GM crop regulation: a spectrum

Every debate in the public about GM crops seems to be whether they should be legal or not. What I don’t understand is why GM regulation needs to be so binary, how many other topics are people really completely for or completely against?

The large majority of scientists would agree that the concept of GM is safe and sound, the act of putting a gene from one organism into another isn’t in fact the problem, in reality the human race has been doing this for thousands of years through conventional breeding.

I know a lot of individuals would say that GM crops are bad for the environment, one may ask for an example and a lot of the time this example is RoundUp ready crops. RoundUp ready crops are resistant to a major herbicide, glyphosate, so yes this example does most likely encourage the use of herbicides. This does not mean that all GM crops are bad for the environment, some can help the environment in a major way.

Maybe you are concerned about antibiotic resistance genes as being used for selectable markers. Most other scientists and I would assure you that they are not going to harm you in any way. However, if you would prefer other selection techniques that’s totally fine. If we accept that GM crops could be a viable solution to global food security then more scientific effort can be put into developing selectable markers that the public would be happy with.

The regulation of GM crops in the EU is by process, what this means is that the government decide on whether the way a crop is made should be allowed and then all crops made in the same way are either all legal or illegal depending on their original decision. So all crops  made through GM approaches are banned, no matter how many people that crop may really benefit. This also means that all crops made through chemical mutagenesis are legal to produce and grow. A decision is still pending for the potentially revolutionary gene editing technology CRISPR/Cas9.

Other countries, such as Canada use trait-based regulation or alternatively regulation on a case-by-case basis which is used in Argentina, Sweden and Japan. This is actually weighing up the benefits of a crop with potential risks.

In my opinion, once we decide that not all GM crops should be treated equally, we can actually move forward in the debate to target research and production to GM crops that would actually be of benefit to society.

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Summer research placement chat

Hello my fellow nerds (my sisters suggestion, not mine). Hope you are all having a fantastic summer. For 8 weeks this summer I carried out a research placement at the University of Nottingham. Summer research placements usually last from 6-12 weeks and are usually carried about between second year and final year. I thought it might be helpful/interesting to talk about how I got this placement and how I found doing it.

Why did I want to do a placement?

In my course we talk a lot about research going on in plant science and it all sounded pretty cool. I’ve heard lots of lecturers talk about their career in research and I keep thinking it sounds like something I might want to do with my future. I thought doing a placement in the summer would be a good way of trying out research to see if I like it.

How did I get a placement?

So first of all I found a potential supervisor. I’m interested in a lot of topics in plant science at the moment, but what I knew I wanted a placement in the lab studying molecular plant biology. One of the lectures I found really interesting in first year was about self-incompatibility in flowering plants (I will make sure to do a blog of this later). I decided to contact this lecturer and asked about the possibility of a summer placement in their lab.

If you want to try other universities out (for further study or otherwise) this is a great opportunity, I didn’t take it, but it’s a really good idea. But equally, if there’s lots of research at the university you are currently at, don’t feel like you have to go somewhere else. On the rare occasion a funding body (the only one I’m aware of doing this is The Gatsby Charitable Foundation) requires you to complete your placement at another institution.

I decided to apply for funding for the placement, this would cover living costs and a fair amount extra (woo!). There are quite a few sources of funding for summer projects, look here if you are interested in the biosciences. Funding is usually from subject societies (for example the Genetics Society). Be aware that sometimes you or your supervisor need to have membership in the society before you can apply for funding from that society.

I was lucky enough to receive funding in the form of a BBSRC* Research Experience Placement. BBSRC REP funding is given to universities that offer Doctoral Training Partnerships and to receive this funding you apply directly to the university and not to the council (different to how it can be with most funding applications). This offers funding to the laboratory for research costs and money to you for living costs.

*Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

How was the placement experience?

