The Gatsby Plant Science Summer School – 10 years on

By Celia Knight FSB

Ten years after the first Gatsby Plant Science Summer School, I’d like to introduce the first of a series of blogs to highlight some of the progress made in the science presented 10 years ago and include stories from some of the alumni of their journeys since 2005.

Thanks to the UKPSF for hosting them. I’m keen to hear from any past participant so please pass on this link.

Bretton Hall and grounds

Bretton Hall and grounds

In July 2005, the first Gatsby Plant Science Summer School took place at Bretton Hall, Yorkshire, when the University of Leeds owned the mansion buildings within the grounds of The Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the University’s Department of Performance and Cultural Industries was based there. (Bretton Hall was sold in 2007 and it seems its future will be a hotel complex). Ninety-four end of first year undergraduates attended from the then 17 Universities in the Gatsby plant science network. The opening plenary was given by Professor Sir Peter Crane, the then Director of Kew Gardens and other research talks were given by:- Ottoline Leyser, Angela Karp, Enrico Coen, Julian Ma, Jeff Dangl, Chris Pollock, Andrew Millar, Howard Atkinson. Arts students delivered an entertaining social programme. Fifty-nine participants (speakers, plenary and practical tutors) from over 20 institutions enthusiastically delivered their respective contributions. It was a success! Continue reading

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Highlights from UK PlantSci 2015

Panel1Over 135 plant scientists, policymakers and educators from across the UK and further afield came together for the fourth annual UK PlantSci conference, held at Harper Adams University on 14th and 15th April.

The meeting hosted a diverse programme of talks and discussions addressing issues such as: how we will produce enough food to feed the world’s growing population; how to stop the introduction and spread of new plant pests and diseases; and how to preserve biodiversity and other natural resources. Continue reading

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A preview of UK PlantSci 2015

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Year after year, delegates at the UK PlantSci conference remark on the sheer breadth and diversity of topics covered. It looks as though 2015 will be no exception, with seven jam-packed sessions taking place over two days in April at Harper Adams University.

The meeting will open with some tough questions posed by Guy Smith, Vice President of the National Farmers’ Union, in his keynote talk ‘Crop production – agronomics, economics or politics?’ This will set the scene for the first session, ‘Plants and agriculture – Breeding the next green revolution,’ which will highlight some of the latest innovations for maximizing crop yields. These include the combination of classical genetics with a ‘phenomics’ approach, as explained by Dr Jim Monaghan in his talk ‘Growing better fresh produce: the link from genotype to crop phenotype.

Meanwhile, with ash dieback receiving prominent news coverage over recent years, it is fitting that this disease features in the next session, ‘Trees and forests – Creating resilience under the canopy.’ Dr Richard Buggs will speak about the achievements of the British Ash Tree Genome Project in providing a reference genome for Fraxinus excelsior. According to Dr Buggs, “It seems that ash dieback is here to stay in the UK, and our only hope lies with trees that have low susceptibility.” The reference genome could help to reveal invaluable resistance genes to assist breeding programmes.

In the same session, Professor David Beerling will introduce a novel strategy to combat global warming, in his talk ‘Harnessing trees and biofuels for climate change mitigation through enhanced weathering.’ “Global carbon cycling models suggest that trees and biofuel crops could be used over the next century to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by their ability to weather silicate rocks,” he says. “This talk will present a set of simulations showing the extent to which this might be achieved and the collateral benefits to coral reefs through reduced ocean acidification.”

The session will also include a presentation on Observatree, an exciting new collaborative project which aims to train volunteers and encourage the public to report sightings of damaging tree pests and diseases.

These talks should provide plenty of fuel for the afternoon’s panel and open floor discussion session, ‘Building a roadmap for UK plant science.’ With panellists representing a range of plant science interests, and audience participation strongly encouraged, we can expect a lively and stimulating debate about how we can work together to tackle some of the biggest challenges in plant science education, policy and communications.

Later in the evening, you can practice your networking skills at the poster session, drinks reception and informal dinner (all of which are included in your registration fee).

