Health & Wellbeing

A year after the world was put on alert about the rapidly spreading covid-19 virus, mass vaccination programmes are providing a welcome light at the end of the tunnel.

However, for many people vaccination remains a concern. A World Economic Forum – Ipsos survey: Global Attitudes on a Covid-19 Vaccine, indicates that while an increasing number of people in the US and UK plan to get vaccinated, the intent has dropped in South Africa, France, Japan and South Korea. The survey was conducted in December 2020, following the first vaccinations in the US and the UK.

This study shows that overall vaccination intent is below 50% in France and Russia. ‘Strong intent’ is below 15% in Japan, France and Russia.

SCIblog 19 January 2021 - image of London in lockdown

CAPTION: Many cities are still in lockdown

Between 57% and 80% of those surveyed cited concerns over side effects as a reason for not getting a covid-19 vaccination. Doubts over the effectiveness of a vaccine was the second most common reason cited in many countries, while opposition to vaccines in general was mentioned by around 25% those who will refuse a vaccination.

The survey was conducted among 13,542 adults aged 18–74 in Canada, South Africa, and the US, while those surveyed in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea, Spain and the UK were aged 16–74.

A previous survey, Global Attitudes on a Covid-19 Vaccine carried out in July and August 2020, indicated that 74% of those surveyed intended to get vaccinated. At that time the World Economic Forum said that this majority could still fall short of the number required to ‘beat covid-19.’

Commenting on the newest data Arnaud Bernaert, Head of Health and Healthcare at the World Economic Forum said; ‘As vaccinations roll out, it is encouraging to see confidence improve most in countries where vaccines are already made available. It is critical that governments and the private sector come together to build confidence and ensure that manufacturing capacity meets the global demand.’

SCIblog 19 January 2021 - image of and elderly woman receiving a vaccine 

CAPTION: World Economic Forum-Ipsos Survey indicates a rise in number of people in US and UK intending to get vaccinated.

With the imperative now to move towards some sort of ‘normality’, as well as getting economies moving, fears over vaccination need to be allayed. However, what also needs to be considered is what underlies those fears. Misinformation, no doubt, has a part to play. This highlights a lack of trust in governments and a sector that has worked tirelessly to develop vaccines in record time.

As different companies bring their vaccines to the market, care now needs to be taken to reassure people around the world that whichever manufacturer’s vaccine they are given, they are in safe hands. As any adverse reactions occur – an inevitability with any vaccine rollout – these ought to be made known to the wider public by companies and governments as soon as it is feasible, preventing space for the spread of rumour and misinformation, which could undo the hard work of the scientists, businesses and governments bringing vaccines to the public.

SCIblog 19 January 2021 - image of scientists working 

CAPTION: Researchers have worked tirelessly to bring vaccines to the market

Policy

Waking up after a night of overindulgence on food and wine and realising you don’t have a headache is very satisfying. But realising, soon afterwards, you have heartburn can bring your mood down rapidly.

After years of discussion and argument around Brexit, the UK woke up to find that a Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the EU been reached. A major headache had been avoided.

SCIblog - 14 January 2021 - 2021: ‘A year to look forward to.’ - image of a woman from the back, she is looking out over landscape 

CAPTION: UK Businesses have a new trading landscape

However, the UK chemicals sector soon realised that after pulling back the curtains and taking a look at the new trading landscape, a feeling of heartburn was rising. The chemical sector’s regulatory obligation now requires that it establishes a UK-REACH system. The deal negotiated means that the UK has no access to the data it submitted to the EU’s REACH database.

In effect, the UK chemical sector has to populate the UK-REACH system from scratch. This will require an array of steps possibly including testing and renegotiating data sharing with other companies. According to the Chief Executive of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA), Steve Elliot, this is set to burn a £1 billion hole in the UK chemical sector’s pocket.

‘Failure to secure access to what has been a decade’s worth of investment by UK chemical businesses in data for EU REACH will leave the industry facing a bill of more than £1 billion in unnecessarily duplicating that work for a new UK regime,’ said Elliot in a statement on 24 December 2020, the day that the UK government excitedly announced the new trade deal.

