I love science fiction and I especially love Dr Who so when I find a chance to connect that love with my other love - plant science - I just have to blog about it!
Last night's episode was filled with planty references but I can't go past the scene where a swarm of tiny robots are pollinating a wheat field (let's ignore the fact that wheat is wind pollinated for a minute) on a foreign planet.
Fiction I here you say!
Well… maybe not.
To explore this out-of-this-world concept we first need to know what is pollination? According to my first year biology text book (Campbell, Reece and Mitchell) pollination is 'the placing of pollen onto the stigma of a carpel'. But what does that mean??? Let's use a picture to help. In plants, the male bits are the stamens with their anthers (which present the pollen), while the female bits are the carpels which include the stigma (sticky bit ready for pollen), the style (which the pollen tube grows down) and the ovary. Today's ramble is only about pollination but the rest of fertilisation (including pollen tube growth) is equally fascinating!
Pollination can occur in many different ways including wind (as hay fever sufferers well know), animals and insects - bees being the most well-known and perhaps the most important economically.
At this point, dear readers I highly recommend taking 7 minutes to watch this TED talk which has some nice pictures of pollination in action!
As many of you will be aware the bee populations have been declining due to a range of causes (some of which we still don't understand - and perhaps partly due to them returning to their home planet Melissa Majora as the Doctor told us in 2008!).
At this point I want to say that our first priority should be to protect the bees (and all pollinators) but let's imagine for a moment we are travellers to a far away planet with no pollinators - could robots be the answer?
Earlier this year a paper in Chem http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2017.01.008 made waves with their artificial pollinators. Many of you may have seen some of the headlines as you scrolled through Twitter but I wonder how many of you stopped and read the original article? I didn't - until today. So here is the roundup.
The authors had a series of problems to overcome. The first was to find an adhesive that can pick up pollen efficiently but would also let go of the grains when in contact with the stigma (sticky female bit - see pic above), was non-toxic and water resistant. Their solution was an ionic liquid gel.
The second problem was to determine if their gel was suitable for biological applications and non-toxic. They used a lab test on cells which were treated with the gel and found that small volumes had no significant effect on the number of living cells meaning that it was safe to use on biological systems.
Ecologically, introducing little robots into the food chain could be a problem but the team could see their gel also being used for camouflage - reducing predation. Into their gel they mixed four different organic compounds which can change colour depending on the light and then painted flies and ants with the gel. As you can see (and I think this is as cool as the robotics part of this story) the gel changed colour with more UV light.
The insects painted with the gel were able to move and interact within the flower, collecting pollen more effectively than non-painted insects.
So they had a gel that worked on insects.
The next challenge was to create a robotic insect. In insects the pollen gets transferred from the anther to hair on the insect's body. So the group coated different fibres with their gel and tested how well pollen would stick. The fibres came from everyday products like paint brushes and make-up brushes. They found the animal hair brushes (horse hair paint brushes) and nylon (from make-up brushes) worked well when coated with the gel but they found carbon fibres were unsuccessful because they were too big. They decided to stick with horse hair for future experiments because of biodegradability in the natural environment.
The story is emerging: they have their sticky-gel, which is safe for use in the environment and now they have their fibres for mimicking pollinator hair - the only thing left is the flying machines!
They used commercially available small UAVs (Unmanned aerial vehicle) which was just 42 mm long by 42 mm wide and 22 mm high. They stuck the gel-coated fibres on the back of the UAV with double sided tape (and checked that launch was unaffected by the fibres) and then used radiocontrols to fly the robotic bee to the Lilly flower, collect pollen and deposit it on the stigma - see the movie in the file below). They checked viability of pollination using microscopy and found successful pollen tube formation.
So although these UAVs may be slightly clumsy looking - they work. The next step is to make them smaller, fly more precisely and fly alone and then off-world robotic pollination might not be such a stretch of the imagination!
The article on robotic pollination can be found here:
http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2017.01.008 and the colour-changing fly picture and the movie file come from this source.
The textbook I used for pollination definition is: Campbell, Reece and Mitchell (1999) Biology (Fifth Edition) published by Benjamin/Cummings ISBN: 0-8053-6566-4.
The TED talk on pollination comes from:
The flower picture came from this random website (it was the prettiest image!): http://www.all-my-favourite-flower-names.com/parts-of-a-flower.html
Link below isn't working: but this one is :)
Come along on the 2nd May
Feel free to get in touch if you have more questions.
On the 2nd of May I'm honoured to be hosting Dr Sandra Knapp from the Natural History Museum (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/) for the Holden Botany Lecture.
The Holden Botany Lecture is a public seminar held once every two years and named after Prof. Henry Smith Holden who, in 1932, was our first Professor of Botany at the University of Nottingham. The first of these lectures was held in 1975 with the intention that the ‘lecture be given by a distinguished botanist, biologist, or an industrial or horticultural specialist, and would emphasise the importance of basic botanical and biological research work’.
With this in mind Dr Sandra Knapp's impressive career working with the taxonomy of Solanum, Capsicum, and Lycianthes with the Natural History Museum clearly makes her a natural choice for this year’s seminar.