So now I’m done with the boring (but hopefully useful) bit. I found doing the project super exciting although a bit daunting at first. I didn’t even know where I was going in the lab and everyone else knew exactly what they were doing (well, they at least looked like they did). I just thought “I am NEVER going to be able to do all this”. Luckily, I had the nicest supervisor in the lab – she was a great teacher and made me feel at ease. In two weeks I was doing quite a lot independently. And everything I was doing was actually working.

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Subtly (awkwardly) trying to take a selfie in the lab without people seeing

This stopped soon enough. I was doing PCRs and I came to one set of samples and it just wouldn’t work, I tried 4 times before it worked. It was all down to my technique, I found it quite difficult to deal with getting things wrong (lots of times) but I learnt that this happens all the time in science (especially when doing a PhD) and by the end I learnt how to cope with things not going perfectly. And in the end I could do a PCR with my eyes closed (well not quite, but you get the gist).

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PCR, my enemy, my ally                 *please read to the tune of pillowtalk*

I really enjoyed being in the lab. I admit, it can be quite repetitive (edit: SUPER repetitive) but I loved following the instructions and feeling like I’ve achieved something (quite the opposite to revising). I also liked that I felt like I was actually contributing to the research that my supervisor was doing.

My project involved some glasshouse work, which meant being with actual plants (yay!), I was carrying out pollinations (of various sorts) on several lines of petunias. I really enjoyed this, it was something different to being in the lab, although there were definitely bad points: working in the glasshouse in the heatwave and when there were bug infestations. I liked the glasshouse, but this project was great because I had the chance to do both glasshouse work and lab work.

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Petunia baes

Overall, I really really (Sorry Mrs Foxall/mother) enjoyed this placement and found it super useful. It was definitely difficult at times (not knowing what I was doing and things going wrong) but I learnt so much and research seems pretty cool to me.

Advice for students wishing to carry out a summer research placement:

  • If you fancy getting funded try to apply to more than one funding body (unlike me), it means you have a better chance of getting paid
  • If you want to be funded then most of the time your summer project has to be completely separate from your final year undergraduate project.
  • Pick a supervisor you get on well with. Also check how many PhD students/post docs etc there will be in the lab, they are more likely to be the people actually helping you in the lab day-to-day, not your supervisor.
  • Ask your academic tutor for help finding a placement. They may be aware of supervisors at other universities you may get on with or other funding opportunities. It was my tutor that told me about the BBSRC REP funding.
  • Think about whether you want to do a project in the lab, glasshouse, in the field or in an office. Take this into consideration when choosing a project/supervisor, and if you want to work in more than one of these areas – do it!
  • Enjoy it!

Thanks to my supervisor and my lab supervisor for being so helpful (and all the people who helped me in the lab), and the BBSRC for giving me dolla.

Ferns communicate to determine their sexes

Scientists in Japan have discovered that ferns later in development release chemicals in the soil which determines the sex of younger ferns, which maintains a sex ratio in the population that favours cross-fertilisation.

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Japanese climbing fern. 

Ferns have a very different reproductive system to the plants that we are used to. A lot of the plants in our gardens are flowering plants: they often have male and female parts in the same flower and reproduce using seeds. Ferns reproduce using spores, not seeds. Ferns have male and female individuals a bit like humans; however in ferns, the community decides on the sex of plants, instead of their genetics.

Mature fern plants can be male, female or hermaphrodite. If there are no mature ferns around then an individual will become a hermaphrodite, and then self-fertilise to produce spores which grow into fern plants. Self-fertilisation in the plant world is not ideal; cross-fertilisation between plant individuals brings more genetic variation into the plant population which means the species are more likely to be better able to cope with disease outbreaks.

A team of scientists at Nagoya University in Japan led by Makoto Matsuoka have developed a two-part model for the determination of sex in the Japanese climbing fern, Lygodium japonicum. Early-maturing female plants add a chemical group to a plant hormone called gibberellin to produce a pheromone which is then released into the soil. This pheromone is then taken up by younger plants; they then take off this chemical group and convert the compound to the active form of the hormone gibberellin. Gibberellin is a type of plant hormone that plays a part in plant growth. This hormone then leads to male organs being formed, producing male plants.

