More people are looking at their nutritional intake, not only to improve wellbeing but also reduce their environmental impact. With this, comes a move to include foods that are not traditionally cultivated or consumed in Europe.
Assessing whether this growing volume of so called ‘novel foods’ are safe for human consumption is the task of the European Food Safety Authority. The EFSA points out, ‘The notion of novel food is not new. Throughout history new types of food and food ingredients have found their way to Europe from all corners of the globe. Bananas, tomatoes, tropical fruit, maize, rice, a wide range of spices – all originally came to Europe as novel foods. Among the most recent arrivals are chia seeds, algae-based foods, baobab fruit and physalis.’
Under EU regulations any food not consumed ‘significantly’ prior to May 1997 is considered to be a ‘novel food’. The category covers new foods, food from new sources, new substances used in food as well as new ways and technologies for producing food. Examples include oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids from krill as a new source of food, phytosterols as a new substance, or nanotechnology as a new way of producing food.
Providing a final assessment on safety and efficacy of a novel food is a time consuming process. At the start of 2021 the EFSA gave its first completed assessment of a proposed insect-derived food product. The panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods and Food Allergens concluded that the novel food dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption.
Dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption, according to the EFSA.
Commenting in a press statement, as the opinion on insect novel food was released, Ermolaos Ververis, a chemist and food scientist at EFSA who coordinated the assessment said that evaluating the safety of insects for human consumption has its challenges. ‘Insects are complex organisms which makes characterising the composition of insect-derived products a challenge. Understanding their microbiology is paramount, considering also that the entire insect is consumed,’
Ververis added, ‘Formulations from insects may be high in protein, although the true protein levels can be overestimated when the substance chitin, a major component of insects’ exoskeleton, is present. Critically, many food allergies are linked to proteins so we assess whether the consumption of insects could trigger any allergic reactions. These can be caused by an individual’s sensitivity to insect proteins, cross-reactivity with other allergens or residual allergens from insect feed, e.g. gluten.’
EFSA research could lead to increased choice for consumers | Editorial credit: Raf Quintero / Shutterstock.com
The EFSA has an extensive list of novel foods to assess. These include dried crickets (Gryllodes sigillatus), olive leaf extract, and vitamin D2 mushroom powder. With the increasing desire to find alternatives to the many foods that we consume on a regular basis, particularly meat, it is likely that the EFSA will be busy for some time to come.
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…
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.
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:
Recently, our Agri-Food Early Career Committee ran the third #agrifoodbecause Twitter competition. Today we are looking back over the best photos of the 2020 competition, including our winner and runner-up. Entrants were asked to take photos and explain why they loved their work, using the hashtag #agrifoodbecause on Twitter.
Our 2020 winner, Jordan Cuff, Cardiff University, won first prize for his fantastic shot of a ladybird. He received a free SCI student membership and an Amazon voucher.
For the first-time ever we also awarded a runner-up prize to Lauren Hibbert, University of Southampton, for her beautiful root photography. She also received a free SCI student membership and Amazon voucher.
#agrifoodbecause developing more environmentally friendly crops will help ensure the sustainability of future farming.
Photo illustrating the dawn 🌅 of root phenotyping… or some very hairy (phosphate hungry) watercress roots! @SCI_AgriFood pic.twitter.com/29u533Xyow
There were also many other fantastic entries!
#AgrifoodBecause My research looks at the potential biocontrol of parasitic wasps on #CSFB, major pest of #OSR! Combining field and lab work to work towards #IPM strategies 👩🏻🔬👩🏻🌾 pic.twitter.com/YqJnBM4CVf
#agrifoodbecause we need to protect the crops to feed the world while repairing and protecting a highly damaged ecosystem. There is no delete option! #foodsecurity #noplanetb #organic #earth #wildlife #insectpests #beneficialinsects pic.twitter.com/JXfycRc0tx
Once again, it was an incredibly successful online event, with fascinating topics covered.
This tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) relative was first planted in the SCIence Garden in the summer of 2018. It was grown from seed by Peter Grimbly, SCI Horticulture Group member. Although normally grown as an annual, some of the SCIence Garden plants have proven to be perennial. It is also gently self-seeding across the garden. It is native to the south and southeast of Brazil and the northeast of Argentina but both the species and many cultivars of it are now grown ornamentally across Europe. Flower colour is normally white, but variants with lime green and pink through to darker red flowers are available.
