Soil is a very precious asset whether it be in your garden or an allotment. Soil has physical and chemical properties that support its biological life. Like any asset understanding its properties is fundamental for its effective use and conservation.
Soils will contain, depending on their origin four constituents: sand, clay, silt and organic matter. Mineral soils, those derived by the weathering of rocks contain varying proportions of all four. But their organic matter content will be less than 5 percent. Above that figure and the soil is classed as organic and is derived from the deposition of decaying plants under very wet conditions forming bogs.
Essentially this anaerobic deposition produces peat which if drained yields highly fertile soils such as the Fenlands of East Anglia. Peat’s disadvantage is oxidation, steadily the organic matter breaks down, releases carbon dioxide and is lost revealing the subsoil which is probably a layer of clay.
Cracked clay soil
Mineral soils with a high sand content are free draining, warm quickly in spring and are ‘light’ land. This latter term originates from the small number of horses required for their cultivation. Consequently, sandy soils encourage early spring growth and the first crops. Their disadvantage is limited water retention and hence crops need regular watering in warm weather.
Clay soils are water retentive to the extent that they will become waterlogged during rainy periods. They are ‘heavy’ soils meaning that large teams of horses were required for their cultivation. These soils produce main season crops, especially those which are deeply rooting such as maize. But in dry weather they crack open rupturing root systems and reducing yields.
Silt soils contain very fine particles and may have originated in geological time by sedimentation in lakes and river systems. They can be highly fertile and are particularly useful for high quality field vegetable and salad crops. Because of their preponderance of fine particles silt soils ‘cap’ easily in dry weather. The sealed surface is not easily penetrated by germinating seedlings causing erratic and patchy emergence.
Soil finger test
Soil composition can be determined by two very simple tests. A finger test will identify the relative content of sand, clay and silt. Roll a small sample of moist soil between your thumb and fingers and feel the sharpness of sand particles and the relative slipperiness of clay or the very fine almost imperceptible particles of silt. For a floatation test, place a small soil sample onto the top of a jam jar filled with water. Over 24 to 48 hours the particles will sediment with the heavier sand forming the lower layer with clay and silt deposited on top. Organic matter will float on the surface of the water.
Soil floatation test
Currently one of the least digitised industries in the world, the agricultural sector is fast becoming a hub of innovation in robotics. One report suggests the agricultural robotics industry will be worth £8.5bn by 2027.
Feeding the increasing global population – set to hit 8bn by 2023 – is a major concern in the sector, with farmers already stretched to capacity with current technology.
With this said, the European Commission – via Horizon 2020 – has launched a programme and fund to drive research and innovation in the area. Developments in precision agriculture, which uses data and technology for a more controlled approach to farming management, has been particularly encouraging.
But similar to other labour-intensive industries, such as manufacturing, robots could be used to relieve workers in difficult conditions, and there are many projects close to commercialisation.
One such project is SWEEPER – a greenhouse harvesting tool that can detect when sweet peppers are ready to harvest through sensors. SWEEPER runs between the vines on a rail and uses GPS tracking to navigate through its environment.
Although focusing on sweet peppers for this research, the group say that the technology could be applied to other fruits and crops.
The EU-funded consortium in charge of the development of the SWEEPER robot is made up of six academic and industry partners from four countries: Belgium, Sweden, Israel and the Netherlands, where the research is based.
Greenhouses pose harsh working conditions during harvesting season, including excessive heat, humidity, and long hours.
The SWEEPER robot in action. Video: WUR Glastuinbouw
‘The reduction in the labour force has put major pressure on the competitiveness of the European greenhouse sector,’ said Jos Balendonck, project coordinator from Wageningen University & Research, the Netherlands.
‘We hope to develop the technology that will prevent greenhouse food production from migrating out of Europe due to the 40 % expected rise in labour costs over the coming decade.’
