Why can’t we just talk about it?

Agri-Tech East’s mission to get farmers and researchers communicating

Getting two groups of diverse people talking is always difficult, even more so when they are both driven by different goals. Farmers and agriculturalists focus on innovative technology in order to achieve good harvests to try to maximise their returns. Plant scientists however want to understand the underlying biology of their research of interest. So these two groups have different driving factors of profits and principles. Working together is therefore immensely challenging. One way to tackle this is to improve the dialogue between the two groups by identifying the common ground.

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International Undergraduate Summer School

From working with top researchers in the field of plant biology to living with other students of such fun, character and like-mindedness, the John Innes Centre International Undergraduate Summer School was an unforgettable experience. Not only did it confirm my desire to study beyond my degree to PhD level, it has opened my eyes to how research teams run and has given me experience of working in a world-leading lab.

The first day began with settling in to halls on the UEA campus, where all JIC summer students were placed together. After finding the rooms and meeting and greeting, the friendly PhD students met me and the others for the first night’s event. An evening of pizza making and lots of drink meant everyone bonded well from the start. The initial days on the programme involved me meeting my research team and supervisor, as well as establishing the project on which I was about to embark over the next eight weeks. I focused on flowering time in Arabidopsis thaliana with Caroline Dean, whose lab was truly great. I learned new techniques and protocols with state-of-the-art equipment that would only be available at a centre such as JIC.

Making pizza

Making pizza in the evening at the International Undergraduate Summer School. Photograph: John Innes Centre.

Over the weeks, my knowledge of my project grew, and enabled me to work more independently. Alongside this I learned what a great environment JIC is, not only in terms of research, but also the running of the centre. There was always someone at hand willing to help, be it for potting my plants or fixing my bike. In my free time, I often visited local areas around Norwich, and made full use of the heated outdoor pool at JIC! Many activities took place throughout the summer, meaning I met people from across the site. I realised how enthusiastic and loyal all the workers there are.

To finalise the programme, all summer school students took part in a retreat to Cromer. This involved presenting work and raising encouraging questions to one another in a relaxed setting, whilst also getting a feel for how a typical conference would be run. Ending with a quick dip in the sea, it was a great way to conclude the programme.

Students on the 2015 International Undergraduate Summer School. Photograph: John Innes Centre.

Students on the 2015 International Undergraduate Summer School. Photograph: John Innes Centre.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience and has been a truly unforgettable summer. I recommend anyone interested in entering the botanical world of research or academia to apply, not only for the science, but also for the great and interesting people you will meet.

Olivia took part in the 2015 International Undergraduate Summer School, a programme that takes place every year. She tweets as @oliviatasker.

Applications for the 2016 International Undergraduate Summer School will open on Monday 19 October 2015 here.

Snowdrops

Spring has sprung: four floral signs that winter is over

The weather is getting better, and signs of growth can be seen outside. Lots of flowers will be growing during spring in the hope of being pollinated and producing seed. Tulips and daffodils are well-known spring flowers, but what about others? Here are four flowers to look out for now and over the next few months.

Snowdrops (Galanthus species)

Snowdrops

Snowdrops – an early sign of spring in Britain.

Snowdrops, often found in large groups known as drifts and flowering between January and March, are one of the first signs that spring is on its way. Like daffodils and tulips, snowdrops grow from bulbs which provide a source of energy for the growing plant.

This explains why they can flower so early in the year. Flowering early allows snowdrops to take advantage of the lack of competition from other plants just after winter – the trees they grow under will have shed their leaves so the plants will not be in shade.

Interestingly, although snowdrops are thought of as a native British plant, they were first recorded in the wild in the 18th Century, having been introduced to Britain as ornamentals in the early 16th century at around the same time as tulips.

Heartsease (Viola tricolor)

Heartsease

Hearsease is an ancestor of the modern pansy. Photo: Jörg Hempel/Wikimedia Commons.

The ancestor of the modern pansy, heartsease grows in short grassland on farms or wasteland and can be seen flowering between April and September. It produces purple, blue, yellow or white blooms, and often three different colours can be seen on the same flower.

Heartsease has long been used in many traditional remedies for multiple ailments, including respiratory problems. Extracts from the plant have been found to have antimicrobial properties, and also have anti-inflammatory effects.

This may be due to the presence of compounds in the plant known as cyclotides – small cyclic proteins that are interesting candidates for drug development. In fact, several cyclotides from heartsease have been found to have anti-cancer activities, so may be developed into anti-cancer drugs. Not just a pretty flower but a producer of important compounds too!

Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

Wood anemone

The wood anemone blooms between March and May.

The wood anemone is found in ancient woodlands across the UK as well as graveyards, parks and gardens. Its white flowers bloom between March and May, before the tree canopy becomes too dense.

Despite having a lovely flower much visited by pollinators (especially hoverflies) most of the seeds it produces are infertile and the wood anemone mainly spreads through thick roots known as rhizomes. Rhizomes are amazing – if they are separated into different pieces, each piece can form a new plant.

Knowing this, it is easy to see how the wood anemone can spread to form dense carpets in woodland. Rhubarb and asparagus also grow from rhizomes, and the rhizomes of some plants, such as ginger, galangal and turmeric, are used in cooking.

Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis)

Lily of the valley

The lily of the valley, although beautiful, contains highly toxic compounds. Photo: Lusi/RGB Stock

Lily of the valley flowers late in spring, from May onwards. Its clusters of small flowers are very sweet-smelling.

But don’t be deceived; all parts of the plant are highly toxic, including the red berries it produces after flowering. Even if ingested in small amounts, the plant can cause abdominal pain, vomiting and a reduced heart rate.

This is due to the presence of at least 38 different cardiac glycosides – sugar-containing compounds that disrupt heart function. Plants have evolved to make these compounds as secondary metabolites to keep herbivorous animals at bay (no one likes being eaten!).

Cardiac glycosides from some plant species are now being used for the treatment of several heart conditions – another example of medicine finding a use for plant metabolites.

Claire is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre. She tweets as @ClaireDrurey.

Photo: Skånska Matupplevelser/Flickr.

EU’s rules on genetically improved crops a ‘threat’ to developments in agriculture, say MPs

A report out today is calling for the equivalent of Nice – the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – for developments in crop technologies. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also says the government should encourage more public debate around developments in crop technologies

It recommends forming a ‘citizens council’ for considering the social and ethical impacts of new crops. Nice has a similar role producing advice on new medicines, which is used by the NHS to make funding decisions.

In its report, the committee criticises the model used for regulating genetically modified organisms in the European Union. The system “threatens to prevent such products from reaching the market both in the UK, in Europe and, as a result of trade issues, potentially in the developing world,” according to the committee of MPs. Continue reading

Photo: Niels Kliim/Flickr.

Five answers to the question ‘why plants?’

This month, Erica wrote about the growing presence of science in the public domain, and how this can only be a good thing. However, although chemistry and physics – traditionally considered ‘geeky’ subjects – have grown in popularity, the plant sciences are lagging behind.

Personally I think plants are fantastic and I could talk about them all day. It’s a real shame that school often puts students off taking the plant sciences further, and more needs to be done to convey just how important this area of science really is.

I’ve tried to condense why plants are so great into five short points below. Apologies if my enthusiasm has got the better of me at any point! Continue reading

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’.

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