The seminar is open to all so if you find yourself in the East Midlands do come along! More details for the event can be found at: www.nottingham.ac.uk/go/holdenbotanylecture or you can email me with any questions.
See you on the 2nd May!
It's been a while since I posted so prepare yourselves for a longer than usual blog! I was going to separate some of these topics into separate entries but honestly I can't be bothered so you'll just have to read (or skim) the whole update!
First to Students (and no they aren't related to stress!) - I've had the great pleasure of having Jordan in my lab for a DTP rotation for the last 7 weeks. She has been learning about maize growth and the soil-plant-air continuum. Some of the techniques she has learnt include 15N uptake (which is what we are doing in the images below), shoot and root biomass measurements, CT imaging of roots, leaf pigment stuff (which is sort of my loose connection to stress!) and microdialysis sampling of soil nutrients. The last 7 weeks have been a lot of fun and I'm sure whatever project Jordan chooses she will go on to great things!
Now to Stress - not mine - and actually not really stress but rather plant pigments which can indicate stress! Those of you following me on Twitter will see that I recently obtained a Dualex meter. This measures chlorophyll, polyphenols (flavonoids) and a ratio between the two (for more detail see Force-A page: http://www.force-a.com/en/capteurs-scientifiques/dualex-scientific/
and download the brochure).
The reason I am so blatantly advertising the for Force-A is because of the support they showed me during the nightmare of having the device delivered. Firstly - to order a piece of equipment like this is a serious decision when there is a limited budget so I put a lot of thought into weighing up my options. Having decided to order one Force-A were fantastic with getting it packaged up and sent. However a certain delivery company who can remain unnamed (but whose initials are U. .P...S) seem to have lost the delivery but refuse to accept their error (details can remain out of this due to further investigations - however it seems I'm not the only person to have problems with this company!). The device should have arrived the first week of November 2016 but has still not been located. Force-A are not at fault so have no obligation to do anything further, however despite this they stepped up and provided a replacement device (via a different delivery company) and the device arrived 2 working days later! It has been rare for me to experience such charity and support and I truly appreciate it - in particular as a new academic with a tight budget.
Since the Dualex arrived we (I mean Jordan!) has had a play and measured a bunch of random plants around the place....data below....definition of the ratios are given in the picture above. In future the dualex will allow us to do continuous measurements of leaf status. At the end of experiments we'll make a final measurement, harvest that tissue and use colorimetric methods to measure whole tissue pigment concentrations. Fun times to come!
So thanks again Force-A :)
That brings me to stuff!
I watched this fabulous TED talk (link below) recently on mentoring and how to get the most out of your team. I personally have had more bad than good experiences with supervisors and I'm always on the lookout for good advice. This one however hit home hard regarding the chicken-run of academia and the encouragement of superchickens rather than ensuring all the rest of us chickens are happy, healthy and as a collective more productive. It's a fantastic talk (like most TED talks) and I think if this way of thinking and behaving could be incorporated more into institutions it will not only improve overall productivity but also make a community of much happier chickens!
Finally - AR-Lab is moving....Again! This time by choice - just across the Sutton Bonington Campus to Gateway building. It's been two days (and most of today I was teaching) but already I feel very welcome among my colleagues and have been able to pop in and ask questions or have a chat with people as I've bumped into them when previously I would have had to walk across campus to see if they were in! So thanks to you all for making me welcome! My email contacts stay the same, phone number will change (see my contacts page).
If you've read all the way to the end then I thank you for thinking this was more interesting than spending your time on something else! :)
Congratulations to Olivia Cousins (an Adelaide-Nottingham joint PhD candidate and one of our team!) who won the student poster prize at the 2016 New Zealand Society of Soil Science and Soil Science Australia conference held in Queenstown, New Zealand 12-16th December this year. A full version of the poster can be found at: soilecology.org/conference-posters
Well done Olivia!
I thought it was about time for an update from the AR_Lab!
Aside from full recruitment mode there have also been some fun stuff going on wtih the plants. The new rhizoboxes are in the glasshouse and the plants are very happily growing. I'm still amazed (even as a root physiologist) by how extensive the root system can be for a comparatively small shoot - and these are all growing with sufficient nutrient availability.
While we're talking about plants in action the second edition of this very useful text book is now online and freely available for all to use. You can find it at http://plantsinaction.science.uq.edu.au/
These boxes will never look this clean ever again! This was the evening they were delivered. :)
This is my advertising shot - beautiful blue skies at Sutton Bonington that day :) Boxes filled with potting mix and ready to go! (by the way blue skies are not actually unusual here!)
Plants in action! Measuring nutrient uptake from root types without disturbing the plants. Check out how long the roots are compared to the shoots! After half an hour the treated roots were cut off and the windows were replaced, retilted and recovered with opaque plastic as if nothing had ever happened!
So many great experiments to do! :)
I was just reflecting on my day today and I think there's a good analogy that can be instructional regarding what plant physiology means.