Currently testing the second version of the robot, the research group already envision adding improvements – from sensors that can detect vitamin content, sweetness levels and the sweet pepper’s expected shelf life to the ability to alert farmers when crop disease could hit their crops in advance.
A world first
Meanwhile, engineers at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, UK, and agriculture firm Precision Decisions have become the first group to harvest a crop completely autonomously.
The Hands Free Hectare project – funded by Innovate UK – modified existing farming machinery to incorporate open-source data that would allow the control systems to be located externally.
At the start of the season, an autonomous tractor sows the crops into the soil using GPS positioning, and sprays them periodically with pesticides throughout their growth. A separate rover takes soil samples to analyse nutrient content and to check pH levels are maintained.
When the crops begin to sprout from the ground a drone is used to monitor growth by taking images. Finally, a combine harvester controlled from outside of the field harvests the crops.
Kit Franklin, an Agricultural Engineering lecturer at the university, said: ‘As a team, we believe there is now no technological barrier to automated field agriculture. This project gives us the opportunity to prove this and change current public perception.’
Image: Hands Free Hectare
Despite innovation in the area, farmers have been slow to embrace the new technology, partially due to the lack of high quality data available that would allow more flexibility in the sector. Others, including the wider public, worry that development will lead to job losses in the industry.
However, scientists say the jobs will still be there but farmers and agricultural workers will use their skills to control the autonomous systems from behind the scenes instead.
‘Automation will facilitate a sustainable system where multiple smaller, lighter machines will enter the field, minimising the level of compaction,’ said Franklin.
‘These small autonomous machines will in turn facilitate high resolution precision farming, where different areas of the field, and possibly even individual plants can be treated separately, optimising and potentially reducing inputs being used in field agriculture.’
Check out SCI on Twitter here“Eye opening piece from @innovateuk @KevinBaughan on aligning public and private R&D funding to make the UK the world's most innovative economy. 75% of UK's private sector R&D is carried out by just 400 companies 🤔#IndustrialStrategy @SamGyimah https://t.co/5kZ6MoMz8Q”
Are you a UK or ROI-based student with a bright idea for a science-based innovation? Want to gain experience in developing that idea into a business plan? Put together a team and join SCI’s Bright SCIdea Challenge for a series of training videos from science-based industry experts and you could be selected to pitch your business to our expert panel, with the winning team walking away with £1,000! For full details, visit bit.ly/SCIdea2018
What do a smartphone, a tub of moisturiser, a car tyre, and a paracetamol have in common?…
– they all exist thanks to science… but not science alone!
A scientist who cross-links rubber’s polymeric chains with sulphur will end up with some durable vulcanised rubber, but not a tyre. And even when he or she does have a tyre, it’s not much good on its own.
That’s why it’s essential that science meets business – from our food to our clothes, our gadgets to our cosmetics, all of the science we take for granted in every product we use had to get out of the lab and into people’s hands somehow.
Here at SCI, we’ve been supporting science-based innovation since 1881 for this very reason – fostering the links between science and business to ensure that what happens in the lab gets out into the world and provides benefit to society.
That’s why we’re running the very first Bright SCIdea Challenge! It’s a competition for UK and Republic of Ireland science students (under- or post-grad), and we’re asking students with a great science-based idea for a product or service to put together a team and develop a business plan.
We’re offering all entrants a free series of training videos from experts in their fields, the first of which is due for release this week! We’ll be giving the teams tips on putting their business plan together, as well as how to pitch the plan – the chosen finalists will deliver their pitch to our judging panel at SCI in London… and the winning team will win £1,000, courtesy of our competition sponsor, Synthomer.
For more information and to sign up for the challenge, visit bit.ly/SCIdea2018 now! You can join the conversation on Twitter by following @SCIupdate and using the hashtag #BrightSCIdea, and by joining the Bright SCIdea Challenge Facebook group.
Energy storage is absolutely crucial in today’s world. More than just the batteries in our remote controls, more even than our mobile phones and laptops; advancements in energy storage could solve the issues with renewable power, preserving energy generated at times of low demand.