Why don’t the female plants just secrete the active gibberellin? The modifications that the female plants make to the hormone mean that it is better at travelling in a moist environment, like the soil. The hormone released is also more easily taken up by younger plants.

The older plants can’t use the modified form of the hormone and develop male organs. The researchers found that the plants produce different enzymes (proteins that speed up biological reactions) at different stages of development. Even if a mature plant takes up the pheromone, it can’t use it, this ensures that mature female plants don’t change into males. This system means that there are often several females in a population surrounded by many males, this sex ratio prevents self-fertilisation and promotes genetic variation.

In humans, pheromones would be secreted in the bloodstream, not the soil. It seems hard to believe that there would be a high enough amount of this pheromone in the soil to be absorbed by plants and cause a change in sex. This question was addressed by the researchers. They discovered that the enzymes involved in this process are specially adapted to work with really low amounts of the pheromone. The sex determination process in ferns is a very sensitive process.

This study is important in understanding how sex is determined in non-seed plants, in particular how molecules control plant sex, which is not very well known. The hormone gibberellin also plays a part in sex determination in some seed plants such as maize and cucumber. Further studies in this field may show whether sex determination regulated by gibberellin is seen in other plant families.

In some South-Eastern parts of the US, the Japanese climbing fern is an invasive weed species. Currently the methods to control the fern population and spreading are very limited. It is hoped that the knowledge given by this study could be used for further research into developing methods to control the growth of the fern.

It has been known since the 1950s that early-maturing ferns determine the sex of later-maturing ferns; however, this study contributes to the understanding of plant sex determination at a molecular basis. “We know much more about sex in animals than we do in plants”, says Jody Banks, a plant geneticist at a university in Indiana, “this is really the first study to put a molecular face to it”.

 

Original research article: Tanaka, J. et al (2014). Antheridiogen determines sex in ferns via a spatiotemproally split gibberellin synthesis pathway. Science. 346, pp 469-473. Accessed from: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/346/6208/469

Image taken from a Perspectives article: Sun,  T. (2014). Sex and the single fern. Science. 346, pp 423-424. last accessed 26/06/2016 from http://science.sciencemag.org/content/346/6208/423

Day 5: 5 easy ways to learn more about plants

Hello, final blog post of the week, wooo! Thank you very much for reading them. Here is a list of 5 ways to learn more about plants and their science.

Follow plant science news on twitter

Some people use twitter to tell the world about their everyday life or follow celebrities, but there is a world of plant science on twitter, where academics and communicators share recent plant science research. Here I am on twitter:

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A few to get you started:

  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council @BBSRC
  • Annals of Botany blog @annbot
  • Science and Plants for Schools @SAPS_news
  • Global Plant Council @GlobalPlantGPC
  • Mary Williams @plantteaching

There’s so many great plant people on twitter, look at who I follow on twitter for some more examples.

Read popular science books on plants

See my first blog post of this week! In my first post, I didn’t mention two plant popular science books that I’ve heard are good: Seed to Seed by Nicholas Harberd and The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollen, they are stuck on my bookshelf waiting to be read, but I’ve heard good things about them!

If you want to know even more about the science of plants, you can read a textbook, one we use a lot in university is Plant Physiology by Taiz and Zeiger.

Watch documentaries on plants

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These are really good, and one of the things that first got me interested in plants. My absolute favourite is Kingdom of Plants by David Attenborough. I remember watching one episode with my flatmates and they really enjoyed it. I remember them being horrified by one scene where a pitcher plant traps an animal, it was like watching a horror film, it was hilarious. David Attenborough also did The Private Life of Plants a while ago, which is also really good. Everyone loves David Attenborough.

Here’s an online plant documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0pP5D0hhmc

Watch plant YouTube videos

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My favourite of these is plant time-lapse videos, they are just beautiful.

