Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Monday, October 13, 2014
Now try and imagine a world without plants. It’s almost impossible to conceive. Although we sometimes take them for granted, plants have made possible and shaped life on Earth while making this a truly green planet.
Plants are at the centre of many of the most crucial global issues that face us now and will face us in the century to come. How can we ensure that a growing human population has enough food to eat? How can we produce that food and, at the same time, reduce the environmental impact of crop production and agriculture generally? How can we reduce the impending threat of global warming?
Can we use plants to power our homes and cars? How do we maintain global biodiversity and use medicines produced by plants to cure diseases and promote human health? All these questions and more require us to look again at our relationship with plants and how they can ultimately be useful to our society and economy.
Looking back through time, plants have shaped the world we now live in and are ultimately responsible for creating the conditions for human life to exist on Earth in the first place. When the earliest land plants appeared on Earth about 450 million years ago, they drastically changed the Earth’s atmosphere; reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and increasing the level of oxygen. That change allowed other organisms to evolve and flourish – some of them, our evolutionary ancestors.
Green plants are nature’s solar panels that have colonised much of the planet. Through a powerful process called photosynthesis, plants are capable of harnessing the vast energy radiating from the Sun. They can then make that energy available to animals, which lack this amazing ability to gather energy from an extra-terrestrial source. The Sun is the ultimate source of all energy in our solar system but we would have no way to access that energy without plants.
But growing plants for food is just one of the ways in which we utilise them in the modern world. The ancient Egyptians once chewed willow bark to reduce fever and headaches. Now we know that the bark of willow contains the active ingredients of aspirin. More recently, a chemical derived from daffodils has been used to treat Alzheimer’s disease and cancers have been treated with the medicine taxol, derived from the yew tree. Plants are also gaining attention as “edible vaccines”, where vaccines for diseases like HIV could be produced in a plant that might also act as a delivery vehicle.
The Irish government seem to recognise the importance of plants to Ireland’s economy. If we look at the 2012 Action Plan for Jobs, sectors highlighted for potential job creation include the “Green Economy” and “Agri-food production”. Both of these sectors have plants at their centre. Tourism – another sector flagged for growth – also relies heavily on Ireland’s natural landscape and our native flora.
Taken together with the fisheries sector, the agri-food industry in Ireland directly employs about 150,000 people and represents about 60 per cent of manufacturing exports by Irish firms. Our success in this area is hinged on plants, whether as crops grown for direct consumption, as raw materials for other products or as animal feed for the meat and dairy sectors. In recent years our reliance on plants within the agri-food sector was emphasised by the fodder crisis. A longer than usual winter meant reduced grass growth and a need to provide an alternative food source for Ireland’s more than 6 million cattle. As the effects of climate change become more obvious on our weather patterns, this type of event may become more common.
As well as an economic impact, plants also have an aesthetic quality which makes them good things to have around. A number of studies have reported the mental and physical health benefits of being exposed to plants and green spaces in general. One study, from the Netherlands, looked at 10,000 people’s general health and compared it to the amount of green space in their neighbourhood. A clear trend emerged: people living in areas with more plants, on average, experienced less symptoms of ill-health and perceived their own health to be better.
In a classic study conducted in the US in the 1980s, patients in a hospital ward with a view of a natural setting, including trees and other plants, recovered more quickly from surgery and took less pain-killing medication than patients with a window view of a brick wall.
Rather than taking them for granted, the role plants play in our lives needs to be recalled. The Irish writer Jonathan Swift once wrote: “Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together”. With apologies to our local and national representative, I’d have to agree with Swift.
This is an adapted version of a piece I first wrote for The Journal.
It now seems likely that the building will be saved and re-purposed for civic/educational uses as part of the Year of George Boole in 2015.
Further details about Boole and the celebrations next year can be found in the wonderful new website:
Sunday, August 17, 2014
On a recent visit to Liscannor it was possible to view at least three plaques in the town in honour of the famous scientist and engineer:
One near the church:
One on the main street:
and one marking his birthplace on Holland Street (formerly Castle Street):
As if that wasn't enough, the town will unveil a further memorial (pictured below, under construction) on August 31st to mark 100 years since his John Philip Holland's death.
