Rose by Olivier Blitzblum

A plant scientist’s Valentine’s Day

On 14 February, people across the world will be presenting those they care about with gifts. In some countries these gifts are given to a partner or spouse, while in others they are used to share love with friends and family.

Here in the UK, these gifts are typified by roses, chocolates and champagne – or, as we plant scientists might call them, Rosa, Theobroma cacao, and Vitis vinifera.

Since plants and Valentine’s Day share this link, I thought I’d do a bit of searching and find out more about the species behind our favourite gifts – and for each, I’ve given my own alternative suggestion to our traditions. Continue reading

Peas in pods

150 years of Mendelian genetics

Last Sunday, the world celebrated its musicians and film stars in flashy ceremonies. But another celebration was due at the same time.

8 February 2015 marked 150 years since the first of Mendel’s lectures where he presented his results on pea breeding for the first time. These lectures, based on his paper Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden (Experiments on Plant Hybridisation), presented the world with a vision of genetics never seen before – and led to him gaining the title ‘The Father of Modern Genetics’.

Continue reading

Christmas in the plant world

The tradition of filling our houses with evergreen plants during the winter can be traced back centuries when evergreen plants were symbols of eternal life and a reminder that spring sunshine would return. Now we fill our houses with seasonal evergreen plants for Christmas decorations.  Have you ever wondered what these plants are? And what other uses they have? Well, here are a few quick note guides to some of our festive favourites.


Common Name: Mistletoe (thought to literally mean “dung on a twig“)mistletoe

Common Christmas species: Viscum album (European mistletoe)

Appearance: Characteristic pairs of oval leaves with small clusters of white berries.

Growth habit: Parasitic plant which has over 200 different species of host plant.

Special features: A sticky seed coating called viscin (a mixture of carbohydrates), helps seeds to stick to the branches of host plants and protects the seed when the berry is eaten by birds. Mistletoe feeds from the host plant using a structure called a haustorium which grows into the trunk of the host tree to access water and nutrients.

Is it edible? Not for humans, but the berries are an important food source for birds during winter.

Christmas tradition: Kissing under the mistletoe (complete strangers or family and friends!). The kissing tradition was first recorded in the 16th century but was not popularised until the 19th century.

Other uses? In Europe mistletoe has been used as a herbal medicine for centuries treating things from headaches to seizures to cancer, but there is no strong scientific proof of these properties. The berries can also be mashed up and used to make a glue to trap small birds. Mistletoe is a sacred plant to the druids and also features in many mythological stories including the Norse story describing the death of the god Baldr.


Common name: Hollyholly

Number of species in the family: 400-600 species

Common Christmas species: Ilex aquifolium (European holly or Christmas Holly)

Appearance: Glossy dark green leaves with spiny toothed edges, small white flowers, small, round, red or orange fruits.

Growth habit: Small tree or bush.

Special features: Holly is dioecious which means that it has separate male and female plants (to get the red berries you need to have a male and female plant close together).

Is it edible? Not for humans (the berries contain theobromine which is toxic in large quantities), but after the first frost softens the berries they provide a good food source for birds.

Christmas tradition: Holly wreaths, first worn by the druids, later linked to Christian beliefs about the crown of thorns worn by Jesus.

Uses?  Holly wood used to be used to make highland bagpipes before imported hardwoods became popular. Holly also used to be used to keeps bad spirits out of the home and to stop witches running along the tops of hedges! Now Holly is used as ornamental and hedging plants and the wood is used for wooden items such as chess sets.


Common name: Ivyivy

Number of species in the genus: 12-15

Common Christmas species: various

Appearance: flowers are small and greenish-white, produced in Autumn, berries are usually greenish black or dark purple

Growth habit: ground creeping or climbing

Special features: Two different leaf types: juvenile which are lobed and adult which are not lobed (this  phenomenon is called heteroblasty- differences in shape determined by age). Some species of insect are entirely dependent on the Ivy, for example the Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae) which times its lifecycle around Ivy flowering.

Is it edible? Not for humans as the berries are very bitter and toxic, but they do provide a food source for birds.

Christmas tradition: Decorations

Uses? Ivy used to be used to protect the house from goblins which were thought to be more active in winter. Now Ivy is predominantly used as an ornamental plant.


Common name: Poinsettia (after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Ambassador to

poinsettiaMexico who introduced it to the US in 1825), also called La Flor de Noche Buena

Species name: Euphorbia pulcherrima (indigenous to Mexico and Central America)

Appearance: Dark green leaves and bright red upper leaves called bracts, small clusters of yellow flowers

Growth habit: Small shrub or tree

Special features: The bright red leaves are bracts which surround the small flowers, they only turn red when exposed to prolonged periods of days with at least 12 hours of complete darkness and bright sunlight during the day- a process called photoperiodism (response to changes in the length of day or night).

