Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Let me tell ya 'bout the cherry trees

Let me tell ya ‘bout the cherry trees
Every April in our town
They put on the most outrageous clothes
And they sing and they dance around
Hardly anybody sings or dances
Hardly anybody dances or sings
In this town that I call my own
You have to hand it to the Cherry trees
And they seem to be saying, to me anyway
“You know we’ve traveled all around the sun
You know it’s taken us one whole year
Well done everyone, well done”
On behalf of me and the Cherry trees,
Well done everyone!
John Spillane ~ The Dance of the Cherry Trees

The arrival of the cherry blossoms this year is surely a relief to us all. After going through the worst winter in (my) living memory and with all the doom and gloom around the place, it's a welcome sight for sore eyes.

A little later than usual (but not by much), the blossoms are being to burst forth in all their magnificent, subtle pinkness.

Cherry trees (Prunus spp.)have been bred and cultivated in Japan for centuries, where the social phenomenon of "flower viewing" is still practiced with the cherry blossoms. The Cherry Blossom festivals ("Hanami in Japanese) are a unique part of japanese life - it has been celebrated in Kyoto for the past 1200 years.

Each year, thousands gather to watch the blossoming of the Japanese mountain cherry (Prunus jamasakura) which is at its peak for just 2-4 days every year. Because of the cultural, economic and scientific interest in this festival, the flowering times each year have been carefully recorded and can now aid scientists in the study of phenology - the study of the timing of plant and animal life cycle events.

This unique data, which in Japan can stretch back over 730 years allows the scientists to understand the effect of climate change on flowering time.

A study of the data shows that there is a six-week range in flowering dates throughout the centuries in Kyoto - from late March to early May. The evidence suggests that some periods of time had earlier or later average flowering times. For example, the 9th and 10th centuries seem to be a time when flowering was particularly early and the late 17th century, amongst other times, showed especially late flowering dates.

Importantly, since 1830 the cherries have been flowering progressively earlier and by the 1980s and early 1990s, average flowering times had become earlier than at any other time previously recorded.

In a smaller study, the cherry blossoms at Wuhan University, China were studied between 1947 and 2008. (Incidentally, there are not many 61-year experimental studies that can be described as small, but in light of the Kyoto study, this is). The Chinese study demonstrated that for every decade that passed, the flowering date got earlier by about 2 days.

"flowering time is useful as a sort of historical thermometer"Plants naturally use temperature as a signal for flowering. It makes sense from the plants point of view not to flower too early (when frost might damage the new growth) or too late (when they may loose time for photosynthesis, growth, pollination, fruit development and so on). From that point of view, flowering time is useful as a sort of historical thermometer to study climate change. However, as the plant is now experiencing temperatures it has never had to deal with before, scientists find it difficult to predict how it will adapt and react.

Irish scientists have a long interest in phenology. When the International Phenological Gardens scheme was founded in 1957 in Germany, four Irish gardens were chosen to participate. These were (and still are) the gardens located at Valentia Observatory in Kerry, at Johnstown Castle and JFK Arboretum in Wexford and at the National Botanical Gardens in Dublin. Glenveagh National Park and the Armagh Observatory have subsequently been added to the scheme.

These locations were planted with a range of trees cloned from trees in Germany to ensure that the same types of tree was being used throughout Europe. The Irish Phenology Network now consists of 28 sites, some acting as international sites also. The Irish network includes gardens at Millstreet Country park, Blarney Castle and Birr Castle.

Wherever you are this Spring, enjoy the Cherry Blossoms; after the long hard winter we've had, we deserve them.

Trinity College, Dublin will host an international conference on phenology on June 14-17 this year.

Primack et al., 2009. The impact of climate change on cherry trees and other species in Japan. Biological Conservation 142: 1943-1949.
Zhenghong et al., 2008. Change in flowering dates of Japanese Cherry Blossoms on campus of Wuhan University and its relationship with variability of winter temperature. Acta Ecologica Sinica 28: 5209-5217.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hope you like it

After a few weeks of tinkering, I've finalised the new template, layout and design for the Communicate Science blog. The banner image on top is of a community of lichen growing on the bark of a tree in the Ringaskiddy area of Co. Cork a few years ago. It's a small portion of a much larger image for which I've been looking for a use since I took it.
The majority of the changes have now been implemented and save a few minor changes to a few gadgets, no major upheavals are expected for the foreseeable future. I'd be delighted to know what you think of the new design. Any comments or suggestions can be left as a comment to this post.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Man does not live on bread alone...

Examination of paintings of the Last Supper have shown that portion size has increased dramatically over the years.

"If art imitates life and if food portions have been generally increasing with time, we might expect this trend to be reflected in paintings that depict food" according to Brian and Craig Wansink, the former a economist and the later a theologian.

Writing in the International Journal of Obesity, the academics compared the "food-to-head ratio" in 52 of the best known depictions of the Last Supper. In 18% of the paintings, the attendees were depicting as enjoying fish as their main dish. Lamb (14%) and pork (7%) were also recorded with 46% of the paintings having no discernable main dish.

