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:


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:

Watch plant YouTube videos


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

venus fly trap.gif

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.


Rafflesia arnoldii

Cool or weird? Not so sure with this one.


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


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.



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.




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.
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 🙂
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?
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 🙂
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


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


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


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


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