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A visit from Dr Rubén Milla, Rey Juan Carlos University, Madrid.

We were pleased to host Dr Rubén Milla this week, who flew over from Rey Juan Carlos University (Madrid) to give a seminar and meet with the Origins of Agriculture team. Rubén works on ecological strategies in crops and their wild relatives, therefore it was very useful to get together to discuss our current projects. It was great to hear all about Rubén’s research, and he was especially excited to meet two eminent Sheffield ecologists – Professor Phil Grime and Dr John Hodgson. This visit was funded by a Santander travel grant, which was awarded to Dr Catherine Preece, in order to facilitate collaboration between the two research groups. Catherine is excited to be heading out to Madrid in the spring to continue the collaboration!

Rubén, Catherine and Colin in the Sir David Read Controlled Environment Facility.

Rubén, Catherine and Colin in the Sir David Read Controlled Environment Facility.


New PhD Students!

A warm welcome to our two new PhD students Kim Mullins and Emma Jardine!

Thomas Kluyver PhD

Congratulations to Thomas Kluyver on his successful PhD defence on Friday. His thesis looks at the role of unconscious selection in crop domestication, and is an exciting mix of neat ideas, laboratory experiments, and hypothesis testing using large datasets, where Thomas’s skills in computing really came into their own. One of the novel aspects of this work has been the use of comparisons across centres of domestication, asking whether similar patterns occur across multiple regions where agriculture originated. The first of Thomas’s papers is already out, and the second was just accepted today by JXB. Thomas flies off this week to start a computer science postdoc at UC Berkeley, and we wish him the very best of luck in his new job.

Why is rice not C4?

Nowadays, the type of carbon acquisition pathway named “C4 photosynthesis” is used by several crops, such as maize and sugarcane, and allows thousands of species to thrive in warm habitats. However, as illustrated in our paper published in Photosynthesis Research (link), the history of C4 plants started long before the first plants or animals appeared on Earth, and involved random events, alteration of the atmosphere, developmental enablers and co-option of genes over billions of years.

In this paper, initially aimed at providing material for teaching, we review the most recent literature that can inform us on the history of C4 plants, with a special focus on the evolutionary processes it so wonderfully exemplifies. Based on the evidence accumulated, we discuss the reasons why some plants might not be able to evolve C4 photosynthesis. This aspect is addressed with rice, a species that belongs to a phylogenetic group that completely lacks C4 species despite inhabiting warm environments where this trait would be advantageous.

For a PDF of the paper, email Pascal-Antoine (p.christin@sheffield.ac.uk) or Colin (c.p.osborne@sheffield.ac.uk)

Wiki Friday

A white sphere made of large jigsaw pieces. Letters from several alphabets are shown on the pieces.Catherine, Angie, Marj and I spent the day working on plant biology entries in Wikipedia, with help from Thomas, a Wiki veteran. Personal experience shows that Wikipedia is commonly the top hit on Google, and is often the first port of call when looking for information on the internet, so it’s an obvious route for us to communicate our research to a wider audience. If we want people to understand the work we do, it needs to be described on Wikipedia!

As novices, we made a modest start. We converted a few stubs to pages, edited and re-organized content we knew about, and added some new content. Catherine looked at the origins of agriculture, and Marj and I worked on entries for Alloteropsis, our study species. Angie has a long-term plan to add content on source-sink interactions in plants, but needed to edit some other pages before she could add this.  I was struck by how fiddly and time-consuming it was to add links and citations in the Wiki format.  I also struggled with the balance between accessibility and technical detail / precision. The linking functionality of Wikipedia allows technical terms to be defined, but this can make the article inaccessible to non-specialists. Striking a healthy balance was tricky.

We’ll certainly need to do this again to make any significant impact on Wikipedia, but it was a useful start. There is much work to be done, and there will be more Wiki Fridays in future.  Maybe you’ll join us next time?


ASE conference

The Association for Science Education

Thanks to all the teachers who came to Colin’s talk at this week’s Association for Science Education (ASE) www.ASE.org.uk annual meeting in Reading.  It was fun to meet you, to find out more about what’s going on in schools, and to share our enthusiasm for biology!

As promised, here’s a PDF of the slides for: Transforming Photosynthesis: frontier biology for a changing world (I had to compress the file, so some of the pics might be a little fuzzy). A video of the talk will be posted here.

Some associated web resources you might find useful …..

1. Crop production on Earth – facts, figures and maps. The resources page includes videos of some compelling talks aimed at non-specialists: http://gli.environment.umn.edu

2. Cyanobacteria enslaved as chloroplasts in the leaves of plants:

3. I love this NASA animation of global photosynthesis “powering life on our planet” – 20 years of data compiled into a “time lapse” video – it’s truly awe-inspiring! http://archive.org/details/SVS-3451 download in various formats / resolutions

4. Ongoing research to transform photosynthesis using carbon-concentrating mechanisms:

* C4 Rice Project: www.c4rice.irri.org and www.3to4.org

* Combining algal and plant photosynthesis (CAPP) – the website includes resources for teachers: cambridgecapp.wordpress.com

How do plants fly?

Continuing our long-time collaboration with Weston Park Museum, October half-term saw another round of Sideshow Science, a public event on the museum floor aimed at families. We asked ‘How do plants fly?’ in a hands-on science demo of seed dispersal for kids. We blew sycamore helicopters into the air with a giant fan and checked that coconuts float in water (they really do). With help from the three bears in their furry costumes we showed how animals disperse hooked seeds, and considered the mucky business of how birds and mammals spread seeds from the fruit they eat. Thanks to Hazel and Ellen for making a fantastic plant costume to show that the idea of a walking plant is a very silly one indeed …

PEPg workshop

Marj, Georg, Catherine and Colin were in Portugal last week for the SEB/BES workshop on field techniques in Plant Environmental Physiology. With Portuguese maquis vegetation outside the door at La Quinta, and the long history of classic ecophysiology work at this site, we had a stimulating, inspiring and fun few days.

Colin ran a practical session on energy balance measurements and calculations, together with Miguel Costa from the University of Lisbon, and some of the folks from Delta-T Devices, who provided a weather station and diffusion porometer.  We borrowed a FLIR infrared camera to illustrate some of the key components of energy balance.

With measurements made on-site, we ran a simple model to calculate VPD, and a more complex model to solve a simple leaf energy balance. For any workshop participants who are interested in running these for themselves, the code is provided below. You will first need to install R (here), then change pathnames in the code to match the locations of files on your computer. Then you should be able to run the code step-by-step, as we did in the workshop.

colin’s r code


Epic experiment

After six months of preparation, Bex, Millie, Chris and their band of workers have begun a plant growth experiment of epic proportions. Using destructive growth analysis, they are comparing the growth rates and allocation patterns of 220 grass species: a total of >2000 individuals!  After this experiment is over, they will be starting all over again with another set of species, aiming for a total of >400 species. We think this is the largest comparative experiment yet attempted under common environmental conditions.  How do some species grow faster than others? How is growth rate influenced by physiological innovation, ecological adaptation, life history, growth habit and phylogenetic history? And which are the most important determinants of growth? We hope to have some answers in the coming months. And with Marj measuring photosynthesis in these same plants, we should also be able to ask similar questions about carbon assimilation and its relationship with growth. Watch this space ….

SEB Salzburg 2012

Georg, Marj, Thomas and Colin just spent a busy week in Salzburg at the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) annual meeting. Georg and Thomas both presented their PhD work, and Colin coordinated the session “Evolution of Physiological Traits”. Thanks to some amazing speakers, this session was exciting, stimulating and inspiring. Salzburg was beautiful, hot and somewhat beery at night!