Possibly the most densely commemorated scientist in Ireland, and deservedly so!
Saturday, July 5, 2014
At least one million people died and a further one million were forced to emigrate during the Irish potato famine of 1845-1852. Those figures are so often repeated in undergraduate plant pathology classrooms that they lose their shock value. Those years seem so distantly removed from our lives in the 21st century that we occasionally fail to recall that it happened just a handful of generations ago. The famine had such a profound impact on the social, geographic and economic landscape of Ireland that the country still bears the scars. For instance, the population of the Republic of Ireland, as measured by the 2011 census, stands at 4.6 million compared to a pre-famine population of 6.5 million in 1841. Meanwhile, there are 39.6 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry, due in part to massive emigration to the US during and immediately after the famine.
In a recently published study, American consumers were asked their opinion of GM. Half of the sample group were first asked to read a short vignette describing the causal agent of the potato famine, the fungal-like potato disease late blight. The second half of the sample was asked to read a similar vignette, though not mentioning late blight and the Irish famine specifically.
For example, the late blight-specific vignette included:
"Late blight was a key cause of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1850s that led to the starvation of millions of people in Ireland and forced many Irish to leave the country. Late blight has re-emerged in recent years as a substantial threat to crops across the United States and around the world."
Ultimately, even when the question was contextualised in relation to late blight and famine, there was no significant difference in public views about the perceived risks, benefits or fairness of GM crops. This is an interesting finding; given calls in Europe and elsewhere to increase the cultivation of GM crops, particularly in traditionally GM-sceptical nations such as the UK.
This year, for example, the Council for Science and Technology in the UK, scientific advisors to the government, called for the EU to end its “dysfunctional” regulations on GM crop cultivation saying that if the country didn’t embrace GM “the risk is people going unfed”.
Even in Ireland, where one might expect the memory of the famine to linger long with consumers, limited trials of late blight resistant potato plants in recent years have met with some resistance. These EU-funded trials, conducted by Ireland’s agricultural development agency were described as “economic suicide” by opponents who called GM an “unwanted technology”. The scientists conducting the trials, which began in 2012, were keen to stress the impartial nature of the study and that it was not about “testing the commercial viability of GM potatoes” and was specifically concerned with their environmental impact.
In fact, there is a myriad of reasons why some consumers reject GM technologies in foodstuffs. Not all of them, of course, are supported by any real science, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they are real obstacles to overcome for those who would promote a sustainable food-production system which incorporates all aspects of biotechnology, including genetic modification of crop plants. What is clear now is that simply using the approach of emphasising the crop protection benefits of GM is not enough. Consumers are, rightly or wrongly, also worried about the environmental impact of such crops and no amount of appealing to their memory of past catastrophic crop failures will appease them.
One might argue that the passing of time between the Irish potato famine and the current advances in plant biotechnology can account for the lack of relevance and impact on consumer opinion. Perhaps, informing consumers about more recent plant disease outbreaks would be more beneficial. One could point to the Bengal famine of 1943, when an estimated 2 million people died when the rice crop was attacked by a fungal pathogen. In truth, the vast bulk of food for human consumption worldwide is provided by just fourteen crop plants. Failure of any one of these could have a significant impact on global food security. However, we are in a very dark place indeed if we must look for a catastrophic crop failure to remind consumers of the value of plant biotechnology in protecting our food supply.
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
|Delivering a workshop at Aquatnet (Image: @jbaqua)|
The workshop kicked off with a very informative talk delivered by Mike Moulton of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Mike discussed the realities of teaching and learning in the "age of tweets", emphasising the growing importance of twitter amongst educationalists. Twitter and other social media tools, Moulton encouraged, were means of "creating trustworthy pathways through the internet".
In this respect, I was reminded of occasional responses I have received from non-tweeting academics to my use of twitter. "I don't know how you find the time to do all the tweeting", they might say or "shouldn't you be doing some proper work?".
