Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On a lighter note...

Singing vegetables? Well, surely with current advances in GM crops, it can only be a matter of time! :) Via (broadsheet.ie)

The Vegetable Song (tweet @totallyeustus) from Si Bennett on Vimeo.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

GM Potato set to be planted in Ireland

A major new EU study is set to examine the effects of growing GM, blight-resistant potato plants on biodiversity and the environment in agricultural ecosystems. It will also see the first GM crops being grown in Ireland since the late 1990's.

In a statement issued at the end of February, Teagasc (the Irish agricultural development agency) announced that they are to seek a license to carry out field trials of GM potatoes as part of the AMIGA consortium - a group including representatives of research bodies from 15 EU countries.

Late Blight, caused by the fungal-like organism Phytophthora infestans, decimated the Irish potato crop  in the 1840s leading to the Great Famine. Since then, it has remained a problem for Irish farmers, requiring chemical fungicides to be used to maintain Irish potato yields. GM potatoes have the potential to protect the potato plant from Late Blight attack without the necessity for large amounts of fungicide to be applied.

The potato variety Desiree was transformed withe the Rpi-vnt1.1 gene which confers broad spectrum resistance to Phytophthora infestans. That gene, along with its own promoter and terminator regions were taken from the wild potato species Solanum venturii and inserted into the cultivated potato using Agrobacterium tumefaciens-mediated transformation.

While there are indications that public concern over GM crops has declined in the UK, the news that field experiments will be carried out in Ireland for the first time since the late 1990s has drawn some criticism here.

In a statement released last week, Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA), called the experiments planned for Teagasc's Oakpark headquarters a waste of taxpayers money. "In light of the fact that Teagasc has lodged an application with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) for a licence to grow GM potatoes at its headquarters in Oakpark, IOFGA are demanding that Teagasc be held accountable for their decision to waste taxpayers money on this project."

File Photo: Minister Ruairi Quinn at an Anti-GM event last year
Grace Maher, Development Officer with IOFGA said that considering growing GM in Ireland is "economic suicide" and that the move would put at risk an export market worth 9.1 billion: "Ireland has an excellent reputation internationally as a clean green island that is also a GM free region, and we need to build on this reputation not destroy it”.

The statement ends by accusing Teagasc of pedalling an "unwanted technology":
"In this austere economic climate we need to end wasteful public spending immediately and enforce accountability on those who continue to do so."

Unfortunately, it seems the lobby group for the organic industry, is jumping the gun a bit here.

The funding comes directly from the EU's FP7 research programme - a €50 billion fund specifically designated for research and technological development. There is no question of further money coming from Irish taxpayers.

No matter where the money comes from, there is also a wider issue. Teagasc is Ireland's agriculture and food development agency. It is that organisation's role to carry out research leading to a better understanding of agriculture and new agronomic techniques. To accuse such a body of "wasting" money by doing the very thing is was set up to do, is ridiculous. Any arguments for or against GM crops need to be based on firm scientific evidence and that does not simple fall out of the sky.

The field tests to be carried out at Oakpark will look at the impact of GM plants on the surrounding ecosystem and John Spink, Head of Crops Research at Teagasc was keen to point out that the research is "not about testing the commercial viability of GM potatoes".

"The GM study is about gauging the environmental impact of growing GM potatoes in Ireland and monitoring how the pathogen, which causes blight, and the ecosystem reacts to GM varieties in the field over several seasons.”

Mindful of the controversy surrounding trials of GM sugar beet in Ireland in the late 1990s by Monsanto, these new experiments will use a potato developed at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and there will be no biotech or GM company involved. The sugar beet trials ended with a number of the sites being destroyed by a group styling itself the Gaelic Earth Liberation Front.

According to documents submitted to the EPA as part of the licence application, the field experiments are designed to measure the impact of GM potato cultivation on bacterial, fungal, nematode and earthworm diversity in the soil compared to a conventional system; to identify positive or negative impacts of GM potato on integrated pest management systems; and to use the project as a tool for education in order to engage and discuss the issues surrounding GM with stakeholders and the public.

As Teagasc researcher Dr. Ewen Mullins put it: “It is not enough to simply look at the benefits without also considering the potential costs. We need to investigate whether there are long term impacts associated with this specific GM crop and critically we need to gauge how the late blight disease itself responds. This is not just a question being asked in Ireland. The same issues are arising across Europe.”

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Dr. Mullins remarked: "People are asking about the merits of GM potatoes.At Teagasc, we have a remit to inform people. We haven’t had GM field trials here since the late 1990s. The goal is to look at all of the environmental impacts, and to fill the vacuum that exists currently in terms of impartial knowledge."