Advances in lithium-ion batteries have dominated the headlines in this area of late, but a variety of developments across the field of electrode materials could become game changers.
1. In the beginning, there were metals
The Daniell cell, an early battery from 1836 using a zinc electrode. Image: Daderot
Early batteries used metallic electrodes, such as zinc, iron, platinum, and lead. The Daniell cell, invented by British chemist John Frederic Daniell and the historical basis for the volt measurement, used a zinc electrode just like the early batteries produced by scientists such as Alessandro Volta and William Cruickshank.
Alterations elsewhere in the Daniell cell substantially improved its performance compared with existing battery technology and it became the industry standard.
2. From acid to alkaline
Waldemar Jungner: the Swedish scientist who developed the first Nickel-Cadmium battery. Image: Svenska dagbladets årsbok 1924
Another major development in electrode materials came with the first alkaline battery, developed by Waldemar Jungner using nickel (Ni) and cadmium (Cd). Jungner had experimented with iron instead of cadmium but found it considerably less successful.
The Ni–Cd battery had far greater energy density than the other rechargeable batteries at the time, although it was also considerably more expensive.
3. Smaller, lighter, better, faster
Organic materials for microbattery electrodes are tested on coin cells. Image: Mikko Raskinen
Want your electronic devices to be even smaller and lighter? Researchers from Aalto University, Finland, are working on improving the efficiency of microbatteries by fabricating electrochemically active organic lithium electrode thin films.
The team use lithium terephthalate, a recently found anode material for a lithium-ion battery, and prepare it with a combined atomic/molecular layer deposition technique.
4. There’s more to life than lithium
50-70% of the world’s known lithium reserves are in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Image: Anouchka Unel
Lithium-ion batteries have dominated the rechargeable market since their emergence in the 1990′s. However, the rarity of material means that, increasingly, research and development is focused elsewhere.
Researchers at Stanford University, USA, believe they have created a sodium ion battery with the same storage capacity as lithium but at 80% less cost. The battery uses sodium salt for the cathode and phosphorous for the anode.
5. Back to the start
Advances are also being made in the electrode materials used in artificial photosynthesis. Video: TEDx Talks
Hematite and other cheap, plentiful metals are being used to create photocatalytic electrode materials by a team of scientists from Tianjin University, China. The approach, that combines nanotechnology with chemical doping, can produce a photocurrent more than five times higher than current approaches to artificial photosynthesis.
You can read an interview with the recipient of SCI’s 2017 Castner Medal, who delivered the lecture Developments in Electrodes and Electrochemical Cell Design, here.
The Mary Rose is a maritime archaeologist’s dream – a Tudor time capsule containing not only the structure of the naval warship itself, but more than 26,000 artefacts, providing invaluable historic insight. Raised in 1982 – 11 years after its discovery in the Solent – restoring and conserving the wreck and its many treasures required not only countless hours of work, but many ingenious scientific solutions.
1. Pond snails helped preserve the timbers
To prevent the growth of fungi and microbes on the wooden frame, the Mary Rose restoration team used common pond snails, which ate the wood-degrading organisms but left the wood untouched – as well as employing more commonly known methods, such as low-temperature storage and chemical preservation.
2. Its water was replaced with polyethylene glycol
A technician services the spraying system. Image: The Mary Rose Trust
To prevent the wood from warping, cracking and shrinking by up to 50% as the water evaporated, it was sprayed regularly with filtered, recycled water. In 1994, the conservation team began to gradually replace the water in the cellular structure of the wood with polyethylene glycol (PEG). A low-molecular-weight PEG was used for the first nine years, before seven years of spraying with a higher weight PEG to strengthen the outer layer. The remains were then carefully air dried – a process that was completed in 2016.
