Hello everyone and welcome to the latest “Meet the scientist”!

In this series I wanted to show you the range of research being undertaken by PhD students across the country- and shine a light on the secret world of the PhD student. The scientists showcased in this series are all amazing scientists and role models, and will be sharing their stories about life as a Scientist- I hope they interest and inspire you!

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Happy New Year everyone!!

To kick off the new year here is a post about some uses of plants that you may not have known about…

Phytoremediation:

Phytoremediation is a fancy way of saying ‘using plants to remove contamination’.

There are many ways in which chemical and biological contaminants can get into the environment- causing contaminated soil and ground water. Contaminations like this can be really hard to remove- requiring pretty damaging processes like soil incineration, and chemical washing, and in extreme circumstances the complete removal of contaminated areas.  These processes, as well as causing damage themselves to the environment (in the short term), are time consuming and expensive.

But, there is another way- plants.

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Diagram of the process of phytoremediation.  (source: Wikimedia commons)

There are some plants which are able to remove contaminating chemicals from the soil on which they are growing- cleaning the soil! This property of plants is now being exploited to help with the clean up of contamination- and is particularly useful in areas where it would be unwise to send people or disturb the earth, such as old army ranges where unexploded ammo could be lurking, or old bioreactor sites.

Explosive removal

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(source: Wikimedia)

In summer 2017 I went to a talk by Professor Neil Bruce (University of York) which told of probably the most exciting plant research project around-  the use of plants to remove the explosives RDX and TNT from military ranges. RDX and TNT are toxic, explosive and mutagenic- and have a huge impact on both the environment and human health. Unfortunately, these compounds can also get into run off water, and spread contamination into other environmental areas.  As RDX and TNT are used as explosives on military ranges- many of which are still active, an alternative method of removing these contaminants- which doesn’t require any disturbance of the area- would be preferred!

Some plants have the innate ability to detoxify low levels of TNT. However, high levels of TNT are not good for plants, as TNT is a potent phytotoxin. But, by researching plants which have the ability to detoxify TNT, and identifying the pathways involved a new breed of super TNT-detoxifying plants could be coming soon. A plant capable of detoxifying these toxic chemicals (simply by growing) in potentially dangerous zones, would be extremely beneficial- and would offer a inexpensive, safer, and less time consuming alternative to current methods of chemical detoxification.

Heavy Metal Removal

A slightly less ‘exciting’, but still highly important clean up by plants is the removal of  heavy metals from soil such as Lead or Cadmium.  Contamination by heavy metals can occur naturally via weathering of rocks, or volcanic eruptions, but is also man made. These heavy metals are not good for humans, or animals in general, and due to their long-term persistence in the environment (for Lead up to 150 years) could potentially cause damage to us for many many years.

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Geraniums: work by Prof Praveen Saxena (university of Guelph) has shown gernaiums can absorb high levels of heavy metals from soils. (source: wikimedia)

Again, although many plants are able to cope with low levels of heavy metals, and can successfully detoxify contaminated soil, high levels of heavy metals are not good for plants- work is currently being undertaken in many labs to improve the efficiency of heavy metal detoxification in plants. In the meantime phytoremediation crops are commonly being grown next to ‘contamination zones’ such as factories to help reduce the effect of contamination on the environment- hopefully with the ongoing research the efficiency of these phytoremediation crops will increase further!

Plants as air fresheners

House plants not only brighten up the room, but can also purify the air for you- how cool is that!

In the late 1980’s NASA and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America studied houseplants and their ability to purify are in space facilities. It was found that several plants are able to filter out common volatile compounds such as benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene from the air.

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Peace Lily: which is able to filter Trichloroethylene, xylene, formaldehyde, benzene and ammonia from the air (source: Wikimedia commons)

Efficient air cleaning can be achieved by 1 plant per 100 square feet of indoor space- with one of the plants recognised as ‘air-cleaning’ plants- check out the list here. 

Fuel production

Fuel from Algae

Microalgae are microscopic algae found in freshwater and marine systems.  There is a huge diversity of micro algae, which represents a huge untapped resource- many species produce unique products like carotenoids, fatty acids, sterols, polymers…. Because of this, microalgae are a promising source of sustainable production for these compounds. But as well as producing these helpful compounds, microalgae can be used as a biofactory to produce biofuel.

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Microalgae under a light microscope. (source: wikimedia)

Algae has the potential to be a great renewable source of fuel- being up to 100 times more efficient than other bio-fuel production sources. A lot of work is currently being undertaken with Algae to increase efficiency, and reduce expenses associated with this new technology- but in the future we may well be driving algae-fuelled cars.

References and reading:

Plants that remove contaminants from the Earth- Laboratory medicine 1996

UNEP article:

Use of Brassica Plants in the Phytoremediation and Biofumigation Processes 

Algal Cell Factories: Approaches, Applications, and Potentials

https://www.energy.gov/eere/bioenergy/algal-biofuels

Image Banner- Images all from wikimedia

 

Merry Christmas everyone!

In celebration of the upcoming Christmas celebrations here is a more Christmassy themed post- a few facts about our favourite christmas plants.

1.) Mistletoe.

“Christmas time, Mistletoe and wine…”

Mistletoe is a plant which has been written about in stories, poems and songs for hundreds of years, and now is synonymous with Christmas. It is a semi-parasitic plant-taking essential nutrients from its host plant, but is also able to make some things itself. Mistletoe grows in the canopies of trees, and can grow into huge balls up to 1m wide. Although Mistletoe may look pretty- its poisonous, so don’t go eating any of its beautiful white berries!

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Mistletoe leaves are green all year round- the greenery of mistletoe in the depths of winter and abundance of its berries shows its vitality in an otherwise dormant season- and may be why it has been such a popular decoration in homes since the 16th century.