SCIblog - 14 January 2021 - 2021: ‘A year to look forward to.’ - image of a scattered pound sterling 

CAPTION: UK-REACH could cost more than £1 billion

As a slightly belated Christmas gift, and perhaps just taking the edge off the heartburn, the UK government’s Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow announced, on 31 December, that the UK-REACH IT system was up and running. Pow said that the government had worked closely with partners, industry and stakeholders developing the IT system to manage the UK’s chemicals industry.

‘Having our own independent chemicals regulatory framework will ensure that we make decisions that best reflect the UK’s needs while maintaining some of the highest chemical standards in the world,’ she said.

But will these high standards do what REACH was set up for in the first place, and protect human health and the environment? According to CHEM Trust, a UK-German charity focused on preventing man-made chemicals from causing long term damage to wildlife or humans, the deal does not go far enough.

Critiquing the outcome, Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust said, ‘CHEM Trust’s initial assessment is that this agreement does not adequately protect human health and the environment in the UK from hazardous chemicals. This is because it doesn’t retain UK access to the EU’s chemicals regulation system REACH. The agreement includes an annex on chemicals, but does not facilitate the type of close cooperation with the EU post-Brexit that civil society groups such as CHEM Trust, and also the chemicals and other industries are seeking.’

But on a positive note, Warhurst added; ‘The deal […] commits the UK to not regress from current levels of protection, includes a rebalancing procedure which could increase protection on both sides and offers a platform on which a closer partnership could be negotiated in the future.’

No one doubts that there is still much to be digested, along with those left over Christmas chocolates that nobody really likes, regarding the UK-EU Free Trade Agreement. ‘Although this Free Trade Agreement represents a mixed bag for our industry,’ said the CIA’s Elliot, ‘we shouldn’t underestimate the huge value that a deal brings in terms of certainty.’

SCIblog - 14 January 2021 - 2021: ‘A year to look forward to.’ - image of a plant with a sign saying 'Growth 2021' 

CAPTION: 2021: A year to look forward to

As people return to their desks after the Christmas break, one might dare to hope that the heartburn can be quelled with a dose of optimism after the challenging year that has just passed. With this as a basis, along with eventually emerging from the global pandemic, Elliot believes 2021 should be ‘a year to look forward to’.

Agrifood

Today we chat to Joe Oddy about his life as a Plant Sciences PhD Student at Rothamsted Research.  

Joe Oddy 

Give us a summary of your research, Joe!

I study how levels of the amino acid asparagine in wheat are controlled by genetics and the environment. Asparagine levels in wheat grain determine the levels of acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, in certain foods. We are hoping to better understand the biology of asparagine to mitigate this risk.

What does a day in the life of a Plant Sciences PhD Student look like?

My schedule is quite variable depending on what analysis I am doing. I could have whole days in the lab doing molecular work or whole days at the computer analysing and writing up data. Most of the time it is probably somewhere in between!

via GIPHY

How did your education prepare you for this experience?  

I think I had a good grounding in basic principles from my undergraduate degree, but the training they gave in R stands out as being particularly useful. In my degree program I also worked for a year in research, which really helped prepare me for this kind of project work.

What are some of the highlights so far?

Being able to go outside to check plants in the field or in the glasshouse makes a nice break if you have been doing computer work all day! Finishing up some analysis after a lot of data collection is also quite cathartic, as long as it works…

What is one of the biggest challenges faced in a PhD?

In my project so far, the biggest challenge has just been trying to decide what research questions to focus on since there are so many interesting options available. I realise I am probably quite fortunate to have this be my biggest challenge!

What advice would you give to someone considering a PhD?

My undergraduate university actually gave me this advice. They said that the most important part of choosing a project was not the university or the project itself, but the supervisor. I think this is true in a lot of cases, and at least for me.

via GIPHY

How have things been different for you because of the global pandemic?

I wasn’t able to go into the labs for a while but thankfully my plants in the field and glasshouse were maintained. By the time they finished growing the lockdown had been partially eased. At last, a long growing season has helped rather than hindered a PhD project.

What are you hoping to do after your research?

I’d like to go into research either in academia or industry, but beyond that I’m not sure. The landscape is always changing and I would probably be open to anything that seems interesting!

Joe Oddy is a PhD Student at Rothamsted Research and a member of SCI’s Agri-Food Early Career Committee and SCI’s Agriscences Committee

Agrifood

Understanding organisms’ capabilities of sensing environmental changes such as increasing or declining temperature is becomes ever more important. Deciduous woody trees and shrubs growing in cool temperate and sub-arctic regions enter quiescent or dormant states as protection against freezing temperatures.