The second day of the meeting will be opened by an honoured keynote speaker, Professor Caroline Dean OBE, recent recipient of the FEBS/EMBO Women in Science Award. Her talk ‘Epigenetic switches underlying seasonal timing’ will focus on how prolonged cold temperatures accelerate flowering during the process of vernalisation. Her investigations have established that epigenetic silencing of the floral repressor FLC is critical for this process and revealed the mechanism that restores FLC activity, and hence the requirement for vernalisation, in the next generation.

The following session, ‘Cells – Examining life under the microscope’, will keep the focus at the smaller end of the scale. During this, Dr George Bassel will demonstrate how the latest computational 3D models are helping to establish the relationship between gene expression and growth, as part of his talk, ‘An interdisciplinary approach to engineering plant development.’

The next session, ‘Roots and soil – Finding riches in the dirt’ is a perfect complement to the United Nations’ International Year of Soils 2015. During this, Dr Carly Stevens will present evidence that atmospheric nitrogen pollution is impacting on ecosystems in the UK and further afield. “Globally, nitrogen pollution is a very serious environmental problem that can be quite damaging to ecosystems, leading to reductions in species richness,” Dr Stevens says.

Nitrogen can also have a critical role in root development, as described by Dr Miriam Gifford in her talk ‘Using cell-specific genomics to understand the scale of symbiosis.’ “Our work seeks to understand how plasticity of gene expression responses and gene networks underlies plant root responses to nitrogen in the environment,” she says. “This talk will present new data from single cell type analysis of roots as they respond dynamically to environmental perturbations.”

After lunch, the stage will be handed over to early career researchers in the session ‘Future generations – Sowing the seeds.’ This will include two finalists from SET for BRITAIN 2015, a prestigious annual scientific poster competition hosted by the House of Commons.

The final session, ‘Ecology, environment and biodiversity – Exploring the wild side’ will cover some of the key issues in safeguarding future food security and biodiversity. These include the importance of using wild relatives to maintain crop genetic diversity, as presented by Dr Nigel Maxted in his talk ‘Conserving crop wild relative diversity in the United Kingdom as a step toward food and nutritional security.’ According to Dr Maxted, “The UK has a surprisingly valuable wealth of wild plant species, which are closely related to crops and to which they can contribute breeder-required traits, given our relatively impoverished flora and our intensely managed natural environment.”

Dr Mike Garratt will close the day by presenting findings from his Sustainable Pollination Services for UK Crops Project, on the value of insect crop pollinators and how these can be managed best in the future.

So with all this to look forward to, now is the time to register if you haven’t already done so!

http://plantsci2015.org.uk/

 

By Caroline Wood

Caroline is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, investigating host defence mechanism against the agricultural weeds Striga hermonthica and Striga gesnerioides. You can read more about her research and scientific interests at http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/

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UK set to celebrate Fascination of Plants Day 2015

shining_leafPreparations are now well on their way for the third international Fascination of Plants Day.

Fascination of Plants Day (FoPD) was launched under the umbrella of the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) to encourage people around the world to celebrate the importance of plants and plant science. The initiative has grown rapidly since its outset in 2012 and the last FoPD (held in 2013) included over 1,000 events and 689 participating institutions from more than 54 countries.

Building on the success of previous years – botanic gardens, research labs, schools, museums and farmers are opening their doors on 18th May 2015 with plant-based activities for everyone. This will be backed up by a range of events in theatres, cafes, shopping centres and other public spaces, designed to get everybody thinking about plants.

The UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF) is calling for anyone who would like to contribute to FoPD, by running an event, bringing an existing event under the FoPD banner, or offering sponsorship. Events can include hands-on activities, talks, debates, nature walks, competitions, quizzes or visits to farms and research facilities. Examples from 2013 can be found on the success stories page of the FoPD website.

Anybody unable to organise activities for 18th May can run fringe events between 3rd and 31st May.

Plants are fundamental to our existence, providing us with food, fuel, medicines, building materials, fibres and paper. They deliver services such as flood control and they enhance our recreational space, physical and mental health and cultural practices.