Like many Nicotiana this species has an attractive floral scent in the evening and through the night. The major component of the scent is 1.8-cineole. This constituent has been shown to be a chemical synapomorphy for the particular section of the genus Nicotiana that this species sits within (Raguso et al, Phytochemistry 67 (2006) 1931-1942). A synapomorphy is a shared derived character – one that all descendants and the shared single ancestor will have.
This ornamentally and olfactorily attractive plant was chosen for the SCIence Garden to represent two other (arguably less attractive) Nicotiana species.
Firstly, Nicotiana benthamiana, a tobacco species from northern Western Australia. It is widely used as a model organism in research and also for the “pharming” of monoclonal antibodies and other recombinant proteins.
In a very topical example of this technology, the North American biopharmaceutical company Medicago is currently undertaking Phase 1 clinical trials of a Covid-19 vaccine produced using their plant-based transient expression and manufacturing technology.
Secondly, Nicotiana tabacum, the cultivated tobacco which contains nicotine. This alkaloid is a potent insecticide and tobacco was formerly widely used as a pesticide.
This vivid extract from William Dallimore’s memoirs of working at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew illustrate how tobacco was used in the late Victorian era.
“Real tobacco was used at Kew for fumigating plant houses. It was a very mixed lot that had been confiscated by excise officers, and it was said that it had been treated in some way to make it unfit for ordinary use before being issued to Kew. With the men working in the house ten men were employed on the job. After the first hour the atmosphere became unpleasant and after 1 ½ hours the first casualties occurred, some of the young gardeners had to leave the house. At the conclusion there were only the two labourers the stoker and one young gardener to leave the house, I was still about but very unhappy. Each man employed at the work, with the exception of the foreman, received one shilling extra on his week’s pay.“
After a second such fumigation event it was reported that there was a great reduction in insect pests, particularly of mealy bug and thrips, with a “good deal of mealy bug” falling to the ground dead.
Health and safety protocols have improved since the Victorian era, but the effectiveness of nicotine as an insecticide remains. From the 1980’s through the 1990’s a range of neo-nicotinoid plant protection agents were developed, with structures based on nicotine. Although extremely effective, these substances have also been shown to be harmful to beneficial insects and honey bees. Concerns over these adverse effects have led to the withdrawal of approval of outdoor use in the EU.
Imidacloprid – the first neo-nicotinoid developed
In early 2020, the European commission decided not to renew the European license for the use of Thiacloprid in plant protection, making it the fourth neo-nicotinoid excluded for use in Europe.
Where the next generation of pest control agents will come from is of vital importance to the horticulture and agriculture industries in the UK and beyond and the presence of these plants in the garden serves to highlight this.
Elderflowers are in full bloom this month, both in hedgerows as well as gardens across the country. Whether they are the wild Sambucus nigra or a cultivated variety with green or black leaves they are all beautiful and useful plants.
The black leaved cultivar growing in the SCIence Garden has pink blooms, whereas the wild species has white flowers. It was purchased as ‘Black Beauty’, but is also sold as ‘Gerda’.
Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Black Beauty’ growing in the SCIence Garden
This cultivar, along with ‘Black Lace’ (Eva) was developed by Ken Tobutt and Jacqui Prevette at the Horticulture Research International research station at East Malling in Kent and released for sale in the horticulture trade in 2000. The leaves stay a dark purple throughout the year and the flowers have a good fragrance.
The shrub will tolerate hard pruning so is useful for smaller spaces and provides a long season of interest. The plant is also a forager’s delight, both in early summer (for the flowers) and in the autumn (for the berries).
Most commonly one may think of elderflower cordial, or perhaps even elderflower champagne, but an excellent alternative to the rose flavoured traditional “Turkish Delight” can be made - https://www.rivercottage.net/recipes/elderflower-delight. I can highly recommend it!
The chemistry of the elderflower aroma is complex. Analyses such as that in the reference below* have identified many different terpene and terpenoid components including nerol oxide, hotrienol and nonanal.