3. Crew members brought to life with virtual 3D reconstructions
3D virtual models of the crew and artefacts have provided a deeper look at Tudor history. Image: Pixabay
Mary Rose researchers used 3D technology to create virtual representations of crew members, clothing, and tools, to encourage scientists worldwide to participate in the project. Models have provided the opportunity to investigate the lifestyles led by the Tudors.
4. Intact cannons were found
Bronze and iron cannons found on the Mary Rose were preserved using different methods. Pictured are a bronze (front) and iron (back) cannon. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Gunpowder and heavy artillery became increasingly used in infantry and on ships around the time that the Mary Rose was built, so many of the cannons and guns found on board the ship were made from metals such as iron and bronze. These metals are difficult to preserve after submersion in fresh water. Bronze cannons were lightly bathed in a sodium sesquicarbonate solution, and iron preserved using hydrogen reduction, to prevent oxidation, which can lead to the corrosion of these artefacts.
Divers who have discovered around 60 shipwrecks in the Black Sea face a similar problem – perfectly preserved from the unusual anoxic conditions of the water – leading them to decide to study objects using 3D printing instead of bringing the ships ashore.
5. Part of the Mary Rose has been to space
The space shuttle Endeavour orbits the Earth. Image: Public Domain Pictures
For the shuttle Endeavour’s final trip to space in 2011, astronauts elected to take with them a parrel ball – used in sailing rigs – from the Mary Rose, as part of a long tradition of travelling in space with commemorative items. The shuttle took off from Kennedy Space Centre for the International Space Station on 16 May 2011. The artefact spent a total of 17 days in space, after an extended period of decontamination in preparation to make it suitable for space travel.
Interested in the Mary Rose? Why not register to attend Mary Rose - From Seabed to Showcase, the Making of a British Icon – our free Public Evening lecture with Helen Bonser-Wilton, Chief Executive of the Mary Rose Trust, in London on 25 November.
A world with a rapidly increasing population needs a rapidly increasing food supply. However, with a limited amount of land to work with, farmers must maximise agricultural production on the land they have available.
Modern-day intensive agriculture techniques include mechanical ploughing, chemical fertilisers, plant growth regulators, pesticides, biotech, and genetic modification.
1. Crop production has rapidly expanded in the past few centuries
Farming has drastically changed since the time this picture was taken at the California Manzanar Relocation Centre in 1943. Image: Ansel Adams
Worldwide, the amount of cultivated land increased 466% between 1700 and 1980, with global food production doubling four times between 1820 and 1975. In 1940, the average farmworker supplied 11 consumers; in 2006, each supplied 144 customers. Two out of five American labourers were farmers in 1900, but now only one in 50 work in agriculture. In 1830, five acres of wheat took 250-300 hours of work to produce. By 1975, it only took 3¾ hours.
2. Crops can be grown without soil
Organic hydroponic culture in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. Image: Frank Fox
Using a crop-growing method called hydroponics, instead of putting plants in soil, a mineral solution is pumped around the roots. This makes it possible to grow crops in regions with low-quality soil or none at all, increasing the amount of space that can be used for agriculture. This technique also allows for the nutrients to be effectively recycled and eliminates the risk of soil organisms that cause disease.
3. At least 90% of the soy, cotton, canola, corn, and sugar beets sold in the US are GMOs
Since the 1970s, scientists have been working on genetically modifying crops to make them tougher, disease-resistant, more nutritious, and higher yielding. Though the first commercially available GMO came onto the market just 23 years ago, global markets have already been transformed by the ground-breaking innovation.
4. Regenerative grazing increases the health and productivity of pastures
Image: Tom Koerner/USFWS
Regenerative grazing - staggering grazing on different plots of land according to a calendar – has proven to increase soil health. By allowing plots to rest after grazing, the soil and anything living in it is able to recover before the next time it is used. Regenerative grazing cultivates fields with less bare soil and increases populations of earthworms and soil organisms. Not only that, it also eliminates the need for chemical fertiliser, increases grass growth by 14%, and causes a 10% decrease in carbon footprint per litre of milk.