An edited version of this article appears on the Guardian's Notes and Theories blog. You can read it here.

Friday, March 23, 2012

What region of the earth is not full of our calamities?

You know Spring has arrived when the daffodils, which pushed through the soil early this year, are in full bloom around the country. In fact, today is Daffodil Day in Ireland - a fundraising event organised by the Irish Cancer Society. To celebrate, we remember an Irish plantsman who put Cork on the map in terms of daffodil growing - William Baylor Hartland.

WB Hartland came from a long line of successful horticulturists. His grandfather, Richard Hartland (1745-1821) worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew before moving to Ireland to become a gardener to the Earl of Kingston at Mitchelstown. Around 1787,  Richard established a nursery at Bellvue Cottage, Mallow and had three sons. Arthur established a nursery near Turner's Cross in Cork City - where it seems he planted a fine monkey puzzle tree; Richard jnr. opened a nursery at Glasheen which continued in existence up until 1923 as the Lough Nursery. By 1867 the Lough Nursery took up 40 acres and included 18,000 feet of glasshouses.

The third son, William Baylor (the father of our WB Hartland) stayed on at the family nursery at Bellvue.

Our William Baylor Hartland (1836-1912) was only seven years old in 1843 when his father died and left him the business. With the help of his uncles, the business was run successfully and he established his own nursery at Temple Hill, just outside Cork in 1878.  In 1889 he moved the short distance to Ard Cairn in Ballintemple.

Hartland became internationally famous for growing daffodil bulbs and developing new cultivars such as Ard Righ. He published his Little Book of Daffodils in 1896 and by the turn of the 20th century he was exporting bulbs all over the world.

The back cover of his catalogue from around that time (pictured) clearly shows the drive and marketing ability of the man. "The True Home of Daffodils" the advertisement proclaims about Cork. "Hartlands seeds, Daffodils, and bulbs of all sorts, to all parts of the world".

Hartlands Catalogue c. 1900 (Image: The Library, National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin 9)

The map of the world, with Cork at its centre is framed by a quote from Virgil - quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris or What region of the earth is not full of our calamities?

WB Hartland was clearly a wonderful salesman and his name lives on amongst daffodil breeders. He was also interested in new varieties of apple and he developed the Ard Cairn Russet variety. He died in 1912 and his nursery closed in 1917.

Cork Lough and the Lough Nurseries c. 1840. Present day Hartlands Avenue in red

The family name still lives on in Cork. In 1926, Oliver Hartland (who was, by then, running the Lough Nursery) built a road from Glasheen to the Lough. Hartland's Avenue remains as a reminder of the nursery and this family's industry.

Today is Daffodil Day and you can support the work of the Irish Cancer Society by buying a daffodil from sellers around the country. Look out for them and support this worthy cause.

Source: Much of the biographical information for this post comes from
Forrest, M (2010). Nurseries and nurserymen in Ireland from the early eighteenth to the early twenty-first century. Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes: An International Quarterly 30(4): 1460-1176.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Getting creative with plants

Green roofs, living roofs or eco-roofs are not new but they are becoming more popular as their role in clearing up pollutants in the city air and providing much needed recreation areas become clear.

This spectacular creation - the world's first 'vertical forest'- is the brainchild of architect Stefano Boeri and is in the form of a pair of skyscrapers (now under construction), part of a €65 million luxury apartment development in Milan.

If planted on the ground, the plants would cover about 10,000 square metres!

Broadsheet mentioned the development today and I was intrigued enough to find out more. According to the architect's website, Bosco Verticale is a project for "metropolitan reforestation" and the towers will house up to 900 trees along with a range of shrubs and flowering plants.

"The Bosco Verticale aids in the creation of a microclimate and in filtering the dust particles contained in the urban environment. The diversity of the plants and their characteristics produce humidity, absorb CO2 and dust particles, producing oxygen and protect from radiation and acoustic pollution, improving the quality of living spaces and saving energy. Plant irrigation will be produced to great extent through the filtering and reuse of the grey waters produced by the building."
The vertical forest development brings into focus the growing (pun intended) calls to develop something similar at the abandoned Anglo Irish Bank headquearters in the Dublin Docklands. Those behind the calls see it as an innovative public park and urban space as well as a project to mark the centenary of the Irish Republic. It's certainly a noble aspiration and an expensive one; whether anything comes of it, we'll have to wait and see. The youtube presentation on the project has some more info.  

Proposed use for the former Anglo HQ © Mahoney Architecture 2011

That's certainly a creative use of plants- and here's another. This one was brought to my attention by one of my students and it's called moss graffiti.