Is it edible? Not for humans.

Christmas tradition: Centre pieces of Christmas decorations, this is thought to have stemmed from the 16th Century Mexican story of a poor girl who could not afford an offering for Christmas mass and was told by an angel to collect weeds which she placed before the alter and they turned into red star-shaped flowers.

Uses?  Aztecs used to use Poinsettias to make a reddy-purple dye and the latex sap as a fever medicine. Now Poinsettias are used as ornamental plants.

Christmas tree

Common name: Christmas Treexmastree

Common Christmas species: Various, (spruces, pines and firs used) for example Norway Spruce (Picea abies), Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)

Appearance: dark green needle leaves

Growth habit: Tree

Special features: some trees drop their needles easily (Norway Spruce) others retain needles more (Nordman Fir, Abies nordmanniana), Scots Pine has the largest natural range of any pine tree growing across northern Europe and Asia.

Christmas tradition: The first Christmas tree was introduced to Britain by Queen Charlotte in the early 18th Century, and it became very popular after 1841 when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert erected one in Windsor Castle. The tradition of decorating a Christmas tree was actually widespread in Northern Europe before this, some of the first reports being in Germany in the 16th Century.  (before being linked with the Christian festival people would bring in evergreen branches to symbolise the fact that the sun would return).  Donation of Christmas trees to specific cities has also become a symbol of friendship and commemoration, for example the tree in Trafalgar Square is donated to the people of London by the city of Oslo in Norway.

Uses? Other uses of conifer trees include their use for wood and wood products like paper as many conifers (spruces, firs and pines) are fast growing. Some species of pine tree (pine nuts and needles) can be used for making teas, flavouring vinegars and spirits and even making Christmas biscuits:

Douglas fir tree Christmas cookies

An edible treat or a homemade Christmas tree decoration. Non foraging types (or those who don’t live near Douglas firs, which represent only 3% of the UK’s conifer population) can replace the Douglas fir with rosemary and get the same effect.

Makes 40


2 tablespoons Douglas fir needles and seeds, sieved and patted dry

125g sifted icing sugar

200g butter, cut into small cubes

1 small egg yolk

300g plain flour, plus extra for rolling

Glacé icing and silver balls, to decorate (optional)


Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C/gas 5.

Put the dry Douglas fir needles and any seeds with the icing sugar in a food processor. Cover with a tea towel (the dust seems to escape even when the lid is firmly on), and blend to chop the pine needles finely.

Add the butter and egg yolk to the food processor, and then enough flour to make dough. Wrap in cling film, and refrigerate for at least an hour before using.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour, and roll out the pine dough. Stamp out thin 3mm Christmas trees with a biscuit cutter, place on a non-stick baking tray, and bake for approximately 8–10 minutes (depending on thickness).

Check after 8 minutes — the trees will brown very suddenly. Cool for 2–3 minutes, then use a spatula to transfer the trees to a wire rack.

To hang the cookies on a Christmas tree: use a skewer to make a small hole in the dough of the Christmas tree (to thread ribbon through) before baking. Decorate with glacé icing and silver balls if desired, or frame the trees with a small amount of icing, thereby accentuating the natural speckles of the pine needles in the dough.

Have a look at our Christmas gallery here.


All photos are from  (Various pages) (Various pages)

Annis is a PhD student in the lab of Prof Enrico Coen at the John Innes Centre.\

Frederick Sanger: an inspiration to scientists everywhere

Frederick Sanger, 1918-2013

It was sadly announced that Frederick Sanger, a legendary British biochemist died on 19th November 2013 at the age of 95.

Frederick Sanger’s name may not be a household name but his name is a “lab-hold” name. Within the scientific community, especially in biology, he is someone every student will know the name of. (One of the few big names I remember from my undergraduate lectures!).

For most scientists a Nobel Prize is a far-off dream but for Sanger, his research was so exceptional that he is the only person to have won two Nobel prizes for Chemistry and one of four people to have won two Nobel prizes. Despite this success I have heard him described as one of the most humble, down-to-earth people you will ever meet, and an article in Science in 2007 described him as “the most self-effacing person you could ever hope to meet”.

But why is he so famous? What was his work?

Sanger’s research looked at two of the fundamental components of the machinery of life; Proteins and Nucleic Acids (e.g. DNA) , described as “the orchestra which plays the various expressions of life”1.  Nucleic acids are the components of our genetic information and proteins make up the machinery that ‘reads’ our genetic code, makes products required for normal functions (e.g. enzymes that break up food in our stomachs), and makes components that are ‘building- blocks’ for organisms.