* Olfactory and Quantitative Analysis of Aroma Compounds in Elder Flower (Sambucus nigra L.) Drink Processed from Five Cultivars. Ulla Jørgensen, Merete Hansen, Lars P. Christensen, Karina Jensen, and Karl Kaack. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2000 48 (6), 2376-2383. DOI: 10.1021/jf000005f
Another month starts in the SCIence Garden with no visitors to appreciate the burgeoning growth of fresh new leaves and spring flowers, but that doesn’t mean we should forget about it!
Hopefully in our absence the Laburnum tree in the garden, Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’ will be flowering beautifully, its long racemes of golden yellow flowers looking stunning in the spring sunshine!
Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’ in the SCIence Garden
This particular cultivar originated in the late 19th century in the Netherlands, selected from the hybrid species which itself is a cross between Laburnum alpinum and L. anagyroides. This hybrid species was named for the Waterers nursery in Knaphill, Surrey and was formally named in a German publication of 1893 (Handbuch der Laubholzkunde, Berlin 3:673 (1893)
The laburnum tree is found very commonly in gardens in the UK, and is noticeable at this time of year for its long chains of golden yellow flowers. However, the beautiful flowers hide a dark side to this plant. The seeds (and indeed all parts) of the tree are poisonous to humans and many animals. They are poisonous due to the presence of a very toxic alkaloid called cytisine (not to be confused with cytosine, a component of DNA). Cytisine has a similar structure to nicotine (another plant natural product), and has similar pharmacological effects. It has been used as a smoking cessation therapy, as has varenicline, which has a structure based on that of cytisine. These molecules are partial agonists at the nicotinic receptor (compared to nicotine which is a full agonist) and reduce the cravings and “pleasurable” effects associated with nicotine.
Cytisine is found in several other plants in the legume family, including Thermopsis lanceolata, which also looks stunning in early summer and Baptisia species, also growing in the SCIence Garden and flowering later in the year.
In 2018 there were 9.6 million deaths from cancer and 33% of these were linked to exposure to tobacco smoke.* Since the link between smoking and lung cancer was established in 1950, the market for smoking cessation therapies has increased enormously. In 2018 it was worth over 18 billion dollars annually worldwide and is projected to increase to 64 billion dollars by 2026.** Staggering! Varenicline, sold under the brand names Champix and Chantix, is one of the most significant smoking cessation therapies apart from nicotine replacement products.
If you see a laburnum tree whilst out on your daily allowed exercise this month, have a thought for its use as a smoking cessation therapy!
* Data from the Cancer Research UK website https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/worldwide-cancer#heading-Zero accessed May 2020.
Seed is one of Nature’s tiny miracles upon which the human race relies for its food and pleasure.
Each grain contains the genetic information for growth, development, flowering and fruiting for the preponderant plant life living on this planet. And when provided with adequate oxygen, moisture, warmth, light, physical support and nutrients germination will result in a new generation of a species. These vary from tiny short-lived alpines to the monumental redwood trees growing for centuries on the Pacific west coast of America.
Humankind has tamed and selected a few plant species for food and decorative purposes.
Seed head of beetroot, the seeds are in clusters.
Seed of these, especially food plants, is an internationally traded commodity. Strict criteria governed by legal treaties apply for the quality and health of agricultural and many horticultural seeds. This ensures that resultant crops are true to type and capable of producing high grade products as claimed by the companies who sell the seed.
Companies involved in the seed industry place considerable emphasis on ensuring that their products are capable of growing into profitable crops for farmers and growers. Parental seed crops are grown in isolation from farm crops thereby avoiding the potential for genetic cross-contamination. With some very high value seed the parent plants may be grown under protection and pollinated by hand.
Samples of seed are tested under laboratory conditions by qualified seed analysts. Quality tests identify levels of physical contamination, damage which may have resulted in harvesting and cleaning the seed and the proportion of capable of satisfactory germination. There may also be molecular tests which can identify trueness to type. Identifying the healthiness of seed is especially important. The seed coat can carry fungal and bacterial spores which could result in diseased crops. Similarly, some pathogens, including viruses, may be carried internally within seed.
Septoria apicola – seed borne pathogen causing late blight of celery
Pests, especially insects, find seed attractive food sources and may be carried with it. Careful analytical testing will identify the presence of these problems in batches of seed.