It's a form of guerrilla gardening and what has been labelled "eco-graffiti" or "green graffiti".

Image: Anna Garforth
The concept involves painting a moss/buttermilk solution onto a blank wall, keeping it moist and watching the results grow. Although the results look really stunning and the "eco" label is attractive to people, it's probably best to get the wall owners permission before you try this!

The infographic below explains the process and comes from the book More Show Me How.

Are there buildings and locations you know that could do with some guerrilla gardening? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ireland's Geoheritage Uncovered

The National Museum of Ireland, in association with Earth Science Ireland and the Euroscience Open Forum 2012 will host a one-day seminar on Ireland's Geoheritage this month.

The Secrets of Stone aims to increase awareness of Ireland’s geoheritage; what it is, and explaining the diversity of actions and projects in Ireland aimed at making geoheritage accessible to all.

Speakers will include Matthew Parkes, Geological Curator of the Natural History Museum and Sarah Gatley of the Geological Survey of Ireland who will talk on "Geoheritage - why protect a load of old rocks?".

Mary Mulvihill will speak on Earth Science communication - "If the stones could talk" while  Sophie Préteseille, Geologist with the Geological Survey of Ireland will deliver a talk on the growing success of Geoparks.

Patrick Wyse Jackson from Trinity College, Dublin will also give  a talk on "Geological heritage in our museums".

The seminar takes place on Saturday 24th of March and should be of interest to anyone interested in Ireland's scientific history and heritage. For more details on registration, etc. see the Seminar Programme.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Demand for science courses up

Image: BT
The good news this morning is that figures just released by the Central Applications Office (the body that administrates college applications in Ireland) show that interest in science courses has increased significantly.

The figures show that the number of students expressing a first preference for science courses is up by 18.5% on last year and a whopping 60% over the last five years.

While it's encouraging to see such demand for science courses, it's possible, as reported by the Irish Times, that such a demand could put 'upward pressure' on the points required to study some of these popular science courses. For example, in 2006 you could study science at UCD for 300 points. Last year, that figure had reached 455.

In total, there were 71,648 CAO applications this year; up slightly on 2011.

It is more important than ever that we invest in science teaching and training at third-level to provide the courses (and places in numbers) that CAO applicants are looking for after heeding the many calls from government ministers, industry leaders and science advocates.

Like other sectors, Higher Education is being asked to do more with less. Everyone accepts that value for money needs to be an important consideration, but missing this chance to take advantage of swelling interest in science and technology courses would not do anybody any good. Without significant and sustained investment, this will be a wasted opportunity.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Women in Science and Technology

To mark International Women's Day, five leading women in science and technology will encourage young students to "walk in their stilettos" and see what a modern day scientific career is really like.

In a new video produced by Women in Technology and Science (WITS), the women share insights to their careers, which vary from evolutionary genetics, marine engineering and pharmaceutical research, as well as challenge the gender stereotype of a scientist being ‘a man in a white coat working in a lab’.

Participants include Prof. Dervilla Donnelly, a research chemist; Dr. Aoife McLysaght an evolutionary genetisist and Lt. Cmdr. Niamh Ní Fhátharta, a marine engineer with the Irish Navy.

Speaking at the launch of the film, Sadhbh McCarthy, Chairperson of WITS said: “Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is crucial to the recovery of Ireland’s economy and there is ample opportunity for graduates of these subjects.  A lack of diversity in any industry will hamper innovation and advancement so challenging the stereotypes and narrow notions of what a scientist is and what scientific research actually involves is therefore essential.

“Opportunities in science are constantly evolving and there are many Irish people at the forefront of these exciting developments.  As Aoife put it in the film we have launched today, ‘your future career might not even exist today’, highlighting the pace at which these industries move.  I hope that this film will inspire more girls to view a career in STEM as a fulfilling and exciting one worth considering.”

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In search of monkey puzzles

A. araucana, Spanaway, WA.
It's National Tree Week and earlier in the week I posted something on Araucaria araucana, the Monkey Puzzle Tree and asked for readers to let me know of any interesting examples in their area.

The thing about the Monkey Puzzle is that it is so unique and unmistakable for any other tree species that it tends to stick out in peoples' mind where they see one. As one writer put it: because of their uniqueness, they seem more common than they actually are.

They are also enough of a botanical curiosity that they are often an indication of some historic botanical connection that can be unearthed. They make for some good stories!

Melanie Brisbane was in touch from Spanaway in Washington State in the US to send a photo of her A. araucana covered in snow. The tree is quite cold-tolerant, although the roots can be damaged by severe and extended cold snaps.