The analogy comes from my medical check-up at the hospital today (hence having the time for two blog posts! - all good for another year by the way ;) ). At the hospital I'm always greeted by "Hi, I'm Joe Blogs and I'll be your physiologist today". That physiologist then connects an ECG, and logs in to my pacemaker and checks the readings from the two are comparable and then they download all the data from the time in between which has been recorded by the pacemaker and check certain features of the functioning of my heart. They then manipulate the heart rate using the pacemaker to see how everything responds.
This is exactly what plant physiologists try to do. Instead of a person as a patient, it's a plant, instead of an ECG it might be a LiCOR or a pressure bomb and instead of a pacemaker it might be a heat pulse velocity kit (which has various other names), or a dendrometer, and the data is collected by data loggers (just like the pacemaker) or by us (just like the doctor).
There are lots of other techniques that we use - all of which measure processes. observing the shape or colour is of course of interest - particularly when we can do this many times- because they tell us something about the outcome of the processes.
Note the use of the word 'outcome'. Without knowing something about likely processes involved we can't use a single image or set of images to understand physiology.
Having said that, once we know the processes that lead to a visual outcome we can very effectively use images of that outcome as an indicator of the processes (by inference so it's important to check from time to time). - I'm of course referring to phenotyping.
The other thing I'm going to say is that of course just like it's possible there is a genetic basis for my heart defect (which we have no evidence for currently) many plant physiology process defects (or changes) are related to genetic effects but just because changing one set of genes leads to a set phenotype - there are many possible processes that may have changed to come up with the resulting image and there are many different process-paths that could have been taken and without studying the processes, we can not know which processes changed or responded.
Again the genetic tools available now are opening physiology doors that were not possible 20 years ago - these are essential tools developed by fantastic molecular biologists and geneticists (and bioinformaticians).
So what is my point in all this rambling?
My point is that with the previous revolution in genetics and molecular biology and the current revolution in phenotyping technologies, the physiology skills and knowledge have become untrendy (is that a word?) and so are dwindling - but they are essential! In the UK this has been acknowledged (at least in writing) by the BBSRC - so I'm not making this up - at least not entirely (it is of course a biased perspective of a physiologist!).
So why is physiology untrendy? I have no idea! This is an exciting time for plant physiologists! We now have the ability to adapt the tools and technologies that have been used in medical physiology for plants (those pesky cell walls tend to make adapting essential but modern materials are making this possible).
Anyway I think the first step is to remind the world what physiology is! So think about the pacemaker and the physiologists who monitor all the heart processes- and then replace the patient with a plant.
Small disclaimer: If any human physiologists read this - I know they are doing a lot more when I go in for tests than what I listed here, so I'm sorry for not doing that justice!
Hi global team! You don't mind me calling you that do you?
So it's been another exciting/busy/crazy/tiring week in the glasshouse (and at training courses and doing admin for the new academic year - but let's pretend it was all glasshouse!)
Two days harvesting an experiment in pleasantly cool weather. I don't ever remember doing a glasshouse harvest in Australia and thinking how much I want a hot steaming shower! Usually a cold bath or sitting in front of the airconditioner for a few hours was top priority! This is one of many things I truly love about living in the UK.
My new rhizoboxes arrived as well. So many exciting experiments to be done with these! I filled them on Thursday - thats 60 x 25 litre bags of potting mix that I carried in, broke up and poured into the boxes! Not a trivial exercise - but exercise it was! Pic below is a red-faced dirt-covered me just after watering them in.
There's also a fabulous picture of my boxes with Spongebob trying to get out somewhere on twitter! :) - you'll have to look it up to see the reason!
So that's my update. So many other things going on too - never a dull moment!
It's been a while since I posted - been rather busy.
My fantastic team of short term visitors have almost all left :( Richard, Findi and Marianna have been wonderful students and good fun to have around! I hope they've learnt what they'd hoped during their time with me!
This week has also been my first proper experience of the struggle of being a new academic without a team of minions (I mean students and post-docs) to help out with harvests. The last two days I harvested a maize experiment entirely alone. No need to queue the violins but it was definitely not as fun as with a team of people working and joking around! Also surprisingly slow. Having worked with a team of plant physiologists at UQ on a previous experiment (and helping out with their harvests back in time), I definitely underestimated the time commitment for dong it alone! Meanwhile I'm still expected to submit project proposals for PhD studentships, support a post doc applying for a fellowship to join my lab, plan the next grant proposal and carry on the other experiments I also have running, not to mention the administrative duties that I'm expected (and I agreed) to do.
Complaint?? not really. I love collecting data and planning the next steps. I'm loving doing the physiology with new technology or modified techniques which I have the flexibility to do thanks to my fellowship. And I have great people applying to join my lab so it's just a matter of time. But I do sympathise with other early career academics out there!
Hang in there brethren...you're not alone in the struggle!
In the meantime here are a few new pics from the glasshouse!
It's been a busy time but today the team got together and talked about each project and then bonded over a yummy pub lunch. Present was Marianna (Erasmus student), Findi (Masters student), Richard (visiting postdoc) and me. Olivia was absent ... but we'll forgive her since she's in Adelaide and it's a bit far to come for lunch ;)