5. Agricultural robots are transforming the industry
If you’re interested in the issues surrounding global food sustainability, you can watch the full video of Sir John Beddington’s recent SCI Andrew Medal Lecture: ‘Global Sustainability Challenges: Food, Water, and Energy Security’, here.
One of the many commitments I have as part of my PhD training is in public engagement. This means that I get to attend events and talk about my research and other areas of science to kids, teenagers, mums, dads, grandparents… everyone!
I used to be terrified of this, as I thought that people wouldn’t understand or care. Any time friends or relatives asked what I was doing in the lab, I was never able to give a proper and comprehensive answer, and moving to England from Italy made this even worse, as I had to talk about my research in another language.
But my idea that people wouldn’t care about or understand my research was very wrong. In fact, if people ask what you are doing in the lab, it’s because they are interested. It is true that they might not grasp complicated scientific theories, equations, and laws, but it is a scientist’s duty to make science accessible to everyone, especially when they show an interest.
I have been receiving a lot of training on how to communicate and entertain the general public with science, and here are a few ways I have found to make communication easier…
Make it simple
Talking to the public is very different to talking to a panel of academics. Many of the people you engage with will not have much prior scientific knowledge, so try to be as simple as possible – use examples, and substitute specialised terms with more common ones. Rather than saying you synthesised a molecule, say that you made a material or compound – there is no need to be specific from the very beginning. Talk clearly and carefully, and ask if what you said was clear enough.
Relate your research to everyday life
Everything happening around us is science. All natural events can be explained by physical, chemical, and mathematical rules. Telling your story will be a lot easier if you make a comparison with everyday life events. If someone complains about messy housemates, you can tell them that the state of disorder of the universe is constantly increased according to the second law of thermodynamics, so their housemates are behaving naturally!
Talk about why your research matters
Don’t forget that what you are doing is the lab isn’t only important to you – remind people that everybody benefits from research, whether that is through delivering useful new innovations to the market through industry, or lessening our impact on the planet. Science and innovation means progress, and, directly or indirectly, every new scientific discovery has the potential to provide benefit to society. If you can make this clear, people will relate to you more easily.
Communicate with enthusiasm
When you talk about science and your research, talk about what interests you to as many people as possible, and make it fun – use drawings, props, Lego – use whatever you can to help communicate the science in an engaging way.
The next five years will be the most promising in the fight against cancer with immunotherapies – such as CAR-T and moderating T-Cell approaches, and innate immunity therapies – delivering far better patient outcomes.
In the last five years, the industry has rapidly advanced its understanding of the body’s immune response and genetic markers. As a result, combination therapies – chemotherapies will continue to play an important role – are forecast to become an increasingly standardised treatment, with pharma keen to invest.
These newer options are bringing in transformative remission rates, and check-point inhibitors have already been seen to elicit long-term cures in patients, with success rates two-to-three times higher than standard chemotherapy approaches.
Over the next ten years, we will see significant breakthroughs as the industry’s understanding of the immune system improves. There are currently more than 130 biotechs – in addition to 20 big pharma companies – working on new therapies and it is believed the smaller companies are more aggressively bringing newer innovations to market. In the long run, pharma will undoubtedly absorb the most promising players in an effort to become leaders in combination therapy approaches, which many argue will deliver the best outcomes.
The current investor frenzy is comparable to that of the genomics industry at the turn of the century. Experts argue that a more complete understanding of the genome and promise of clinical data of these transformative modalities will create a golden age for cancer therapy over the next few years.
There are, however, a number of immediate challenges. For example, CAR-T, although demonstrating good efficacy in blood cancers, has yet to show enough efficacy in solid tumours. Another challenge is how far towards cures for all patients we can get, particularly for patients with late stage metastatic cancer.
Immunotherapies are moving cancer from treatment options that simply extend life or improve experience to more effective cures. The cost of newer therapies is also coming into focus; however, this is a positive pressure on companies to produce significant, not just incremental, outcomes for patients.