The authors showed a significant positive relationship between the relative size of that main dish and the passage of time from 1000 BC - 2000 BC. This means that as time progressed, portion size got larger.

"The last thousand years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food. We think that as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history's most famous dinner", said co-author Brian Wansink.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Where's our Minister for Science?

With Brian Cowen's changes to the cabinet makeover we've seen lots of shifting deckchairs but science seems to have been forgotten.

The former Department of Education and Science has been renamed under a new minister. The Department of Education and Skills will now be headed up by Tanaiste Mary Coughlan. The former minister at that department, Batt O'Keeffe moves to Enterprise bring with him responsibility for the third-level research budget.

The decision to effectively demote science from the cabinet table does little to bolster the government's aim of building a 'knowledge-based society'. Without proper recognition for the role science plays in our economy, the green-shoots of prosperity will be slowed even further.

Brian Cowen should restore the term science to the department's name and give us a Minister of Science while he's at it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tasty spuds need not be organic

A group of Irish scientists have shown that there is no difference in taste between organically and conventionally grown potatoes.

In a study published in this month's edition of the International Journal of Food Science and Technology, Clare Hilsenan, Roisin Burke and Catherine Barry-Ryan from Dublin Institute of Technology, reported that a panel of consumer tasters could find no significant difference between organic and non-organic potatoes.

Organic potatoes (of the cultivar Orla) were grown near Navan, Co. Meath and were fertilised with composted manure rather than the synthetic fertiliser applied to the conventional potatoes (also grown in Navan). Since potato blight (caused by Phytophthora infestans) is a serious fungal pest of potatoes in Ireland, the conventionally grown spuds were sprayed with a liquid copper fungicide designed to control the fungus. Since such synthetic additives are not permitted in organic agriculture, the organic potatoes were treated with Burgundy (a mixture of copper sulphate and washing soda).

Despite Burgundy currently being permitted in organic agriculture (like the related Bordeaux mixture) there are some doubts about the impact repeated applications of a copper-based treatment has on the local environment to which it is applied. Copper sulphate is toxic to some fish and if it finds its way into water bodies, can cause significant problems. It has also been shown to cause problems for bees, sheep, chickens and especially earthworms who are crucial for proper soil health and therefore the success of an organic agricultural system.

However, the use of Burgundy is a side issue and the study in question deals with the eventual taste of the harvested potatoes.

The potatoes from both sources were taken to the laboratory and baked in the oven.The colour, texture and the dry matter content of the  potatoes were measured as well as the pH and the amount of sugar present in the samples.

"tasters were asked to assess flavour, texture and aroma"Then comes the fun bit. A group of ten tasters (trained to international standards!) were asked to assess the flavour, texture and aroma of the raw and cooked potatoes. This involved them sitting in specially constructed booths were the temperature and light was controlled to insure that they were influenced by outside interference. As well as that, the order in which the samples were tasted were randomised in order to ensure that each had an equal chance of being first or last.

As well as these specially trained tasters, a panel of 80 regular potato eaters was gathered from amongst the staff and students of DIT and asked to assess cooked potatoes under the headings colour, aroma, texture and taste.

"some chefs may not agree with us" - Roisin Burke, DITThe results of the taste-tests were analysed and make for interesting reading. The trained panel of tasters found the organic potatoes to be harder, and drier than the conventionals.In terms of colour, aroma and taste, no significant differences were found between organic and conventionally grown samples.

When the 'untrained' consumer panel reported, they again found no statistical differences in the appearance, aroma, texture and taste.

Since the price difference between organic and conventionally- grown fruit and vegetables is sometimes staggering, these results indicate that taste should not be a factor in our decision if we choose conventional over organic potatoes. An analysis by the Sunday Times showed that 1 kg of organic potatoes cost €2 in Tesco this week compared to €1.06 for 1 kg of conventional spuds.

Speaking to that newspaper, one of the authors Roisin Burke noted that "some chefs may not agree with us" and that "There are other reasons why people eat organic potatoes, such as the lack of pesticides, but we found no difference in taste.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Communicate Science @

The good people at have published one of the articles from Communicate Science as a science blog on their website. The article deals with the recent decision by the EC to allow GM potatoes to be cultivated in Europe as well as consumer opinion on GM in general. The article, which is an edited version of the post that appears on this blog, can be viewed here.

Number of the Week: 15,000

The number of trees distributed by Coillte to be planted by community groups across the country during National Tree Week, which happens this week. Ireland remains one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with just 10% of our land covered in tress compared to a European average of 40%. Despite this, over 20 million visits are made every year to Irish forests.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Science Spin

Science Spin is Ireland's Science, Wildlife and Discovery magazine. It's now available in its entirety online. 
See the March edition here and read about the geology of coal mines in Co. Kilkenny, the latest research on how the brain functions and the latest events and happenings in Irish science.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Second generation GM can't come soon enough

This week’s decision by the newly-installed European Commission (EC) to allow genetically modified (GM) potato varieties to be grown in some EU countries brings to somewhat of a conclusion, a 13-year campaign by the German chemical company BASF.

