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 8 July 2016

Mad microlites, synthetic science and good bye Brighton: Days 4-5 ofthe Society for Experimental Biology Annual Meeting

Despite this being the third time I have reported on the Society for Experimental Biology's Annual Meeting, it has amazed me yet again just how quickly the conference has flown by. It seems only yesterday when I arrived in Brighton for the first time and yet so much has happened since then!

The fourth day, Wednesday, proved especially busy. I'm hoping to write a feature on the synthetic biology work being presented here so I spent most of the morning in the 'Re-engineering Life' session. Although most of the modelling diagrams went over my head, it was fascinating stuff with enormous potential, from designing novel microorganisms that can fix carbon dioxide in new ways to introducing gene circuits into mammalian cells that are activated by light.

In the WoodHouse Lecture, Professor Jane Langdale (Oxford University) carried on this theme by giving us an update on the C4 Project, which aims to boost productivity in rice by overhauling photosynthesis. In conventional C3 plants, photosynthetic efficiency is limited by the competing reaction of respiration which inhibits the activity of the key enzyme! RUBISCO. In C4 plants however, respiration and photosynthesis are spatially separated because the leaf cells have a distinct Kranz ('wreath-like') architecture around the veins. If this arrangement could be introduced into cereals such as rice, this could have profound impacts for food security. Professor Langdale's work focuses on understanding the developmental systems that cause Kranz anatomy; so far, she has identified many of the major gene players and is now at the stage where they are being expressed as transgene vectors in rice. Because C4 plants also use nitrogen and water more efficiently, in theory C4 rice could have 50% higher yields than current varieties. However, this is an enormous feat to pull off and Professor Langdale "doesn't anticipate that we will initiate any plant breeding until at least  2029". It must be incredible to work on a project that will outlive your career and for which you will ultimately have to pass on the baton. As Professor Langdale put it: "We may have started it, but the people who will deliver it are our young PhDs and PostDocs".  

The afternoon passed in another blur of presentations before the second round of posters ( and free wine). I managed to get round quite a few of them ( who knew that cat urine could affect mice reproductive cycles...?) and even managed to swap some ideas with the plant researchers for my own PhD project. Then I was off to a first for the SEB meetings: a 'fringe event' organised with the Brighton Cafe ScientifiquĂ© group*. Having heard that the SEB would be coming to town, the group had asked if they could borrow one of our speakers for one of their meetings. Steve Portugal, animal behaviour researcher, kindly obliged. 

One of Steve's research areas asks the question - Why do birds fly in V formation? It is presumed that the birds position themselves to most benefit from the updraft of the bird in front, saving precious energy. The only real way to test this however is to fit some birds with rather sophisticated data loggers: in this case, the researchers settled on the Northern Bald Ibis. As the loggers cost around £3000 each, it is vital that your test subjects will comeback to you with your data! So a group of volunteers were recruited to become Foster Parents to the Bald Ibis chicks. To start with, they had to make sure that they were the very first thing the birds saw when they hatched, so that they would imprint on them. After then living with the birds for 9 months, the foster parents had to teach them to fly. Because the chicks would follow 'Mum' or 'Dad' wherever they went, the volunteers were flown in a microlight from which they bellowed encouragement through a megaphone to their charges. "The locals in the little Austrian village where all this took place thought it was very strange at first, but they ended up really taking to the project" said Steve. It must have been quite an entertaining spectacle...all in the name of research! (Don't believe me? See here!)

Once the birds were trained, the researchers took them on a 'migration' to Southern Italy, following the microlight all the way and stopping at night to 'camp together' on the ground. The results demonstrated that not only do the birds generally keep to the most energetically saving formation, but they also remember which individuals do their fair share of the hard work at the front. If a particularly keen bird put in a good stint at the front for instance, then the next day his fellows made sure they had a rest. Fascinating stuff but what is the point of it all? Apparently the aviation industry are looking to mimic V formations in commercial aircraft: the idea is that planes making a transatlantic crossing meet up in the air after taking off from their respective airports, fly across the ocean in a V, and then peel off to their different destinations. You read it here first!

The talk proved a real hit with the audience, especially the videos showing the young ibis birds in training. I could have stayed all night listening to the lively questions, but exhaustion suddenly overtook me and I had to make a dash back to the hotel. 

By the last day, Thursday, things started to quieten down, although there was a sudden flurry of interest in my press release on coconuts - we even made Sky News! And I finally managed to  get to Brighton Pier and take a tour of the sweet shops, funfair and arcade stalls. I must admit that Brighton wasn't at all as I expected it would be - I thought it would be much quieter place, a bit like Bournemouth only bigger! But the hip and happening vibe has certainly grown on me and I am going to miss being beside the seaside. So it's with a fond farewell that I bade it goodbye and head back to Sheffield - armed with reams of notes, recordings and interviews to turn into articles for the next Society Bulletin. The real work has only just started!

Thanks for sharing it all with me. Until next time!

* At CafĂ© Scientifique events, anyone - for the price of a tea, coffee or glass of wine - can come to learn about fascinating research and discuss topical scientific issues. Events take place worldwide and are often free, with requests for donations.  For more information and to find a local group click here

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