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!

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