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!

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Every PhD has ups and downs...and this is surely a down...

In the fridge next to my lab, there is a very special glass vial. It contains seed of the parasitic plant Striga gesnerioides - a major pest in sub-Saharan Africa and the focus of my PhD project. 
And it is the only vial of seed we have in the lab. My problem: it is running out fast.

Research scientists aim to preempt such problems like these. Hence, several months ago, I transplanted some young tobacco seedlings into pots of soil infested with S. gesnerioides. The idea was that the parasite would infest the tobacco, send up a forest of flowering shoots and produce enough seed to see me through to the end of my PhD. First signs were hopeful, with one or two flowering Striga shoots emerging from the soil ( see the post ' Wait and it will come'). 
But then... Nothing. No more shoots. I began to panic - was this it? Were these few shoots just extremely early and it was only a matter of time before the rest emerged? But then the few shoots that had appeared shrivelled to nothing, turned black and died. So here I am , months later in the same position,with no new seed. 

What happened? My supervisor has two main theories. The first: the pots the tobacco plants were planted in were too small, so the roots would have been compacted together so densely, that the parasitic shoots wouldn't be able to force their way through. Second: the tobacco plants didn't get enough nutrients so couldn't supply the parasite with enough sugars to fuel reproductive growth. Thirdly, it is simple too hot in the greenhouse!

So tobacco two, the next generation, are ready for another go. This time I will be planting them in a peat/ sand mixture, to hopefully encourage the roots to grow in a looser network, making it easier for the parasite to emerge. I will also be growing them in a smaller conviron growth chamber, rather than the greenhouse chamber, and supply them a special nutrient solution.

Fingers crossed! In my works at least, there is a lot at stake!  

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

So long and thanks for all the seed...

When I tell people that I am a plant scientist, they are generally aware that this means I spend a lot of time growing things. What they don't perhaps appreciate is that I also spend a lot of time destroying things. Clearing out Infected Arabidopsis plants ( and cleaning all the RHIZOTRONS afterwards)  is one of my least favourite jobs and this week it was the turn of my first tobacco plants to face the chop. My beautiful tobacco plants - almost as high as I am and brightening up the drab growth chamber with their abundance of pink and white flowers - had only been brought into existence for one purpose; to become seed factories. I had originally been sent a small vial of tobacco seeds as a gift from a mentor at Durham University, where I completed my undergraduate degree. I wanted the tobacco in the first place to act as a susceptible host for Striga gesnerioides, the parasitic weed I am working on. But I am fast running out of Striga seed so the idea was to infect some tobacco with the Stiga parasite, which should send up a forest of flowering shoots and produce enough seed to see me through the rest of my PhD.

But first, I needed to bulk up the stocks of tobacco seed itself, as I had only the one vial from Durham. Hence, these plants were left to grow marvellously tall, flower and bring forth seed pods , which I harvested last week. It was easiest to stand the tobacco on the floor to get to them!

Seeds collected, they had now served their purpose. Besides this, they were taking up space and had become infested  with flies - bad news in a growth cabinet chock full of other people's experiments! So my supervisor ordered me to clear them out. It was a sad afternoon reducing my tobacco forest to several bin bags. But it is all part of research. As a colleague said 'at least you don't work on mice'.

But, in a key sense, my tobacco live on.... In the vials of new seed now on my bench shelf. And it is good seed- I planted a few to test the germination rate and every seed sprouted into a new seedling. Hello tobacco generation 2!

Sunday, 15 March 2015

It takes HOW MUCH to grow a lettuce?!!!!

I recently attended a training workshop on 'How to become a Food Champion', hosted by the University of Sheffield's food sustainability group, Sheffield on a Plate. Amongst the various intriguing stats , one in particular seemed to hit me across the face:

'The environmental impact of throwing away a lettuce is 100 times greater than the impact of throwing away the packaging it came in'

I had always believed that packaging had a key role when adding up the environmental costs of our food. Hence, I always avoided buying pre-wrapped fruit and veg from the supermarkets, taking my own bags down to the market instead to fill up with loose produce. But it seems I had my values confused.

To me, this startling fact raises two questions. Firstly - when did we stop valuing food as we should? It is a struggle to comprehend how far removed we are from the natural 'status - quo' where we would only be able to eat what we could hunt and kill, forage for or scavenge from other animals. Now we delegate food production to others, and expect it to be laid out for our convenience - but we still moan about the time and effort it takes to shop for it all! We are very sensitive to when food prices rise, but perhaps we have forgotten just how much labour, land and thorough care goes into producing our food. And not just any food - healthy, rigorously checked and nutritious food, for the main part sourced with care, at a standard many nations can't afford. 
It saddens me when supermarkets try to tempt us with bulk bargains into buying more than we can possibly use - as though the most important thing is to clear it off their shelves. But individual responsibilities count too - it depresses me to see so many half eaten takeaways simply jettisoned on the kerb when I walk into work in the morning.
The Love Food, Hate Waste campaign would be delighted to help you minimise your own food waste. This is not the place to lecture, so I will refer you to their excellent website: 

But I will share my one top tip from the workshop: you can freeze ANYTHING. Even cheese. And ice cube trays are brilliant for making the most of leftover bits of liquid - how about feeling the remaining bit of milk before you go on holiday into ice cube trays so that when you get back you already have the perfect amount for that welcome first cup of tea?