An edited version of this article appears on the Science Blog. View it here.

The potato in question, Amflora benefits from the gene for a particularly uneconomic form of starch (amylose) being turned off by genetic modification. This means that the useful starch that is produced (amylopectin) doesn’t need to be separated from the useless form.

The starch is used in the paper, textiles and adhesives industries. BASF say that while the starch will not be used in human food, they may use the product in animal feed.

Amflora also carries an extra gene called neomycin phosphotransferase II (nptII) which makes the potato resistant to the antibiotics neomycin and kanamycin. This ‘antibiotic resistance marker gene’ has provoked much debate and is focused on by opponents of GM technology.

In June 2009, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that these marker genes, including nptII are unlikely to cause adverse effects on human health and the environment, but due to limitations to sampling and detection they were unable to be conclusive. They did however re-emphasise that they considered Amflora to be safe.

"Insertion can be achieved by using a bacterium to “ferry” the gene into the plant cell or by blasting it in using a gene gun"The antibiotic resistance marker genes are a remnant of the genetic modification process that produced the potatoes in the first place. GM plants are produced by inserting novel genes into individual plant cells and then growing the plant cells into whole plants in the laboratory. Insertion can be achieved by using a bacterium to “ferry” the gene into the plant cell or by blasting it in using a gene gun. Alternatively, the tough plant cell wall can be stripped off and the gene can be inserted into this “naked” cell.

Whatever way it is inserted, not all of the plant cells treated will successfully take up the new gene and incorporate it into its own DNA; perhaps just 5 cells out of every 1000 in particularly susceptible plants. It is necessary therefore to be able to select those cells which have been modified from those which have not.

By not only inserting the novel gene, but also tagging a marker gene onto it, it ensures that cells which have been successfully modified exhibit resistance to a specific range of antibiotics. In the case of Amflora, it means that only those plant cells which will grow in the presence of kanamycin and neomycin have been successfully modified. The successful cells can then be allowed to grow into whole plants. However, these whole plants will contain the antibiotic resistance genes in every one of its cells.

BASF first submitted its Amflora potato for approval in 1996 but an EU-wide moratorium on GM between 1998 and 2004 delayed the process substantially. When the potato was resubmitted for approval after the moratorium ended, progress was so slow that BASF took the EC to court in 2008 to force them to come to a decision.

The chemical company filed an action against the EC in the European Court of First Instance for “failure to act” and decide on the issue despite the EFSA saying in two separate reports that the product had no harmful effects on human health and was as safe as any conventional potato. The company claimed that the previous commissioner, Stavros Dimas, “unjustifiably delayed” the decision on several occasions.

Now, within weeks of stepping into the role, the new European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, John Dalli, has given the green light for planting to begin. BASF say the potatoes will be grown in Germany and the Czech Republic this year as well as Sweden and The Netherlands in 2011.

Opponents of GM technology have been quick to denounce the decision, with Greenpeace saying that Dalli has “steam-rolled” a decision through. Given that the potato variety in question has undergone 13 years of testing since its first submission, this analogy of a steam-roller might be better applied to the lumbering decision making process in Europe rather than this final decisive move by the new Commissioner.

At the crux of this issue is the consumer’s opinion on GM foodstuffs and GM organisms in general. Consumers genuinely do not see the benefit for them of using GM products.

"there is a need to move beyond GM crops that confer benefits to industry and growers alone and towards second generation GM"For this reason, there is a need to move beyond GM crops that confer benefits to industry and growers alone and towards second generation GM which produces added health and nutritional benefits for consumers. The president and CEO of BASF Plant Science Dr. Hans Kast is on record as saying that the Amflora potato represents a potential added value to European farmers of €100 million annually. The company has also pointed out that they are loosing between €20 and 30 million in license income for every lost cultivation season.

Perhaps I’m being presumptuous, but I can’t imagine many Irish or European consumers laying awake at night worrying about lost revenues for BASF. What Irish consumers are concerned about however, are real and tangible benefits from their foods.

In a study carried out in 2005, 42% of Irish consumers surveyed indicated that they would be willing to purchase a hypothetical GM-produced yoghurt if it had anti-cancer properties. In the same study, 44% of consumers said that they would use a GM-produced dairy spread if it had anti-cancer properties.

These second generation GM crops also have a role to play in developing countries, with the development of biofortified foodstuffs to counteract micronutrient malnutrition among the poor.

Undoubtedly, some British and Irish consumers, in common with their European counterparts are reluctant to consume GM crops and see them grown in their countries. The focus of industry on benefits to the grower and seed producer rather than on consumer-centred benefits will prolong this reluctance and hamper the innovation in our food and agriculture industries which is so badly needed at this time.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Number of the Week: 600 million metric tonnes

The estimated amount of water ice located near the Moon's north pole. The ice was spotted by the American LCROSS satellite aboard the Indian lunar spacecraft Chandrayaan-1. The results of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite suggests that "a sustainable human presence on the Moon is possible" according to Paul Spudis from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. President Barack Obama cancelled the American programme for a return to the moon by 2020 in February of this year.

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