Mary Higgins from Waterford mentioned the Monkey Puzzle at Doneraile Park in North Cork. The gardens at Doneraile Court and the plant collecting activities of Mary St. Leger are worthy of a post of their own. The tree is apparently still there but I don't have an image to hand. A trip North is on the cards, I think!
Update 12/03/2012: Having travelled to Doneraile this weekend in search of A. araucana, I can safely say that if there was one in the park, it's gone now! More details in due course.
TriploidTree commented on the specimen tree located at Tramore Road in Cork City (between Musgraves and CMP). CMP is gone from that location but at least one Monkey Puzzle is still present on the site.

Monkey Puzzle at Tramore Road, Cork
The size of the tree indicates that it has been located on the site for much longer than the current occupiers. A quick check of some old maps confirms the site was a plant nursery in the middle of the 19th Century and the tree was positioned at the entrance to the establishment. Surely a great way to impress prospective customers, by exhibiting one of the botanical curiosities of the age at the front gate.

c.1840 map of the Tramore Road Nursery site showing approximate position of the Monkey Puzzle tree (red dot)

OpenPlaques brought my attention to a tree at the bottom of Malone Road in Belfast which must surely be associated with the nearby Botanical Gardens? A quick search hasn't shown up anything there at the moment. Can any Belfast readers shed some light on the matter?
Update 12/03/2012: Prof. John Pilcher from Queens University, Belfast contacted me recently to tell me that, as far as he knew, there was no Monkey Puzzle in the Gardens now. "Some of the old Belfast postcards seem to show one near the Malone road gate (near the Kelvin statue)" says John. "There are some specimens of [the related species] Araucaria heterophylla, one in the Tropical ravine and I think two in the Palm House".
Finally, one other specimen of note is the fine example to be found at what is now Mahon Point in Cork City. This tree is all that remains of the once impressive Lakelands Demesne built by none other than William Crawford. As we've already learned, he was a keen plantsman and developed spectacular gardens on the site now occupied by suburban housing, a shopping centre and a dual carriageway. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I'll write more on Lakelands and Crawford's botanical exploits at a later date, but for National Tree Week it's good to know that this unique tree can act as a reminder of Crawford's Lakeland gardens.

A. araucana at Mahon Point, Cork

Improbable Frequency

Science and theatre fans are in for a treat this month with the Irish musical Improbable Frequency making a triumphant return to the Dublin stage from the 13th - 24th March.

Having seen the show in its first run some years ago I can highly recommend it as a piece of brilliant entertainment with a distinct scientific slant.

Rough Magic Theatre Company brings Arthur Riordan's comedy musical (Ireland's only show fitting into that particular genre?) back to Dublin as part of the  City of Science celebrations.

Featuring the Austrian physicist and Nobel Prize winner Erwin Schrödinger and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, the show follows the exploits of a British crossword enthusiast, the wonderfully titled Tristram Faraday, sent to Dublin to investigate suspicious radio broadcasts.

Improbable encounters with English poet John Betjeman, Ewrin Schrödinger, satirist Myles naGopaleen, the mysterious Agent Green and the innocent (or is she?) Philomena O’Shea, lead to plot twists, double crossings and, inevitably, to the Palace Bar.

It's a show that sounds great, will have you genuinely laughing out loud and has loads of scientific references to keep us science geeks happy. It's also visually stunning with a larger set promised for this run. In fact, I'm told the new set it based on a cross section of CERN's Large Hadron Collider!

From this reviewer, the show gets 5/5 stars! Well worth a trip to the theatre.

The show opens on the 13th March. See Gaiety Theatre for more.

+PLUS Skip on over to The Frog Blog where they have tickets to give away!

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Puzzling Tree

Monkey Puzzle at Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford
The Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria araucana) is a familiar yet exotic sight in many large gardens and parks across Ireland and Britain.

Native to South America,it's the national tree of Chile where it is commonly known as Pehuén.

Despite some commentators despising the things (even going so far as to encourage owners to chop them down!), I quite like them.They've got a bizarre, reptilian quality about them which makes them, at the very least, impossible to mistake for any other species.

It's an evergreen, growing relatively slowly and reaching more than 40 metres in places at maturity. The tree can reach a spectacular age - up to 1,300 years old.

The flowers are dioecious, which means they are either male or female. If you want to produce viable seed to propagate the tree, you'll need two trees - one male and one female. The seeds themselves are pretty large and apparently tasty enough to eat.

The leaves are thick, scale-like and triangular with sharp edges. The leaves are so sharp that there has been calls to remove a number of the trees where they are grown close to schools. Madness of course!