We want to share the amazing world of plants with a wider audience, and engage in discussions about how plant sciences are helping to address global challenges – from food security to protecting biodiversity. We hope that Fascination of Plants Day will inspire people to appreciate the importance of plants and to understand the relationship between the world of diverse plant life and a healthy population.

Fascination of Plants Day covers all plant related topics including science, agriculture, horticulture, gardening, forestry, food, nutrition, environmental conservation, climate change mitigation, smart bioproducts, biodiversity, sustainability, art and literature.

Events are already confirmed in London, Leeds, Norwich and Edinburgh, with more being added every week.

Plants are amazing – join us to celebrate their fundamental contribution to our lives and sow a seed of inspiration in the minds of others.

 

For more information or to get involved please contact us.

Follow @PlantDay2015 on twitter.

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Can we afford to lose what Kew has to offer?

On Wednesday 17th December the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee held an evidence session addressing announcements made by The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew earlier this year about its £5m “budget gap”. Kew is currently going through a staff restructure, which will result in an estimated loss of 100 jobs.

Kew Gardens

Professor Mary Gibby, honorary research fellow at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, gave evidence on behalf of the UK Plant Sciences Federation. She pointed out that “UK plant science ranks very highly on a global scale; second only to the US in terms of publication impact.”

Plant science and the conservation of biodiversity are increasingly important to issues such as food security and climate change. Kew makes an important and unique contribution to this in the UK and globally. The nature of its research means that Kew needs long term funding stability.

On Tuesday the same week, the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced an extra £2.3 million of Government funding to support research at Kew until April 2016. This followed his announcement in September of £1.5 million for the year to April 2015.

Richard Deverell, director of Kew said this week’s announcement of £2.3m in public funding would not solve things in the long term but only delay the inevitable, saying “The biggest risk we face is funding volatility.” Deverell said that the purpose of the staff restructure is to address the budget issues and make Kew fit for purpose as a scientific organisation in the 21st century.

Deverell said that further cuts to Kew’s budget would probably result in closing Kew’s schools’ programme and closing down the gardens for part of the year.

Kew runs a successful, large-scale schools’ education programme through which some 100,000 children visit Kew and Wakehurst Place each year. This plays an important role in encouraging understanding of the importance of plants for healthy lifestyles, food, nutrition, medicine and environmental sustainability. Kew is one of a very small number of UK locations where students and the public can see plant science and conservation in action.

The UKPSF also submitted written evidence to the Science and Technology Committee.

Earlier in 2014, Dr Mark Downs FSB, chief executive of the Society of Biology, said:

“We are extremely disappointed that funding cuts threaten Kew’s world-class contributions to conservation, heritage and education.

“Kew maintains the world’s most important plant and fungal collections. Seed collections are valuable for conservation of biodiversity and are a potential source of plants with medicinal properties. The collection also includes wild relatives of crop plants. Many have favourable characteristics, such as drought tolerance, which can be introduced into commercial crops. The economic value of crop varieties benefiting from wild relative genes is estimated to be at least $68bn, and this could increase to $196bn in the future.

“Kew provides high-quality training for university students, teachers and professionals in plant science, horticulture and conservation. Training for specialist plant science skills can be difficult to find elsewhere.

“We can’t afford to lose any of what Kew has to offer.”

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Shedding light on photosynthesis research

By Angela White

Photosynthesis is a major target area for crop improvement. In July 2014, I caught up with three plant scientists researching photosynthesis to discover their latest findings, which were presented at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual main meeting in Manchester.

 

Understanding evolutionary intermediates between two photosynthetic pathways

Alloteropsis semialata - Marjorie Lundgren

Alloteropsis semialata – Marjorie Lundgren

Marjorie Lundgren, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, is researching how different photosynthetic mechanisms evolve. She works on the grass Alloteropsis semialata, which is unique in having both C3 and C4 photosynthetic pathways within this single species. Excitingly, Marjorie’s work has discovered populations of this species with intermediate photosynthetic phenotypes (known as C2 plants), helping us to understand how C4 evolved from the C3 pathway.