Click here for another video of a sunflower time lapse, this one ends with the words “From seed to seed, the smile of the sunflower is passed on” – it’s adorable. Also look at plant science educational videos on YouTube too. I really recommend looking at BBSRC’s videos about plants on YouTube, this one especially.

Look at the world around you

Plants surround us, but we often ignore them. Think of them in a different way, this is an extract from a text book:

Think of your favourite plant. Visualise water molecules moving into roots and up through xylem into living cells, where hydrogen bonds are broken and some water molecules evaporate. Imagine carbon dioxide molecules diffusing through stomata into chloroplasts, being fixed into carbohydrates and combined with parts of other water molecules, the process being energized by ATP and NADPH arising from light-driven reactions. Think, too, of assimilates being loaded into phloem sieve tubes and moved to specific sinks, and of ions being selectively and actively absorbed or excreted, some being assimilated into organic compounds and some acting as coenzymes. True, we don’t know everything that’s going on in cells, but your favourite plant should certainly not seem like a static object. It is a well-organised living thing, a machine that processes matter and energy in its environment and maintains a relatively low entropy.

So just show some love for plants, we wouldn’t be here without them.

Day 4: 5 cool plants

Hello, I’m sure you are all getting fed up of reading my posts by now, the fourth day. But if you’re not then here you go, another post! This one is a list of 5 plants that I think are pretty cool.

Venus fly trap

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Looking on the internet, there were some very violent images of venus fly traps capturing many things, these were all too horrifying to put on here, so here is a very tame gif. Additional to the spiky hairs on the edge of the trap, there are bristles on the lobes. When an insect steps on the bristles of these lobes, initially nothing happens but if the insect then touches the same bristle or another one within 20 seconds, the trap snaps shut. It’s awesome to think that a plant can count [info from David Attenborough’s Private Life of Plants].

Arabidopsis thaliana

Ok, so this one may not be cool in the traditional sense of the word. Arabidopsis is massive in plant science research it is used as a model plant. It is thale cress, it is a weed that you would find in your back garden. I think Arabidopsis is such a cool plant because it seems so small an insignificant yet much of what we know today about plants was figured out using it, and it is just such an important plant.

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Rafflesia arnoldii

Cool or weird? Not so sure with this one.

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This plant is parasitic and has no roots or leaves, if the sight of it hasn’t already caused you to rush down to the shops, it also smells like rotting flesh. The flower buds are used in traditional medicine to help with pains during childbirth.

Ginkgo biloba

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This plant is a member of a group of trees that appeared before dinosaurs were on this planet, individual trees of this species also live a really long time, the oldest lived for 3,500 years old. This tree is like a bridge between higher and lower plants.

Ginkgo biloba is used in both Chinese traditional medicine and Western medicine. The plants medicinal properties have been greatly researched. An extract from the leaves is used to aid in cognitive function, it’s ability to act as successful remedy for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia has been researched with mixed outcomes.

Sundews

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Much like the first plant on this list, sundews are carnivorous. The sundew traps the insect with glandular hairs, these hairs then secrete digestive enzymes which break down the insect, the highest levels are seen on the 4th day after capture. This mechanism is a lot slower than the venus fly trap mechanism but its still cool. Apart from sundews insect-eating powers, I also think these plants are really pretty.

 

 

 

Day 3: 5 ways that plants can help people

 

For my third post of this week, I thought I’d write about some plant science research which can benefit us humans. As this is more about the research, I have omitted the obvious ways that plants help people: they provide us with the air we breathe, the food we eat and we just simply would not be here without them – but obviously all these things are important too! This list is only 5 things, but obviously there are many more ways plants can help people, because plants are great!

Plant compounds can be used to produce anti-cancer drugs

There are many medicinal compounds in plants. An example of this is the use of a compound which is produced by the yew tree, taxol, to produce anti-cancer drugs. One research group at The John Innes Centre work on a chemical called Vinblastine which is produced by the Madagascan Periwinkle. Vinblastine an be used to treat ovarian, lung and cervical cancers. The research group is working on discovering the biochemical pathways that the plant uses to make vinblastine. They can then use these pathways in yeast, so that Vinblastine can be produced cheaply and in large amounts.