These plants pass through a two-stage process. Firstly, they gradually acclimatise (or 'acclimate', in the USA) where lowering temperatures encourage capacities for withstanding cold. This is a reversible process and if there is a spell of milder weather the acclimatisation state is lost. This can happen, for instance, with a fine spell of 'Indian summer' in October or even early November.

winter weather and dormant trees

Winter weather and dormant trees. All images by Geoff Dixon

Where acclimation is broken, plants become susceptible to cold-induced damage again. If acclimation continues, however, plants eventually become fully dormant. This is not a reversible state and only ends after substantial periods of warming weather and increasing day-length. Some plants will require an accumulation of 'cold-units' – ie, temperatures below a specific level before dormancy is broken.

Detailed research information is accumulating to describe how acclimatisation develops. Changes take place that strengthen cell membranes, possibly by increasing the bonding in lipid molecules, and causing alterations in respiration rates, enzyme activities and hormone levels.

non-acclimatised azalea (front), acclimatised azalea (back) 

Non-acclimatised azalea (front), acclimatised azalea (back).

Leaves in a non-acclimated state will leak cellular fluids when they are chilled, whereas acclimated leaves are undamaged. These processes result from an interaction between genotype and the environment. Cascades of genes come into play during acclimation and dormancy. 

The genus Rhododendron offers a model for studies of these states. Some species originate from alpine environments, such as R. hirsutum coming from the European Alps and one of the first English garden 'rhodos'. By contrast, plants of R. vireya come from tropical areas such as the East Indies.        

comparing the leakage of cellular fluids in acclimatised and non-acclimatised rhododendron leaves subjected to -7oC 

Comparing the leakage of cellular fluids in acclimatised and non-acclimatised rhododendron leaves subjected to -7°C

Practical outcomes from studies of acclimation and dormancy are twofold. Firstly, are there substances that could be sprayed onto cold susceptible crops, eg potatoes or cauliflowers, that prevent damage? This is so-called 'anti-freeze chemistry'. Some studies suggest that spraying seaweed extracts will dimmish damage. The downside of this approach is that rain washes off the application. Secondly, identifying genes which increase cold hardiness offers possibilities for their transfer into susceptible crops. Gene-editing techniques may offer means of tweaking existing cold-hardiness genes in susceptible crops. 

Professor Geoff Dixon is the author of Garden Practices and their Science, published by Routledge 2019.

Agrifood

Fertile soils teem with life of all shapes and sizes, from badgers and moles to insects and the most minute microbes, forming an intricate web of life. Each plays its part – earthworms, for example, burrow through soils opening out channels that improve aeration and water percolation. They are, in Charles Darwin’s words, ‘nature’s ploughs’. 

Microbes are quite probably the largest biomass, certainly numerically. The great majority form beneficial relationships with plants, relatively few are pathogens capable of causing crop diseases. Some of the most beneficial are nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which form symbiotic associations with the roots of legumes (clovers, peas and beans). 

Their nitrogenase enzymes are capable of combining atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen-forming ammonia. Followed by conversion into nitrites and nitrates which are made available for the host plant in exchange for carbohydrates, sources of energy for the microbes. The presence of these bacteria is indicated by white nodules on the roots of legumes.

 Another picture of soil for the SCI blog

The white nodules on the roots of legumes indicate the presence of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which provide nourishment to microbes in the soil.

The fungi mycorrhizae also form associations with plant roots. These may form sheaths wrapping round the root, ecto-mycorhizea, or penetrate into the root cortex as endo-mycorrhizea, working in close association with host cells. Mycorrhizae solubilise soil deposits of phosphates and other minerals, making them available for the host. They also provide protection from root-invading plant pathogens. 

These fungi utilise carbohydrates supplied by their hosts as energy sources in a similar manner to nitrogen fixing bacteria. Mutualistic mycorrhizal associations are found across most higher plant families with the key exception of the brassicas. This exception quite probably relates to production of the iso-thiocyanate mustard oil, which is fungi-toxic, in brassica roots.

A picture of soil for the SCI blog

Farmyard manure and compost stimulate soil health by introducing beneficial microbes.