Marjorie’s research has three main findings. Firstly, she’s confirmed the existence of intermediate photosynthetic states using a range of physiological techniques. Secondly, she’s established that this intermediacy arose in Central Africa. And finally, Marjorie has elucidated clear links between environment, leaf anatomy and physiology. Together, her preliminary work suggests that leaf anatomical traits which are important for the C3 to C4 transition respond to environmental changes. This responsiveness is known as ‘phenotypic plasticity’ and may affect the evolution of photosynthetic types.

“There’s a huge amount of variation within this species,” says Marjorie. “It’s a brilliant system.” Marjorie hopes that her research will inform the multinational C4 rice consortium, which aims to introduce the efficient C4 photosynthetic pathway into rice. She is working to identify important anatomical turning points in the evolutionary process which leads from C3 to C4 photosynthesis.

The next challenge is to use this wild grass species to identify the genetic variation that underpins evolution of the C4 photosynthetic pathway, and see how it affects physiology. This understanding is crucial if we are to successfully engineer C4 traits into C3 plants to improve crop efficiency and yield.

 

Breeding wheat with high photosynthetic efficiency and yield

Wheat - João Paulo Penna

Wheat – João Paulo Penna

Dr Elizabete Carmo-Silva, at Rothamsted Research, is working on an exciting project to identify wheat varieties with high photosynthetic efficiency and high yield. This work is undertaken by the photosynthesis research group, led by Professor Martin Parry. The group studies the characteristics of wheat cultivars in the field to inform traditional breeding and exploit the use of genetic modification to increase the efficiency of the photosynthetic enzyme Rubisco.

Rubisco is made up of subunits encoded by a combination of genes, some of which are found in the nucleus and some in the chloroplast. We still don’t know how to genetically modify the wheat chloroplast but that isn’t the only difficulty; public acceptance of GM is still a long way off in the UK. However, Elizabete hopes that in 15 to 20 years we might see the first Rubisco-modified plants in the field.

“We need to marry the technology with our knowledge of the Rubisco we want to use,” explains Elizabete, who is characterising dozens of wheat varieties to identify potential targets for crop improvement. The group has found some varieties which combine high photosynthetic rate with low levels of Rubisco. This enzyme constitutes approximately half the total leaf protein, so lower Rubisco levels mean lower nitrogen (and thus lower fertiliser) requirements. “It would be great to improve nitrogen use efficiency as well as yield,” says Elizabete, who recognises the importance of resource-use efficiency for improved farming practice. It’s also important to look for cultivars which produce a good crop under variable weather conditions, a trait known as resilient yield.

 

Understanding stomatal dynamics and the impact on photosynthesis and water use efficiency

With climate change rearing an ever-uglier head, the threat of yield loss due to drought is an increasing issue for UK farmers. Dr Tracy Lawson of the University of Essex is researching the impacts of different light conditions on stomata, the tiny pores which allow carbon dioxide to enter leaves. When carbon dioxide enters the leaf, water is lost – so efficient opening and closing of these pores can reduce the amount of water used by the crop.

Tracy’s laboratory, including Tracy’s PhD student Lorna McAusland, is investigating the rates of stomatal opening in response to light (which allows carbon dioxide to reach the photosynthetic organelles). Of the species analysed, grasses such as maize and oats have faster responses than legumes such as broad bean. This is due in part to the different morphology of their guard cells – the pair of aptly-named cells which surrounds each little pore. Although such anatomical differences are already well-established in the scientific literature, Tracy and Lorna have confirmed with this work that different dynamic properties exist as well.

“Stomatal responses are an order of magnitude slower than the response of photosynthesis,” explains Tracy. “Their responses can overshoot.” In field conditions, where light levels are highly variable, it is important for stomata to respond as fast as possible. Stomatal closure helps plants to avoid excessive water loss when conditions are not optimal for photosynthesis, whilst speedy stomatal opening avoids restriction of carbon dioxide diffusion when the environment is optimal for photosynthesis. Stomata open and close when ions are pumped across guard cell membranes, so targeting these processes would allow us to alter stomatal behaviour. “There is definitely potential to manipulate some of the ion channels and proton pumps in guard cells,” says Tracy. We now need to increase our understanding of the signalling pathways regulating coordination between mesophyll photosynthesis and stomatal conductance, which is a focus of the research in Tracy’s laboratory.