As for the kissing under the mistletoe? Its a tradition that has been around since the 1700s… though the reason behind it is unknown!

2) Holly

“The Holly bears a berry…”

Holly is an evergreen shrub with glossy spiky dark green leaves, and bright red berries. These berries are a important source of food for many birds and animals- though I wouldn’t recommend you eat them unless you want to be extremely ill for Christmas, as like mistletoe holly berries are toxic.

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Interestingly- Holly trees don’t contain both male and female organs, instead being either Male or Female, with only the female trees produce the red berries. So, the holly we often see in decorations for Christmas are from female Holly trees.

As another plant which stays vibrant green, and produces beautiful berries- Holly represents fertility, and was thought to protect homes in which it was hung.

Holly is associated with males- bringing good luck and protection, with Ivy being the female counterpart. This is why so many Christmas carols refers to both the Holly and the Ivy.

3.) Ivy

“The Holly and the Ivy…”

Ivy is commonly seen growing up through trees, or on the side of buildings, and is one of the UK’s few native evergreen plants. As with Holly, Ivy is extremely important for wildlife, providing much needed shelter and food- although once again Ivy is poisonous to us. Poison Ivy often talked about in America, is completely unrelated to Ivy.

Ivy has got a bad rep over the years- said to suffocate plants, and be very damaging- though this is not true! Although Ivy does use trees for climbing, it isn’t parasitic and so doesn’t directly harm trees.

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As a evergreen plant, like Holly and Mistletoe, it was seen as a important symbol in winter keeping evil sprits away. A wreath of Ivy around the head was even thought to prevent you from getting drunk- which could be worth trying out at the office Christmas party!

4.) Chestnuts

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”

The chestnut is a group of 8-9 species of deciduous trees and shrubs in the family Fagaceae, and also refers to the edible nuts produced. Chestnuts are not the same as Horse chestnuts (the nuts are mildly poisonous), or water chestnuts!

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Chestnuts are very different from other nuts as they are low in fat, high in fibre, and high in a whole load of minerals and vitamins- making them the perfect Christmas feast! They are also the only nut to contain vitamin C.

5.) Poinsettias

The flower of winter. Poinsettias are shrubs or small trees, which have dark green leaves, and coloured bracts (specialised leaves)- we mostly see poinsettias with Red bracts, but these can also be orange, pale green and pink. Although these bracts give the appearance of petals, they are actually leaves!

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Poinsettias are one of the most popular plants for Christmas floral arrangements- with their bright green and red leaves, but they aren’t the ‘obvious’ Christmas plant choice, being a plant native to Mexico. The Poinsettia is a fairly recent addition to Christmas- it was only introduced to America in 1828. Although it took a while to catch on, Poinsettias are now found in Christmas floral arrangements everywhere.

Why are Poinsettas linked to Christmas? There are a few theories, one is that the plant is a symbol of the star of Bethlehem.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, I will be having a break and returning after the New Year with more blog posts for you 🙂

 

All photos from Pixabay.

References:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/16164453

https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays-christmas/holly.htm4.)

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/plants-and-fungi/woodland-wildflowers/ivy/

https://dengarden.com/gardening/English-Ivy-Facts-Uses-and-Problems

https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays-christmas/christmas-poinsettia1.htm

Everyone has a different approach to their PhD: there are people who come in to do the PhD, and go home, and there are the ones who get involved in societies, outreach and science communication. Each to their own. But for me- being able to get involved in outreach and science communication is one of the things I truly love.

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Hi everyone and welcome to the first post in the new series: meet the scientist!

Since starting my PhD and this Blog I have met many inspiring scientists- and I want to share their amazing research, and journeys from student to fully fledged scientist with you!

In this series I hope I can show you the wide range of things scientists study (particularly in the area of plant science), and also share some insight into the PhD world.

For the very first feature we say hello to Jenna Loiseau, a former PhD student at The Sainsbury Laboratory, and a passionate advocate of science communication.

Over to you Jenna!

Q: What was your PhD research on?

I was studying the cell biology aspect of plant-microbe interaction. I investigated how pathogens manipulate immune receptor internalisation to promote virulence.

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Q:Why did you choose to do a PhD in plant science?

I was at Uni doing my Bachelor in Biology/Biochemistry and had a plant biology module (which I did not choose). I had a lecture on plant biotechnologies and a researcher explained the impact of her research on agriculture and agronomy. It was so inspiring. I asked if I could do a shadow experience with her and she agreed! I did my first internship in a laboratory at the national institute for agronomic research (INRA) and loved it. I was fascinated about plant defence mechanisms but mostly I wanted to understand how plants can defend themselves despite lacking specialised immune cells.

Q:You have now finished your PhD, what are you now doing?

I am looking for job in science communication and helping my family on the farm, but I am also currently working on exciting projects! I am starting a blog to inform people about farmers needs and their practices regarding sustainable agriculture.  I also run some fun activities (around science of course!) with children.

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Q: If you could tell your 1st year self-one thing, what would it be?

Don’t doubt yourself. It is fine to ask for advice from more experienced scientists but trust your judgement.

Q:What is one thing you wish people knew about plant science?

I wish people knew plants are smart and are able to defend themselves against pathogens.

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Q: Have you got any extra advice for current PhDs, and those thinking about venturing into the world of work?

There are a lot of ups and downs when you are working in science. If you feel sad or depressed, go talk to someone and seek help as soon as possible. It took me two years to go to occupational health and talk about my feelings towards my PhD life, it is comforting to see you are not alone in this situation.

A huge thank you to Jenna for being the first scientist interviewed for this series! You can find Jenna on twitter @loiseaujenna and very soon on her new blog https://sciencewithjenna.wordpress.com https://sciencewithjenna.wordpress.com