so using the latest genetic engineering techniques have met with public resistance. Against this, James argued that we have been genetically manipulating plants ever since ancient hunter gathers spotted some unusually large seeds on certain plants and decided to plant these instead of eating them. Since then, traditional plant breeding methods gradually wrought the familiar crops we know today, rendering them almost unrecognisable to their wild ancestors.

Yet using existing variation could only take us so far. When it was discovered that genetic mutations could be induced using radiation, this heralded a whole new era of plant breeding. The process of subjecting seeds to powerful radiation, selecting 'mutants' with desirable traits and breeding these into high-yielding varieties ultimately produced many of the crops we eat today. Compared with this, James argues that using targeted genetic modifications would involve considerably less disruption to the plant genome, as the edit would be entirely controlled, rather than the result of multiple random mutations. And the potential benefits could be enormous. Besides breeding plants with higher yields or improved tolerance to environmental stresses, it could even be possible to introduce harmless sections of DNA from otherwise deadly plant pathogens - and so give the plant a 'vaccine' against the disease.

Despite this, GM projects still attract opposition. "We need to make a distinction between GM as a technique and GM products" said James "The most important thing for any food is that it is tested for safety". Indeed, a product doesn't have to be GM to come with problems, as the various scares over growth hormones, artificial dyes and carcinogens in our food have shown.

Although neither robots or GM alone are likely to be "silver bullets" that will solve all our troubles, it's almost certain that they will both play a role in revolutionising our agricultural systems so that they can face the challenges ahead. Lets raise a toast to the wonders of science!

Sunday 8 May 2016

Red Meat - can it be a food for our future?

Given that it is one of the most carbon-intensive foods on the planet, supposedly causes cancer and contributes to deforestation – is there really a place for red meat in a sustainable future? The situation however, goes beyond environmental concerns and touches on complex social, economic and health dynamics. All of these came under the spotlight in the debate “Red Meat and Alternatives - a Sustainable Approach” held on Wednesday 27th April by the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures.

First up, Megan Larmer from Slow Food USA described how this organisation is using a holistic approach to promote “good, clean, fair food for all” and to “turn the herd” towards more sustainable choices. She made the point that meat is a very divisive issue and that simply telling people to eat less of it is unlikely to bring them on board. Hence Slow Food ambassadors across the world tailor their approach to respect the distinct cultural traditions of their communities. For instance, in the USA the movement organised “Nose-to-Tailgating” events on Superbowl Sunday, where sports fans enjoyed whole-animal barbecues in the parking lots of football stadiums. Meanwhile in Cuba, culinary workshops are helping to spread a mentality where “meat is seen as an added flavour, rather than the centrepiece of the meal”. In Germany, where practices that reduce waste are more established, “Kuttelgespr├Ąche” (tripe talks) have proved a hit in showing people how to make nutritious meals out of offal. As Megan explained, besides showcasing sustainable practices, these events play important roles in social cohesion, sharing skills and countering restricted food choices from intensive agriculture.  

From a slow movement to an industry giant – we then heard from Dean Holroyd, Technical and Sustainability Director for Anglo Beef Processors. Despite the fact that “red meat is in the press for all the wrong reasons”, he argued that it will remain an intrinsic part of our diets into the future. “People will eat meat – after all, it has 72 health claims associated with it” he said. “So it is better to influence it from within and to farm it properly”. Similar to the Slow Food movement, ABP is committed to letting nothing go to waste. Any part of the animal that isn’t suitable for human consumption is put to use in all manner of products – including pet food, gelatin for cosmetics and even renewable fuel. As Dean put it; “The only thing we don’t use is the Moo”. Meanwhile, ABP also enforces strict standards regarding animal welfare, carbon dioxide emissions and local sourcing. And it is even possible to introduce these systems at a small scale. “Not all of our suppliers are massive farms” he said. “Most of them are small, mixed arable farms that produce an average of 28 cattle per year”. However high standards come at a cost – in general, red meat products are more expensive in the UK than anywhere else in the world.

Red meat - can we really afford it?

Yet Illtud Llyr Dunsford, artisan Welsh farmer, has found that people are prepared to pay for quality, sustainable products that they believe in. Having grown up on a farm that butchers and processed its own livestock, Illtud found it quite a shock to go to University; “It was quite a surprise to realise that people just go and buy meat and to see how disconnected they are”. On taking over his Uncle’s farm in 2004, he was determined to make sure his values shaped his methods at every level. After seeing first-hand how soy cultivation is decimating the Brazilian rainforest, he committed to using alternative protein sources for his animals, such as local cereals and waste products from milk and beer production. He is also a strong supporter of regional breeds, such as the Pedigree Welsh Pig, making the point that although they may not produce such large litters or as much meat by volume, they can be more nutritionally efficient, packing in more nourishment per 100g, and taste better besides. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, he is also open to more modern interventions, including culturing meat from stem cells. This would take waste-reduction to the next level, as you would only grow the meat that you want, without any bones and gristle.

Finally, Tony Davison, a commercial manager for Quorn Foods Ltd, made the case that reducing our red meat intake doesn’t mean confining ourselves to a bland, unexciting diet. Although most people think of Quorn as “the vegetarian option”,Tony was clear to point out the “we are not a vegetarian company, we are a company that produces food that vegetarians can happen to eat”. Developed in the 1960s, Quorn was envisaged as “the first new food since the potato” and one that could be a real solution in the impending food crises. “It is predicted that to feed current meat consumption, we will need to produce 200 million more animals annually by 2050” Tony said. “The numbers don’t stack up – Quorn is a real solution!”. And indeed, it is a remarkably simple process, using the ability of the Fusarium venenatum fungus to turn starch into protein. Simply ferment the microorganisms with glucose, oxygen and a few nutrients, leave them to get on with things then centrifuge off the mycoprotein. It might sound very technical, but Quorn is an incredibly versatile produce that lend itself to all manner of cuisines, all whilst retaining the texture of traditional meat products.

As it’s clear that the status quo simply won’t last for the long term, it’s time we all broadened our minds when it comes to our food-sourcing habits. Whether that means learning how to cook offal, choosing Quorn every now and then or looking out for products from regional breeds, we can all play a part in putting some more green into the red when it comes to meat.