Meanwhile, the second question: just why IS the environmental impact of lettuce so high? Apparently, it takes three and a half GALLONS of water to produce one head of lettuce (source http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/02/wheres-californias-water-going) . Other water- thirsty products include broccoli, grapes, peppers and tomatoes. Agriculture is the largest user of water supplies, accounting for around 70 %. Food security faces challenging times with climate change, an increasing global population and changing diets , particularly in rapidly developing countries. Plant scientists are responding to this urgent need- developing drought resistant cultivars and investigating partial or drip irrigation systems. Yet, in this country, it seems we place even less value on water as we do on food, in the ways we unthinkingly flush it down the drain in our daily activities. 

Quite a lot to consider the next time you buy a lettuce. It is time we stopped viewing food as a ready commodity, and something we must cherish - it is not natural to have such an abundance available and this situation is threatened. Perhaps the best thing any of us can do is to clear a space on the windowsill or in the garden, and grow our own.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Wait and it will come...

I knew it would take a long time but my patience has finally been rewarded!

My incredibly tall tobacco plants, marvellous though they are, were only brought into being for one purpose: so that I could infect them with a Striga gesnerioides, the parasitic plant that is the basis of my ohD project. Because tobacco is such an accommodating host, the parasite should, in hone org, send up lots of shoots and flowers that will produce enough seed for me to complete my project!

But these things take time. So, after transplanting my tender tobacco seedlings into pots filled with parasite seed infected soil, all I could do was wait. Meanwhile, I carried on with my experiments in the lab, all the time using up my rapidly dwindling supply of Striga seed... The tobacco rocketed up to the ceiling, produced wonderfully pretty pink  and white flowers and gave me a lot of satisfaction in admiring how tall they were... But no sign of the parasite. I began to worry... If this didn't work, what could I do? Did I have time to find a new species to work on and to become familiar with its peculiarities? 

But the day came at last. Coincidentally, a colleague in the lab had just come back from a placement at FERA (Food and a Environment Research Agency) in York and I was telling her about how the tobacco plants were doing. She agreed that get were impressively tall and I lamented that, yes they looked fabulous , but they weren't doing what they were supposed to - showing signs of infection! Just then, she pointed and asked 'What's that?'

And this is what I saw:

The first shoot of Striga gesnerioides! So a happy day for me! Later my supervisor came down to see them ( unfortunately she is often so busy that I have to photograph my plants on my iPad and show those to her in meetings) and pointed out another clear sign of infection - the infected plants are noticeably more 'yellow' than their non- infected counterparts.... Can you spot the difference?

Monday, 2 March 2015

Hope for GM?

The potential of GM technology to play a key role in securing future harvests came a step closer after a report published last week by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee described current regulations surrounding GM crops as 'not fit for purpose'.

Although GM technology could help engineer crops more resistant to drought, pests, climate change, and innumerable other pressing challenges, so far their translation into mainstream agriculture has been pitifully slow, especially in Europe. This is due to their 'negative public image ', partly stirred by specialist environmental campaigners, and fears that the technology is unsafe. I fully agree that novel technologies should be tested and evaluated fully before widespread use, but GM regulations are so strict that it is difficult for scientists to even conduct field trials to assess whether these claims are true. One should remember how many of the technologies we use without thinking these days were once treated with fear and trepidation. Is it ethical for the citizens of wealthy countries to stall field trial for GM crops due to unfounded fears when these could help to feed starving people in developing nations?

This report, authored by ten MPs, calls for a radical reform of current EU legislation regarding novel GM crops, and for applications of GM methods to be considered on the basis of the traits concerned, rather than the technology involved. Hence, a GM crop cultivar would be judged as safe/ unsafe based on its characteristics, not simply on the fact that it was made using GM technology. Crucially, the report recognises that GM technology is not a ' silver bullet' that alone will save mankind, but one which must act complementary to other strategies. After comprehensively analysing the peer reviewed evidence generated to date, the report concluded that GM crops pose no greater inherent health or safety risks than conventional crops. As for those that worry that GM crops will monopolise agricultural research if restrictions are lifted, it was found that, out of the £70million that BBSRC ( Bio technological and Biological Science Research Council ) currently spends on plant science, only £4 million is spent on GM projects. 

As Andrew Millar , MP, put it : "Opposition to genetically modified crops in many European countries is based on values and politics, not science. The scientific evidence is clear that crops developed using genetic modification pose no more risk to humans, animals or the environment than equivalent crops developed using more ‘conventional’ techniques."

Clearly there are issues to be resolved around GM technology - patenting laws, for example - but it is time that these were addressed in open discussion. It currently takes years, even decades for a simple decision regarding GM crops to be made and the UK risks being left behind the nations that are investing in this technology. It's time we started 'clinical trials for GM crops' - to know the truth about whether this technology is indeed safe. 

For more information see http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/science-and-technology-committee/news/report-gm-precautionary-principle/