Here is Professor Sarah O’Connor explaining this research:

Using plant science research to future-proof our crops and ensure global food security

As mentioned, plants our ultimately our source of food. A lot of plant science research is focused on global food security, this is due to the expected increase in population in 9.2 billion people in 2050, and seeing as there are people going hungry in the world at the moment, we definitely need an increase in food production. There are other ways in which we can ensure to global food supply such as distribution (this one’s a biggy) and reducing food waste, but a lot of these ways depend on people changing their lifestyle so maybe its more possible that we can increase food production.

At the University of Nottingham, there is lots of research on many areas surrounding food security. The university is home to the Hounsfield facility, this contains some cool robots and a micro-CT scanner (similar to ones you find in hospitals). This is a non-destructive way of looking at roots in the soil environment. This information can then be used to develop and find plants which have traits which mean that their roots that can better exploit the soil, which can mean more productive crops (yay!). If you look on the website, there are some videos that the facility has produced. It also appeared on the first episode of BBC’s Tomorrow’s Food.

Using plants to help with global warming and climate change

The increase in carbon dioxide levels is leading to the planet getting warmer which could have negative impacts on the climate in some parts of the world. It’s no secret that plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, so why not use plants to help lower carbon dioxide levels? There are some sea plants that are especially good at this because of their high productivity  such as seaweed and algae. The issue can be with how quickly the plants then release the carbon due to their short life cycle. For this reason, trees are often used to provide a “sink” for carbon.

Using knowledge from plant photo receptors to aid in optogenetics

Plants have many receptors that detect different wavelengths of light. Plants use light to control growth and development. We can use these photoreceptors as artificial light switches to control activity and function. These photoreceptors can be used in bioimaging to be used as a fluorescent marker to track many things such as viral and bacterial infections. Blue-light photoreceptors are being added to channels in neural membranes to switch off neural function. This technology is being used to uncover neural pathways, which can help understand the pathways involved in neural conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

Click here to view a full lecture on this.

Growing plants in space to help with long space expeditions

This has been in the news more recently, due to the first zinnia being grown in space. There are many reasons you would want to grow plants in space. The main reason for the space side of things is to increase the length of space expeditions to better support life by being part of the regeneration of the atmosphere (taking in carbon dioxide produced by people and releasing oxygen) as well as the potential to grow food for space missions in the future. It can also be beneficial to the wellbeing astronauts too. It is also interesting for plant research because it can show how plants could respond under microgravity this would be interesting because gravity controls many plant processes, this sort of research would not be able to occur on Earth.

Salad leaf lettuces were grown on the space station in 2014. These were grown aeroponically (without soil, in an air and misty environment), NASA has said that these grow three times quicker than the same plant grown in soil. Growing plants in space can be beneficial to helping plant science and global food security research also.

The photo below is of the Veggie project. For more information on this click here.

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Day 2: 5 things to know about Semester 3

Ah, the joys of semester 3, the first semester of second year i.e. the first semester where things count. For my second day in my 5 days of blogging I thought I’d write a post about the past semester.