 

Plants and plant scientists face the future

Plants face multiple challenges, such as fluctuating light levels, ever-increasing carbon dioxide levels, changing temperatures and soil water levels. These abiotic factors interact to create a plethora of environmental combinations, not to mention biotic stresses imposed by pests and pathogens! Research on factors contributing to photosynthetic efficiency is not only fascinating, but of critical importance for future food security. Marjorie’s work looking at the evolution of more efficient photosynthesis, Elizabete’s characterisation of high-photosynthesis, high-yielding wheat varieties, and Tracy’s investigation of fast-responding stomata are examples of exciting novel research in this area. Plant scientists are striving to increase crop yield for future generations, and an understanding of how plants evolve, respond to and thrive in their environment is vital.

 

Recent reviews co-authored by these scientists

Marjorie Lundgren, University of Sheffield:

Deconstructing Kranz anatomy to understand C4 evolution

Dr Elizabete Carmo-Silva, Rothamsted Research:

Rubisco activity and regulation as targets for crop improvement

Dr Tracy Lawson, University of Essex:

Stomatal Size, Speed, and Responsiveness Impact on Photosynthesis and Water Use Efficiency

 

Angela White is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on understanding the limitations on plant growth rates imposed by sink and source activity, using a holistic approach involving both experimental and modelling work.

Twitter: @AngelaClaireW

Website: http://osbornelab.group.shef.ac.uk/people/angela-white/

Blog: http://www.sheffieldscienceinpolicy.com/blog

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Diseases to look out for on fruit trees in spring

By Josh Andrews

Fruit trees are many gardeners’ best friends. We watch them grow from saplings into perfectly trained bearers of sweet plump produce, the reward for our patience and hard work.

They need a lot of investment in time and care but do become part of the family; they create memories for little ones and signify the changing of seasons as they cycle through, covering the lawn with blossom, windfall and leaves.

That’s why it’s frustrating when they suffer from disease. It can send a gardener into a panic as sometimes it seems as though the tree will never survive. Luckily, for almost every fruit tree ailment there is a cure, as long as you know what to look for.

These are three of the most common diseases in spring:

Scab

Generally relegated to apple and pear trees, you’ll recognise scab in an instant. You may even see it on the skin of apples from your local greengrocer because on the fruit, the disease is superficial and doesn’t affect its taste once peeled. Scab on the leaves and bark is another matter altogether. It’s a fungal infection that turns leaves yellow (before it’s time for them to fall) and causes black spots on the foliage of the pear. This year your fruit trees are particularly susceptible as we’ve enjoyed a mild winter, the perfect breeding ground for pests and diseases to grow.

Venturia inaequalis from Commanster, Belgium

Venturia inaequalis from Commanster, Belgium. © Copyright James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster. Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

The cure: Ensure fallen leaves are raked away from the base of the tree and burn new shoots to the ground until the disease has passed.

Coral spot

Another fungal infection, coral spot is exactly as its name suggests: orange. It usually appears as spores on dead wood but swiftly moves along to living fruit trees if pruning has been less than gentle. If coral spot isn’t treated early enough it can have disastrous consequences, especially to blackcurrant bushes and figs.

Coral Spot Fungus (Nectria cinnabarina)

Coral Spot Fungus (Nectria cinnabarina). © Copyright Lairich Rig. Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

The cure: Make neater, sharper cuts at the site of infection and treat with disinfectant. Treat any other open wounds in the same way.

Fruit split

Fruit split isn’t an infection; it’s a condition that occurs when the water supply is unpredictable. For instance, when heavy rain follows on from a drought it can lead the fruit to become “greedy”, absorbing too much liquid and literally bursting at the seams.

Tomato split

Tomato split. © Copyright Despi Ross. Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

The cure: Ensure fruit trees have an even supply of water.

Silver leaf

Silver leaf infects plants between September and May. It is not limited to a single variety and seems to survive on almost any fruit tree or bush. All it needs is a ragged pruning cut or deep wound. As a fungal disease, it is quite mercenary because it will overtake the living wood and kill the plant from the inside out. Leaves will develop a silver sheen that is synonymous with the name.