Most people are familiar with the idea that protein is found in our food but specific proteins are not widely known.  A specific protein that may be familiar to many people, especially those living with diabetes, is insulin. Insulin is produced in the pancreas and is a protein which tells the body that it has lots of sugar and it needs to store it. In people with Type 1 diabetes insulin isn’t made and to regulate their sugar levels they need to take synthetic insulin. Sanger studied the structure of insulin and worked out that it was made of a specific sequence of small components, called amino acids. His work on insulin showed that proteins are not largely undefined and that they in fact have a specific structure, which is now a fundamental biological concept. This work also helped to understand what insulin is and it is thought to have possibly helped in the understanding of how DNA encodes proteins, proposed by Francis Crick in 1958. This work on Insulin earned Sanger his first Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1958.

The sequencing of the human genome made national headlines in 2003. The sequencing of the first human genome has laid the foundations for research into the differences between individuals, disease, human development and evolution. Again Sanger’s research quietly lies in the background.  His pioneering work in DNA sequencing led to the development of the Sanger Sequencing method which was used to sequence the human genome as it was much better at ‘reading’ longer regions of DNA than the existing methods at the time. For his work on Nucleic Acids, Sanger was awarded a half Nobel Prize for Chemistry shared with Walter Gilbert in 1980.

Both his work in Proteins and Nucleic Acids were major breakthroughs and laid the foundations for years of ground-breaking research which has followed. His work has led to huge leaps in our understanding in the basic components of the machinery of life which has far from being obscure and unimportant to the non-scientific community, has led to increased understanding of human biology and medicine which influences all of us.

Fredrick Sanger (1918-2013) was and still is a true inspiration to all scientists.

1Professor G Malmström in the Nobel Prize for Chemistry speech, 1980

by Annis Richardson- a third year PhD student in the lab of Prof Enrico Coen

A few SVC members expressed their goodbyes on twitter:

RIP Sanger

Women in science

In the UK today, only 13% of jobs in STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are held by women. When you consider that women make up more than half of the UK population, something seems amiss. Sciences, especially physical subjects, have traditionally attracted males. The huge lack of female role models for young women aspiring to become scientists is a serious problem.

When researching for this article, I asked a few friends from scientific and non-scientific backgrounds to name as many female scientists as they could. My (mainly scientist) twitter followers found it easy, mentioning famous women scientists such as Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin. My non-scientist friends could only name Marie Curie. Considering that only 43 out of 835 recipients of the Nobel Prize have been women, this was unsurprising. More disappointing however was that the female scientists I asked could scarcely come up with more. When asked to name famous male scientists, meanwhile, the list was endless, naming men both living and dead. David Attenborough and Brian Cox are both household names across the country. Dr Alice Roberts, meanwhile, is much less well known despite her fascinating programmes.

Marie Curie- Double Nobel Prize winner in Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911) (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Marie Curie- Double Nobel Prize winner in Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911) (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

However, we should not despair yet. The lack of female science role models has not been overlooked. The bias of men to women is slowly decreasing as more and more women choose to take up undergraduate science courses. Organisations such as ScienceGrrl and WISE are working hard to try and improve the presence of women in STEM. WISE is on a mission to increase the 13% of women in science to 30% by 2020, working at every stage of the pipeline from schools up to employment.

As important as increasing the number of women in science is, we must beware the perils of positive discrimination. The pressures of meeting a quota can, in unfortunate cases, lead to situations where under qualified women are hired over much more suitable male candidates. The only solution for this is to make sure that the women applying to these jobs are as qualified as the men. And this begins with their education. We should be attracting young women to take up sciences at A-level. Parents should encourage their children to enjoy sciences from a young age, and science toys should no longer be seen as male toys. Only recently, Boots received criticism when their ‘Toys for Boys’ range included Science Museum branded toys, whilst ‘Toys for Girls’ included dolls and tea sets. Science toys should be aimed at all children. We should be moving away from the stereotypes and stop classifying people who enjoy science as ‘nerds’ and ‘dorks’. A recent BBC show ‘Some Boffins With Jokes’ asked if ‘regular citizens’ could enjoy jokes told by scientists. Of course, as with any career, you get some scientists who come across as a little strange. But you find just as many who are happy, sociable and confident, and this is how science professionals should be portrayed.

Gender equality in science cannot happen overnight, or even over the course of a few months. That said there is definitely room for improvement on the ratio of men to women in scientific jobs. As more women are encouraged to pursue careers in STEM subjects, more will reach the heights that allow them to be role models to those younger than them, and this will then enthuse the next generation. As the current mostly-male generation of senior scientists begin to retire, they will be replaced with a more even spread of scientists. Hopefully, as this happens, the mission of organisations like WISE can be met. Or at least this woman hopes so.

 by Izzy Webb- a first year PhD student in the lab of Prof Phil Poole