1. It gets harder and without you even releasing it

They said that A levels to first year of university was going to be a big step up, I didn’t find it too bad initially (maybe because a lot of it to start with was recapping A levels). So when they said that first year to second year was a big step up, I was like “nahh, it’ll be fine”. It was fine, eventually. It got harder quite quickly and I really didn’t realise it, then it came to revising for exams and I thought to myself “when did we learn this?!”. And exams were harder too.
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2. As well as it getting harder, you have the stress of finding a year in industry or summer placements
I’ve spent lots of time this semester looking at labs I could do experience at for the summer, or grants I could apply for funding this lab experience, and re-writing my CV. It’s hard to find the balance between doing uni work and finding placements. Some of my flatmates have been applying for year in industry placements and I have seen the stress they have been under (glad its not me!). Let’s just hope it will be worth it for everyone in the end 🙂
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3. Everyone assumes you know what your doing
Everyone (including yourself) just assumes that because you’ve already had a year at university you know what your doing. Your second year, you should know where everywhere is on campus, shouldn’t you?
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4. You have to get used to new housing arrangements
For me, this wasn’t too bad, I’m living on campus and bills are included, so there are no issues with that. My issues are more with cooking, I was part-catered last year which means I didn’t have to cook tea. So this year it feels like I literally do not stop cooking, which is fine, I can sort of cook. It’s more the washing up afterwards that is the issue. Another thing about housing in second year: shared bathrooms. It hasn’t been too much of a problem, but there has been a few occasions where I really need to use the toilet, and someone is having a shower, which results in me hopping around the flat.But living with people I like and get on with really helps 🙂
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5. You can no longer rely on the “I only need to pass” excuse
During first year there is always the comfort of it doesn’t count and you only need 40% to pass, and although most people usually want to do better than pass, its always nice to know that is all you actually have to do. At least second year only counts for a third of the degree.
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A piece of advice to first years: it’ll be fine just don’t expect it to be like first year and keep on top of it. And if third year gets harder still, I feel for you third years and PhD students too, and everyone really. Also remember to keep yourself happy and healthy too, because that’s far more important. And of course, with all the difficulty of this semester there has also been great parts too: I’ve learnt really really interesting things as part of my course and still had fun too.

Day 1: 5 Popular Science Books

I finished my exams last week (woooo!). I wanted to do something before the next semester of lectures start because when I get back into it I don’t do as many fun things –  like this! So I decided to do a “5 days of blogging” kind of thing. For the first day, I thought it might be fun to talk about some popular science books I like.

Mathematics of Life by Ian Stewart

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To kick things off, this is the first popular science book I read. I just finished Year 11 at the time (I was 16). It was a really accessible text and I really enjoyed it. It takes you from topics such as the mathematics of DNA and the genetic code to viruses to taxonomy. My favourite chapter is “Florally finding Fibonacci” (obviously – it’s plants). Along with attending a talk on “The Language of Plants” at the Cheltenham Science Festival the same year, this is one of the main reasons I became interesting in plants. This chapter inspired my Extended Project Qualification (it’s an A level equivalent qualification where you pick a topic, research it, write 5,000 words on it, then do a presentation) during A levels. Flicking through this book, I really want to read it again!

Good for: people who don’t know that much about biology because the author explains things simply. However, for people who know quite a lot about biology, it really makes you look at some fundamental concepts in a different way. I really recommend it.

The Private Life of Plants by David Attenborough

Ok – so I have yet to read all of this book. But it has some beautiful photo’s of plants. I really love David’s writing style, it has a similar style to his documentaries. This book looks at interesting things about lots of different plant species, at uni we only really look at a handful of species (Arabidopsis, I’m looking at you).

Good for: everyone who loves plants, and maybe it would convert the plant haters?

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

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I read this during my A levels and it is great, it makes you think in a totally different way.  The title can be a bit misleading and might make you think that its about a specific gene that makes you selfish. It’s not, I see it more about how organisms have been programmed by their genes to act as sort of machines that act in the way which is best for the survival of our genes as opposed to acting for the survival of the individual or the species which is an idea which is often suggested.

I know sometimes people don’t really like Richard Dawkins because of the anti-religion books he has published. I think this has overshadowed some of the great science books he has written, which is a shame, because as I said, this book is great.

Good for: everyone.

The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey

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I read half of this book in the few days before uni started again in September, then lectures started and unfortunately it remains half un-read. I initially read the book because I was interested in genetics and molecular biology and heard of epigenetics but didn’t really know much about it.I wasn’t sure whether I’d like this book or not, its largely focused around animals and humans as well as their diseases. I really loved it. The author has a really good style, it’s an enjoyable read. I think this is a bit harder to read than some of the others I’ve suggested but maybe because of the concept of epigenetics as opposed to the writing of the book. My favourite chapter so far is “Generation X”, it’s all about X chromosome inactivation and X imprinting, I found it really fascinating. Another bonus of reading this book was that I found it really helped with understanding some concepts in my module “Molecular Biology and the Dynamic Cell”.