Chondrostereum_purpureum_051120A

Chondrostereum purpureum in a garden, Massy, Île-de-France, France. This fungus causes ‘Silver-leaf’. Author: Strobilomyces. Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

The cure: Spot it early, keep young plants away from deadwood, disinfect wounds and be careful when pruning.

With all diseases, prevention is better than the cure so pay special attention when pruning back in autumn, especially if a mild winter lies ahead.

 

Josh Andrews currently works for Urban Planters, who design and develop floral displays, and supply plants and plant-related products to workplaces and homes around the UK. Examples of some of their interesting plant work include Secret Garden Cafe and ajw aviation.

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From passports to pests: UKPSF visits the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is without a doubt the most famous horticulture exhibition in the UK. Each year it attracts over 500,000 visitors ranging from royals, to keen horticulturalists and plant scientists alike.

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A brightly-coloured display to mark RHS Chelsea 2014

This year I visited RHS Chelsea for the first time with the UKPSF Executive Officer, Mimi Tanimoto. Although the weather forecast predicted heavy thunderstorms, Mimi and I remained undeterred to make the most of the day, strategically planning our visit to the outdoor gardens in the morning when the weather was dry and sunny.

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Visitors admire the No Man’s Land Garden

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Cracked earth effect used in the RBC Waterscape Garden

 

Our first stop was at the M&G Investments garden, sponsors of RHS Chelsea, where the BBC was filming Chris Beardshaw giving that day’s coverage of the event. Following this we browsed the other entries including the gold award-winning No Man’s Land Garden by The Soldier’s Charity, and the RNIB’s double award-winning Mind’s Eye Garden.

 

My clear favourite was the RBC Waterscape Garden designed by 27 year old Hugo Bugg, the youngest garden designer ever to achieve a gold medal for a show garden at Chelsea. The garden’s design reflected global water issues, depicting the contrasting themes of storm water and drought. I was particularly taken by Hugo’s use of cracked earth effect flooring to resemble severely parched land.

As the grey rain clouds began to loom, we went into The Great Pavilion to investigate the Discovery Zone exhibits. At the top of our list was the bronze medal-winning Fera stand, “Plants need passports too!” I thought this was particularly important as it showed visitors the close links between horticulture, plant science and policy – something which is often overlooked.

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Airport signs warn against plant pests and diseases

The stand was arranged inside a shipping container complete with plant-themed airport signs and oversized plant pests (such as the Oak processionary moth and the Citrus longhorn beetle) crawling out from the beautiful foliage and suitcases. Here we learnt about the different ways in which plant pests sneak into the country (e.g. as stowaways in people’s luggage or by hitching a ride on ornamental plants imported into the country) and the resulting havoc they can cause.

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Mimi and I learn about some of the insect pests threatening the UK

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A Citrus longhorn beetle crawls out of a shipping crate at the Defra stand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Differently coloured petals at the Rothamsted stand

Next on our list was a visit to the Rothamsted Research silver medallist stand which had the theme of “Petals and Pests”. Here we spoke to Darren Hughes who explained how petal colour and flower smells can be used to exploit plant-pest interactions and reduce the need for pesticides. For example, the team had dyed the petals of turnip rape (Brassica rapa) plants from yellow to red in order to deter pollen beetles. This works because the beetles haven’t evolved a red colour receptor in their eyes so they essentially can’t see red flowers.

We were also shown a glass case containing a rose plant, aphids and ladybirds. Darren explained that despite hundreds of aphids being put on the roses in the morning the majority had been eaten by the ladybirds, leaving the roses uneaten by their pesky pests!

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A bold floral display crammed with colourful flowers

We finished the day by exploring the rest of the stunning displays in The Great Pavilion. There was so much to take in, from enormous elephants made from orchids to specialist stands with every shape and size of bonsai tree imaginable. It was a fantastic day of plant overload, giving me plenty of inspiration for ways in which to improve my tiny patio back in Bristol!

