Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The (plant) science of Christmas

Plants are fascinating. One of the most fascinating aspects of plants is the way they have become embedded in human culture and society. This is, perhaps, mostly evident at this time of year. From the Christmas Tree to Brussels Sprouts, plants are as much a part of Christmas as Santa himself.
This article originally appeared in the Irish Independent's 'Science of Christmas' magazine.

Kissing under the mistletoe
If you’re lucky, you might just get a kiss under the mistletoe this year. Viscum album is what’s known as a hemi-parasite. That means it derives nutrients and water from a host plant, whilst also photosynthesising to harness sunlight for energy. It’s a sort of middle ground between being completely parasitic and completely free-living.
Mistletoe can parasitise over 200 different tree and shrub species and can ultimately kill these plants. The plant is poisonous to humans, yet lots of animals can overcome its toxins and depend on it for food in the wild.
It’s really odd then that a poisonous parasite would be at the centre of such a romantic tradition.
The plant has featured in folklore since Greek mythology and these days is hung in homes around the world in the hope of a quick kiss. The reasons for this are unclear but certainly the Greek naturalist Pliny the Elder (23 to 79 BC) recorded the widely held belief that because the mistletoe stayed green during the winter (it’s an evergreen) and the host tree generally lost its leaves, that the mistletoe somehow contained the ‘life’ of the tree.  This connection with life and fertility meant it got caught up with the tradition of Christmas and kissing.

Holly wears the crown
The red and green colours of holly (Ilex aquifolium) have become the quintessential Christmas colour combination. Since pre-Christian times, it’s had an association with winter; when the red fruits and dark-green, foliage are at their peak.
In fact, there are about 400 species of holly around the world. Eighty of them are considered threatened in the wild. The bright red fruits are attractive to birds who eat them and deposit seed elsewhere in their droppings, often under trees. For some plants, germinating in the shade would be a problem. Not so for holly which is very shade tolerant. So much so that it is becoming a real problem in forested areas where it is not native, including the US.
Holly is dioecious, which means that it has separate male and female plants. The distinctive red berries (which are mildly toxic to humans) are produced only by female plants and only when both male and female plants are grown together.
Its attractiveness as a Christmas decoration means that in some places it is endangered. This year, Killarney National Park has had to organise special patrols to prevent people chopping down whole holly trees for the lucrative Christmas market. One of Ireland’s few native evergreen trees, it has become a victim of its own popularity.

Christmas Cactus
The mountains of Brazil might be the last place we imagine when we think about Christmas.
However, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera buckleyi) is native to Brazil where it lives as an epiphyte – that’s a plant that grows on another plant. It’s not a parasite (like mistletoe) because it doesn’t take nutrients from the host plant. It just thinks it’s a really nice place to hang out.
The green parts aren’t technically leaves. They are a sort of modified stem which are flattened to increase the amount of sunlight that the plant can absorb. The more sunlight it collects, the more energy it has for growing.
The flowers are interesting too as they have evolved to attract hummingbirds to transfer pollen from one flower to another in order to produce seed. They come in a range of colours , from white to red and deep purple.
While in the northern hemisphere the plant is known as the Christmas cactus and closely associated with this time of year, down in Brazil it’s often called Flor de Maio (the May flower) because of the time of year it flowers in their winter.
If you want to grow your own cactus, twist off one or two stem segments, let them dry out for a few days and then plant the ‘cut’ end, about 1cm deep in a simple potting mix. Don’t plant them too deep and have patience. They’ll take about 12 weeks to root but by next Christmas you’ll have lots of free plants to use as gifts!

Dr Eoin Lettice is a lecturer in plant science at University College Cork.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Plants are at the heart of many crucial global issues facing us today

If we were to close our eyes and imagine a world without animals, what would it look like? It’s not that difficult to imagine a planet devoid of humans or other animals.

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.

Our use of plants to produce food is, perhaps, the most central element of the human connection to this green planet. Since the earliest of farmers, 10,000 years ago, humans have sought to (subconsciously at first and then, more and more, consciously) select for plant types and varieties which gave the most fruits, tastiest tubers or most stable yields. Now, we’ve got more powerful tools at our disposal for plant breeding, but the basic process is essentially the same – select the best plant from this year’s crop and grow its seed next year.

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.

Perhaps then, the economic and societal importance of plants only becomes truly obvious when they fail us. Ireland’s history of famine due to late blight of potato in the mid 19th Century had profound effects on Irish population levels and social history.

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.

George Boole 200

Good news for those who have been following the George Boole/Grenville Place saga which I've covered here for some time

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

John Philip Holland and Liscannor, Co. Clare

The town of Liscannor, Co. Clare is the birthplace of John Philip Holland, the Irishman who invented the modern submarine. More on JPH in this previous post.

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):

There's also a JPH display at the spectacular Cliffs of Moher visitor centre featuring a model of one of his creations:

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

Famine and food

The ongoing debate regarding the efficacy of genetically modified (GM) crops to increase global food security goes on, while a recent study of US consumers indicates that opinions on genetically modifies crops are not swayed by specific arguments about plant disease and famine.

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

The collegiality of twitter

Delivering a workshop at Aquatnet (Image: @jbaqua)
Last week, I spent a great two days taking part in the AQUATNET Digital Teaching Skills Workshop, as well as helping to deliver the social media element of the workshop. As the two days came to a close in sunny Malta, it seemed appropriate to draw together some concluding thoughts on the issue of social networking in education.
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.
As well as this, I form part of many other peoples' network where I hopefully perform many of the same roles for my followers. At its best, twitter and other forms of social media are about sharing and collegiality. For this to work, it's really essential that you are following the right people: those who share generously, inform, enlighten, challenge and debate. A well-curated twitter network has the capacity to reach much further than you can. Instead of you, as an individual, trying to keep an eye on emerging trends in a discipline, your twitter community can do so and share that information with you. An efficient use of your time, if ever I saw one.

I'm not alone in holding those views. Recently, I posed a question to my own twitter followers:

And got some interesting results, including:

One 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!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Social Media in the Lecture Theatre

I'm in search of your thoughts on social media in the classroom.

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:

  • Tweet me your ideas, links and thoughts at @blogscience using the hashtag #scisocialmedia. If it fits into a tweet- great. Shows the power of microblogging. If not, 
  • Email me here with your thoughts and views.
  • Leave a comment at the end of this post.

The Dose Makes The Poison

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

Boole's home to be rebuilt as part of year of celebrations

As part of a year of celebrations to mark 200 years since the birth of George Boole, his derelict former home in Cork City looks set to be refurbished and restored.

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. 

George Boole was the first Professor of Mathematics at Cork and is regarded as the 'Father of Boolean Algebra' whose research laid the groundwork for modern computing. University College Cork is keen to reaffirm the association between the university and Boole and is planning a series of commemorations including a statue of Boole, various exhibitions and an international conference. More information on the Year of George Boole website.

Although a future use for the refurbished building has not been decided, UCC is believed to be working with Cork City Council and others on plans for the Boole's former home.

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.

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