CRISPR/Cas9 is a gene editing tool that is swiftly becoming a revolutionary new technology. It allows researchers to edit the genome of a species by removing, adding or modifying parts of the DNA sequence.
To alter DNA using CRISPR, a pre-designed sequence is added to the DNA using a RNA scaffold (gRNA) that guides the enzyme Cas9 to the section of DNA that scientists want to alter. Cas9 ‘snips’ the selected sequence.
At this point, the cell identifies the DNA as damage and tries to repair it. Using this information, researchers can use repair technology to introduce changes to the genes of the cell, which will lead to a change in a genetic trait, such as the colour of your eyes or the size of a plants leaf.
Cas9 unzips the selected DNA sequence as the latter forms bonds to a new genetic code. Adapted from: McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT
Public approval of genetic modification is at an all-time high, with a recent YouGov survey finding only 7% of people in the UK oppose gene editing, although there is still a way to go. Lighter regulation in recent years has allowed smaller companies and academic institutions to undertake research.
The future of farming
One of the industries that has benefited from CRISPR is agriculture. The ongoing GM debate is an example of controversial use of transgenesis, the process of inserting DNA from one species into another, spawning fears of ‘Frankenstein foods’.
Instead of creating mega-crops that out-compete all conventional plants, gene editing provides resistance to harsh environments and infections; particularly significant in the context of global food security.
Although gene-editing has been a staple of new agriculture technology for many years now, it is only recently that CRISPR has seen successful use in human disease research and resulting clinical trials.
Scientists at the Salk Institute, California, successfully removed the MYBPC3 gene, linked to a common form of heart disease, from a human embryo. The correction was made at the earliest stage of human development, meaning that the condition could not be passed to future generations.
CRISPR is also being used to study embryo development. Recently, scientists at the Francis Crick Institute, London, discovered that the gene OCT4 was vital in these early stages, although its purpose is still not fully understood. Researchers involved believe that more research into OCT4 could help us improve success rates of IVF and understand why some women miscarry.
A human embryo at day four, taken by a Scanning Electron Microscope. Image: Yorgos Nikas, Wellcome Images
CRISPR is still in the early stages and we are far from editing embryos that can be implanted for pregnancy. Many more safety tests are required before proceeding with any clinical trials, with the next step perhaps replicating the experiment on other mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, the genes responsible for an increased risk of breast cancer.
Experts are confident, however, that this technique could be applied to thousands of other diseases caused by a single mutation, such as cystic fibrosis and ovarian cancers.
The benefits of gene editing are abundant. For example, we may be able to turn the tables on antibiotic-resistant bacteria or ‘super-bugs’ by engineering bacteriophages - viruses that infect bacteria - to target antibiotic resistance genes, knocking them out and allowing conventional antibiotics to work once again. Elsewhere, CRISPR could be used to modify metabolic pathways within algae or corn to produce sustainable and cost-effective ethanol for the biofuel market.
Is CRISPR ethical?
CRISPR and gene editing will revolutionise many industries, but the fear remains in many that we will slip into a society where ‘designer babies’ become the norm, and individuality will be lost.
Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director of the Centre for Genetics and Society, said in a statement: ‘We could all too easily find ourselves in a world where some people’s children are considered biologically superior to the rest of us.’
Could CRISPR lead to a new generation of superheros? Image: Cia Gould
Dr Lovell-Badge, from the Francis Crick Institute, disagrees. ‘I personally feel we are duty bound to explore what the technology can do in a safe, reliable manner to help people. If you have a way to help families not have a diseased child, then it would be unethical not to do it,’ he said.
Genetic engineering does not have to have an all-or-nothing approach. There is a middle ground that will benefit everyone with correct regulation and oversight. With its globally renowned research base, the UK government has a great opportunity to encourage genetic experiments and further cement Britain’s place as the genetic research hub of the future.