Good for: people with at least a basic understanding of DNA and genetics.

Green Universe: A Microscopic Voyage into the Plant Cell by Stephen Blackmore

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I got this book as a Christmas present this year. I remember being in Waterstones, looking at a book which is much like this book but a human cell equivalent. I said “this book is beautiful, I wish there was one like this but for plant cells”, at which point my boyfriend remembered this and got me a plant cell equivalent for Christmas.

This book has a small amount of writing, which I find easy and enjoyable to read. However, for me, this book is all about the images. It is full of stunning colour microscope images. There are some scanning electron micrograph images, but it is mostly full of light microscope images. All the images are really interesting, the only way to improve this would be to have more scanning electron micrograph images, and some images produced from a confocal microscope too. The book is organised in chapters which take you roughly through the evolution of the plant cell, it also has a chapter on the history of microscopy. A really interesting chapter is “Plants and people – interconnected fortunes. My favourite line is in the foreword:

This wonderful book is not just a pleasure to look at – it also helps explain why the relationship between people and plants is so important, and is one that we neglect at our peril.

Professor Sir Peter Crane FRS

Great for: people that love plants and plant cells.

Did I miss your favourite popular science book? Comment below or tweet me @alicefoxall

I love studying plant science

Plant science isn’t the most standard undergraduate degree in the world. You never hear 5 year olds saying “I really want to be a plant scientist when I grow up”. It’s the sort of thing that you learn you love. I am very passionate about plant science, and I think it’s a subject more people should study or at least be aware of. A few months ago, I saw that UCAS were running a competition called “Love Learning”. For the competition you write a short piece about why you love the course your studying, so of course, I jumped at the chance of entering. I really enjoyed writing this piece, unfortunately I didn’t win, but hopefully it is interesting.


Plants are everywhere and have so many purposes but often seem to go unnoticed. However, we benefit from the fibres and medicinal chemicals they provide us with, they are the source of our food and produce the oxygen that we breathe. Plants are often seen as static creatures, almost like inanimate objects, but really they are complex and interesting organisms. They are faced with many of the same problems as animals: they are constantly needing to develop, overcome competition, find food, undergo reproduction and avoid predators. They also do all of this without the capability to get up and move.

Now I’ve convinced you on the wonderfulness of plants, why should we study them? Plant science is more traditionally seen as a softer subject underpinned by the classification of plants and botanical drawings, this is no longer what plant science really is (no matter how nice the botanical drawings are). Plant science is essential to addressing problems of global food security; increasing the productivity of crops to feed our ever increasing population whilst maintaining the biodiversity that is important to sustain our ecosystem on which we depend. Plant science can also help to alleviate the energy crisis and climate change. Discovering more about the ways that plants grow and develop, as well as the molecular processes that occur in the cells of plants are so important in aiding these major world issues.

On a day to day basis, you may be learning about how cell walls expand, the breeding mechanisms of plants or how plants photosynthesise (as well as many other interesting concepts – the plant kingdom is your oyster!). Modules cover topics from genetics and cell biology to global food security, biochemistry and ecology – and that’s all in one year! I have the joys of molecular pharming, plant biotechnology, soil science and plant cell signalling ahead of me. All this being taught by world class researchers makes learning the subject exciting and real. Learning through practicals as well as lectures makes the subject more hands-on, by carrying out experiments involving field work, lab work and even computer modelling sessions.

It is exciting to be studying a subject that has the potential to have a large impact on the world. Despite the smaller number of participants (I am one of five students in my year studying plant science at the university), everyone I’ve met from students to lecturers, has a real love of the subject and there is a great and inspiring atmosphere that is achieved from being round so many “plant people”.