Benefits from nitrogen-fixing bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi were recognised by 19th century agronomists. Much more recently, science has begun uncovering the biological capital of myriad microbes present in healthy soils. Research is being stimulated by recognition of the need for sustainable forms of crop husbandry that utilise ecologically sound techniques in integrated management. 

Soil health can be stimulated by incorporation of farmyard manure or well composted green wastes, both containing huge populations of beneficial microbes. The critical importance of building and maintaining healthy soils cannot be over-emphasised. Quite simply, our food supplies depend upon it.

Interested in soil health? Why not register for free to attend the 2020 Bright SCIdea Challenge final? One of the teams in this year’s final are pitching their method to restore the fertility of heavy metal ion rich farmland and increase crop yields.









Agrifood

The conference ‘Feeding the future: can we protect crops sustainably?’ was a tremendous success from the point of view of the technical content. The outcomes have been summarised in a series of articles here. How did such an event come about and what can we learn about putting on an event like this in a world of Covid?

This event was born from two parents. The first was a vision and the second was collaboration.

The vision began in the SCI Agrisciences committee. We had organised a series of events in the previous few years, all linking to the general theme of challenges to overcome in food sustainability. Our events had dealt with the use of data, the challenge of climate change and the future of livestock production. Our intention was to build on this legacy using the International Year of Plant Health as inspiration and provide a comprehensive event, at the SCI headquarters in London, covering every element of crop protection and what it will look like in the future. We wanted to make a networking hub, a place to share ideas and make connections, where new lines of research and development would be sparked into life. Well, then came Covid…

 international year of plant health 2020

 

2020 is the International Year of Plant Health.

From the start, we knew in the Agrisciences group that this was going to be too much for us alone. Our first collaboration was within the SCI, the Horticulture Group and the Food Group. Outside of the SCI, we wanted collaborators who are research-active, with wide capabilities and people who really care about the future of crop protection. Having discussed a few options, we approached the Institute of Agriculture and Food Research and Innovation, IAFRI and later Crop Health and Protection, CHAP.

By February 2020, we had our full team of organisers and about half of our agenda all arranged. By March we didn’t know what to do, delay or virtualise? The debate went back and forth for several weeks as we all got to grips with the true meaning of lockdown. When we chose to virtualise, suddenly we had to relearn all we knew about organising events. Both CHAP and SCI started running other events and building up their experience. With this experience came sound advice on what makes a good event: Don’t let it drag; Keep everything snappy; Make sure that your speakers are the very best; Firm and direct chairing. We created a whole new agenda, based around these ideas.

 A picture of people networking 

How do you replicate those chance meetings facilitated by face-to-face events?

That still left one problem: how do you reproduce those extra bits that you get in a real conference? Those times in the coffee queue when you happen across your future collaborator? Maybe your future business partner is looking at the same poster as you are? It is a bit like luck, but facilitated.

We resolved this conundrum with four informal parallel sessions. So we still had student posters but in the form of micro-presentations. We engineered discussions between students and senior members of our industry. We tried to recreate a commercial exhibition where you watched as top companies showed off their latest inventions. For those who would love to go on a field trip, we offered virtual guided tours of some of the research facilities operated by CHAP.

Can virtual conferences take the place of real ones? They are clearly not the same, as nothing beats looking directly into someone’s eyes. But on the plus side, they are cheaper to put on and present a lower barrier for delegates to get involved. I am looking forward to a post-Covid world when we can all meet again, but in the meantime we can put on engaging and exciting events that deliver a lot of learning and opportunity in a virtual space.

Feeding the Future was organised by:

James Garratt, SCI Agrisciences

John Points, SCI Food

Liliya Serazetdinoza, SCI Agrisciences

Robin Blake, SCI Agrisciences

Bruce Knight, SCI Agrisciences

Sebastian Eves-van den Acker, SCI Horticulture

Neil Boonham, IAFRI Newcastle University

Katherine Wotherspoon, IAFRI FERA

Darren Hassall, CHAP

Technical and administrative support was provided by:

JacquI Maguire, SCI

Shadé Bull, SCI

Theo Echarte, SCI

Sandy Sevenne, CHAP

Claire Boston-Smithson, IAFRI FERA

Guest chairs and moderators were:

Rob Edwards, Newcastle University

Ruth Bastow, CHAP

Richard Glass, CHAP