My response to that is often: "How do you find the time not to tweet?". Social media allows you to establish a trustworthy network of contacts who are willing and able to do some of the leg-work for you. For example, my twitter network is able to
- highlight the newest research in my area
- share the latest news in my discipline
- inform me of funding opportunities, job opportunities, etc.
- allow for interaction and collaboration with others
- inform me of upcoming conferences, workshops, etc.
I'm not alone in holding those views. Recently, I posed a question to my own twitter followers:
Student or teacher, can you sum up why twitter & social media are useful TO YOU for teaching & learning in one tweet?? #scisocialmedia RT?
— Eoin Lettice (@blogscience) June 16, 2014
And got some interesting results, including:
@blogscience I like that it is short, sharp and encourages factual statement or further exploration (e.g. linking out) #scisocialmedia
— bren (@brenstrong) June 16, 2014
@blogscience gives access to thought leaders you may not traditionally be able to access
— Ali Sheridan (@SherSustainable) June 17, 2014
@blogscience Hundreds of opinions and ideas, plus a great way of seeing things you otherwise wouldn't have a chance to. #priceless
— Paul Smyth (@paultsmyth) June 17, 2014
@blogscience Mostly use Twitter for research, and by following a few top scientists in a field you get info. before it reaches journals etc.
— Martin Hodson (@MartinHodson1) June 17, 2014
@blogscience #SciSocialMedia allows me to continue to learn during my 'leisure time' + is a great tool to spark ideas + foster collaboration
— NoSiree (@cairotango) June 16, 2014
@blogscience #socmedia is Tch/learn: infinite txtbook, tchr guide, staffr:-)m, class message board, curated resources, library access pointOne use of microblogging in education that I tried to highlight in the recent workshop was the idea of 'live-tweeting' the lecture. Corey Ryan Earle has written a really useful blog post on this idea based on his experience teaching a history course to nearly 400 students at Cornell University. Earle found that encouraging the students to tweet during the lecture encouraged active engagement, reduced distractions and provided instant feedback to the lecturer. Live-tweeting is something I'll be introducing in my first-year biology lectures this year. With over 400 students enrolled, it will be interesting to see whether it boosts interaction with the course material. I'll let you know how it goes!
— Al Smith (@literateowl) June 16, 2014
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
I've been asked to deliver a workshop this Summer regarding the use of social media in teaching at higher education (and in particular, in the sciences). It's very general and aimed at beginners to social media.
Of course there is lots I could talk about from my own experience and elsewhere. However, I really want to get at the diverse methods people are employing with social media in the classroom, lecture theatre, laboratory and field course.
From twitter to facebook, youtube to blogger. How are you employing social media in your classroom? Have you heard of people doing innovative things with social media for teaching?
I'll use a snapshot of the examples during the workshop and will pull everything together in a blog post later in the Summer.
There are a few ways you can contribute:
In light of recent controversies, including discussions regarding fluoridation of Irish drinking water, this new infographic, by Compound Interest for Sense About Science sums up my views better than a lengthy blog post. It's part of their efforts to make sense of the chemistry-related stories we read about in the media. Their free guide on the subject is a must read for those with views on water fluoridation.
(click on the image for a larger version)
Monday, February 17, 2014
The building at number five Grenville Place has been derelict since a structural collapse in 2010. Despite repeated calls for the building to be saved, it has languished forlornly since the initial collapse.
Now, as part of University College Cork's Year of George Boole in 2015, the building could be rebuilt and saved for future generations.
Such a large scale and high profile year of events is to be warmly welcomed. The fact that a centrepiece of this year might secure a piece of Ireland's scientific and architectural heritage, should bring to an end this sorry saga.
You can see what the building might look like in this presentation (powerpoint) from YOGB.
It's just a little bit of science!
I'm a plant scientist, so expect lots of plant-related posts but also lots on science in general and science communication.
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Opinions expressed on this blog represent my own views and not those of my employer. Any comments on posts represent the opinions of visitors.
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This is me
- Eoin Lettice
- I'm passionate about the need to enthuse, inform and engage everyone in society about science. I'm a full-time researcher and lecturer and a part-time blogger. I'm interested in all things to do with science. In particular, education and communication of science - especially biology. This blog represents my personal views.
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