Although I love the biosciences in general, there is nothing better than being able to study a whole degree about something you love. Plants are often not covered enough at GCSE and A level biology, and when they are covered you may find that the teacher skips over the part about plants as they find it boring (I know, shocking). Studying plant science is a great way to use the knowledge learnt in A level biology to learn more specifically about plants, it also ties in several elements of chemistry too.

Before I came to university and I told people what course I was going to study, they often responded with something along the lines of: “Plant science? Is that a thing?” To those people I’d respond, yes plant science is a “thing”, and a very important and interesting thing indeed.


UCAS Love Learning competition – https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/love-learning-2015-competition-winners

Computer programming adventures

Hello.

It’s now a good few weeks back into term, now it is back to normal university life with lots of lectures, coursework and all that jazz. So here is another post reminiscing about the summer. It is going to be about my adventure in attempting to learn some programming.

I don’t really know why I want to learn to program. I think it was a combination of a few things: I thought it would be interesting, I know a lot of plant research uses computer programming and I think employers like it. For me it was probably easier to get started with than some, I do happen to have a boyfriend doing computer science which was very useful (I tried not to make too much use of him, but he was very helpful, which I must thank him for).

I decided (and was advised) to learn the programming language Python, this is probably the most used in the life sciences and is relatively easy to write in and understand. It can also be used to write a large variety of programs. A good start would be to learn the syntax (this is basically the grammar of the programming language, how things are written). I first did this by using a website called Codecademy. I really liked this way of learning to start with, they give you a lot of help but you still feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Although Codecademy was a great place to start, it doesn’t really go far enough, and they do kind of spoon-feed you a bit. The next way of learning I tried was to just practice programming, just to see what I could do. I started off by doing some of the programs on Project Euler. These are really short programs that don’t take too long and they are maths based. After I’d programmed a few of these maths problems I found several other mini-projects to try, like making a hangman game. These were good, but I was finding that I learnt the language quite well but I found it hard to think in the programmer mindset, I couldn’t really do the problem solving.

This was when I realised that it’s quite hard to be good at programming without knowing any computer science. I began to browse the free courses on computer science on the internet. There are some really good courses from lots of universities all over the world. I choose the do the Introduction to Computer Science and Programming course from MIT. It looked like a really interesting course, had a lot of opportunity to practice the knowledge through programming, and was taught using python.

The course covered lots of useful topics from algorithms and problem solving to using big O notation to figure out the complexity of a program or algorithm. It was all very useful in learning to program. What was really difficult were all the actual programming tasks set. They also had tests (exactly what you want to be doing in the summer).

I think a lot of people get put off learning to program because it seems a lot harder than it is to get started. I hear people saying “I don’t think in that way” (I said this many times during the course of learning how to program). Of course you don’t, your not a computer, but that shouldn’t stop you! It’s also to difficult keep up learning when it starts getting really difficult, just keep going and when you finally get the program to work it is so worth it. This image really sums up everything I thought when I started learning to program.

I’m making this image big enough so you can see my beautiful set up, but small enough so you can’t see my errors.

So I’m obviously a long way away to being the level of programming I’d like to be and the level needed to be useful. I’m really looking forward to continuing my programming journey in a computer modelling module at university next term. I’m going to approach programming (and life) in the future using the wise words of Nadiya from The Great British Bake Off:

nadiya_gif6nadiya_gif4

*Disclaimer: hopefully none of the information in this is too wrong, if it is, I apologise, I do plant science, but do let me know*

Extra information:

Codecademy – https://www.codecademy.com/en/tracks/python

Project Euler – https://projecteuler.net/archives

Python mini-projects – http://knightlab.northwestern.edu/2014/06/05/five-mini-programming-projects-for-the-python-beginner/

Introduction to Computer Science and Programming from MIT – http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-computer-science/6-00sc-introduction-to-computer-science-and-programming-spring-2011/Syllabus/