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Building public support for UK agri-science

On Tuesday 13th May the UKPSF Executive Officer, Dr Mimi Tanimoto, and I attended a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture (APPGSTA) at the House of Commons.

This was my first visit to the Palace of Westminster as an official guest, and it gave me an excellent insight into some of the current science topics being discussed in parliament.

The subject of the meeting was, “Building public support for UK agri-science”. This was part of a series of meetings aimed at exploring ways in which to improve public views on technology and innovation in farming and food production.Anna Tiley

The meeting was expertly chaired by the Earl of Lindsay and included three guest speakers on the panel: Mark Lynas (author, environmentalist and former anti-GM campaigner), Ian Blatchford (Director of the Science Museum) and Guy Smith (Essex farmer and NFU Vice President). The audience included representatives from industry, the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), the Science Media Centre, The Oxford Farming Conference and Sense About Science. Such a mix of high-profile guests made for a fascinating discussion with some excellent points raised throughout.

Following a brief introduction from each of the panellists, the floor was opened for discussion. A common theme was genetic modification (GM) and the likelihood of the Green Revolution being superseded by a “Gene Revolution” in the UK.

The panel was first asked what they thought was the biggest influence on public sector attitudes to GM technologies. Mark Lynas described the “naturalistic fallacy”, an idealistic and often unrealistic representation of farming which is frequently promoted by the advertising industry. This naturalistic fallacy and the idea that “nature will provide” also feeds the notion that science and agriculture are mutually exclusive. This is certainly not the case; science and farming have gone hand in hand for thousands of years.

Guy Smith stressed that farming needs to be promoted as a progressive and forward-thinking industry, rather than the Hovis-style advert we regularly associate it with. Modern farming, he argued, uses hi-tech robotics, telemetry and tractors complete with GPS – it’s certainly not about one man, straw-in-mouth, hand-milking cows. There was mutual consensus that in order for the myths to be dispelled, better communication between farmers and consumers is needed. One example brought up was the planned renovation of the woefully outdated farming exhibit at London’s Science Museum.

Finally, the panel were asked whether they thought that attitudes to GM had changed. There was general agreement that, yes; certainly attitudes to GM were more positive than ever before. Although we probably won’t see GM crops grown commercially in the UK within the next decade, I find it encouraging to hear that the media and public alike are becoming more open to this form of technology.

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The search for sustainable fish oil

Strategies to protect the marine environment range from fishing quotas to using concrete blocks as artificial reefs. Now, a field in Hertfordshire is the surprising home of an experiment to improve the health of our seas.

In 2013, for the first time over half of fish consumed by humans came from fish farms. This has led to aquaculture using over 75% of the fish oil harvested annually from the sea. Sadly, farms have a ‘fish in: fish out’ weight ratio of about 4:1 – you get a lot less fish out of the system than you put in.Camelina_sativa

Scientists at Rothamsted Research have used genetic modification to produce ‘fish oils’ in plants. They hope in the long run that their research will lead to providing oils for farmed fish, not from the sea but from our fields.

Ironically, fish can’t make fish oils. The oils are in fact made by microalgae, which aren’t available to fish in cages in farms. We don’t currently have the technology to produce algae on a large scale, so farmed fish are fed oil and meal made from their wild cousins.

The plant chosen for experiments is Camelina sativa (also known as false flax or gold-of-pleasure), which is a distant relative of oil seed rape. One benefit of camelina is that it is naturally high in Omega-3. This isn’t the desired long-chain Omega-3 with its accompanying health benefits, but shorter-chain Omega-3 which acts as a precursor for the Omega-3 LC-PUFA (long-chain poly-unsaturated fatty acids) the study is aiming to produce .

Synthetic genes have been introduced to the plant to produce enzymes for the biochemical pathway required to make the required long-chain Omega-3. The plants will only produce these oils in the seeds.

The modification has been successful in the lab, and there was no difference in seed size and germination compared to non-GM plants. The next step is a small field trial this summer, which will determine whether the modification is stable in the field.

This is the latest step in a long-term project, which could eventually lead to ‘fish oil’ from plants reducing aquaculture’s need for oil from wild-caught fish. Potentially, the oil could even be used for direct human consumption.

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