There is some concern for the tree in its native South America where logging, human-set fires and land clearance since Europeans arrived have reduced its range. Its tasty seed and sought after timber means it is at a real risk of being over-collected.

Monkey Puzzle at Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford
The tree first reached Britain in 1795, when Archibald Menzies, a botanist and surgeon with the British Navy brought five saplings home. Menzies had been served the seeds as a desert at a dinner party hosted by the governer of Chile. Sir Joseph Banks at Kew planted two of the saplings in his own garden and three at Kew.

The common name of the plant apparently derives from the 1850's when the proud owner of an early British example of the tree was showing off his prized possession when one of them remarked: "It would puzzle a monkey to climb that". The name has stuck.

There are plenty of Monkey Puzzle trees dotted around the country. Where's your favourite? Send locations (and pics!) and I'll post the best. You can email communicatescience1@gmail.com

This post is part of a series to mark National Tree Week 2012.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

National Tree Week 2012

This Sunday sees the start of National Tree Week in Ireland - a week-long series of events celebrating the impact of trees on our lives and on our environment.

>> Here at Communicate Science, we'll have a series of tree-themed posts to mark the occasion. Stay tuned! <<

National Tree Week runs from 4th-10th March and the theme for 2012 is 'Trees- Our Past, Our Present, Our Future'.

National Tree Week will kick off this Sunday with a series of events in Ardee, Co. Louth at which President Michael D. Higgins  will participate in a tree planting ceremony at 12 noon.

There are loads of events throughout the country - check out the website for full details.

Highlights include:

Clare - A guided tree walk in the Burren where there is famously "not enough wood to hang a man".

Cork - A guided walk at the Gearagh Nature Reserve near Macroom - the finest surviving example of ancient, post-glacial wooded floodplain on the River Lee.

Cork - A guided tour of the spectacular Fota Arboretum by Head Gardener David O'Regan.

Dublin - 'In Celebration of Trees' - An exhibition of Bonsai at the National Botanic Gardens.

Dublin - The inaugural National Tree Week lecture takes place at the National Botanic Gardens. "The Once and Future Forest" will be delivered by Dr. John Feehan.

Wexford - A forest walk at JFK Arboretum featuring a description of forest species, forest management, timber uses, wildlife and a demonstration of how to plant and fell trees.

Full details of times, dates, cost (where applicable), etc. can be found on the NTW website.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Irish Research Priorities

Today sees the launch by the Government of its Research Prioritisation Plan.

The plan aims to target the majority of the Government's core €500m budget for scientific research on 14 specific areas of greatest opportunity.

To be prioritised, the area had to represent a global market in which Irish-based companies could compete. Ireland must have strengths in related areas already and have the capability of conducting public R&D to exploit the area. Also, a national or global challenge must exist which Ireland needs to respond to.

The 14 priority areas of focus are:

Future Networks & Communications
Data Analytics Management, Security & Privacy   
Digital Platforms, Content & Applications
Connected Health & Independent Living
Medical Devices
Therapeutics - synthesis formulation, processing and drug delivery
Food for Health
Sustainable Food Production and Processing
Marine Renewable Energy
Smart Grids & Smart Cities
Manufacturing Competitiveness
Processing Technologies and Novel Materials
Innovation in Services and Business Processes

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mr Richard Bruton, T.D.said at the launch “In recent years we have built up a very substantial base of world-class scientific research taking place in Ireland. The challenge now is to ensure that this activity is translated into commercial outcomes and sustainable businesses and sustainable jobs. With determined implementation of the recommendations of this report we can make sure that this happens”.

As an example in my own field, one of the priority research areas is "Sustainable Food Production and Processing". The report concludes that "global demand for food is projected to increase by 70 per cent over the next 40 years" and that Ireland is ideally placed to exploit such a demand.

"Alongside the need to increase food production is the challenge of doing so in a manner that does not impact on greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, biodiversity or fish stocks. The focus of this priority area is on sustainable, competitive and efficient agri- & marine food production and processing."

"Growth in global population and changing diets in emerging countries are projected to bring about a 70 per cent increase in food demand to feed 9 billion people by 2050. The greatest challenge faced by agriculture is to meet development and sustainability goals, while increasing production. Over the coming decades, there will be increased global competition for land use. This is the ‘food, energy and environment trilemma’, where increased demand for food and energy combine, pressure on land conversion is increased, leading to further climate change, which in turn may affect productivity and availability of land."

Are there areas missing that you would have liked to see included? Let us know by adding a comment below.

You can read the report in full here (pdf).

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