The capabilities of seed for producing vigorous plants is particularly important with very high value vegetable and salad crops. Vigour testing is a refined analytical process which tracks the uniformity and speed of germination supplemented with chemical tests determining the robustness of plant cells. Producers rely on the quality, uniformity and maturity rates of crops such as lettuce, green broccoli or cauliflower so they meet the strict delivery schedules set by supermarkets. Financial penalties are imposed for failures in the supply chain.
Biology’s seemingly inert tiny seed grains are essential ingredients of humankind’s existence!
March in the SCIence Garden
Narcissus was the classical Greek name of a beautiful youth who became so entranced with his own reflection that he killed himself and all that was left was a flower – a Narcissus. The word is possibly derived from an ancient Iranian language. But the floral narcissi are not so self-obsessed. As a member of the Amaryllidaceae, a family known for containing biologically active alkaloids, it is no surprise to learn that they contain a potent medicinal agent.
Narcissus (and in particular this cultivar) are an excellent source of galanthamine, a drug more commonly associated with snowdrops (Galanthus spp.). Galanthamine is currently recommended for the treatment of moderate Alzheimer’s disease by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) but is very effective in earlier stages of the disease too.
Today, part of the commercial supply of this molecule comes from chemical synthesis, itself an amazing chemical achievement due to the structural complexity of the molecule, and partly from the natural product isolated from different sources across the globe. In China, Lycoris radiata is grown as a crop, in Bulgaria, Leucojum aestivum is farmed and in the UK the humble daffodil, Narcissus ‘Carlton’ is the provider.
Narcissus ‘Carlton’ growing on large scale
Agroceutical Products, was established in 2012 to commercialise the research of Trevor Walker and colleagues who developed a cost effective, reliable and scalable method for producing galanthamine by extraction from Narcissus. They discovered the “Black Mountains Effect” – the increased production of galanthamine in the narcissus when they are grown under stress conditions at 1,200 feet. With support from Innovate UK and other organisations, the process is still being developed. Whilst not a full scale commercial production process just yet, the work is ongoing. As well as providing a supply of the much needed drug, this company may be showing the Welsh farming community how to secure additional income from their land. They continue to look for partners who have suitable land over 1000 ft in elevation.
The estimated global patient population for Alzheimer’s in 2010 was 30 million. It is expected to reach 120 million by 2050. The global market for Alzheimer’s disease drugs for 2019 was US$ 2870 million.
Transferring plants between countries was a profitable source for novel commercial and garden plants until quite recently.
Potato crop: Geoff Dixon
Potatoes and tomatoes are classic examples arriving in Europe from South America during the 16th century. Substantial numbers of new plants fuelled empire expansion founding new industries such as rubber and coffee. One of the earliest functions of European botanic gardens was finding potentially valuable new crops for colonial businesses. At home selecting orchids and other exotics from imported plants brought fame and fortune for head gardeners managing the large 19th century estates such as Chatsworth. Commercially seed merchants selected by eye and feel new and improved vegetables, fruit and flowers.
The rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of inheritance brought systematic science and formalised breeding new crops and garden plants. Analysing the effects of transferring physical, chemical and biological characters identified gene numbers and their functions.
Colour range in Gladioli: Geoff Dixon
As a result, varieties with improved colourfulness, fruitfulness, yield and pest and pathogen tolerance fill seedsmen’s catalogues. Breeding increased food supplies and added colour into the gardens springing up in suburban areas as affluence increased.
Greater plant reliability and uniformity arrived with the discovery of F1 hybrids.
Hybrid Sunflowers: Geoff Dixon
Selected parental lines each with very desirable characters such as fruit colour are in-breed for several generations. Then they are crossed bringing an explosion of vigour, uniformity and reliability (known as heterosis). Saving seed from the hybrid lines does not however, perpetuate these characters; new generations come only from remaking the original cross. That is a major boon for the breeder as competitors cannot pirate their intellectual property.
Knowledge at the molecular level has unravelled still further gene structure and functioning. Tagging or marking specific genes with known properties shortens the breeding cycle adding reliability and accuracy for the breeder. Simplifying the volume of genetic material used in crosses by halving the number of chromosomes involved adds further precision and control (known as haploidisation).
Opportunities for breeding new plants increases many-fold when advantageous genes are transferred between species. Recent developments of gene-editing where tailored enzymes very precisely snip out unwanted characters and insert advantageous ones is now offering huge opportunities as a non-transgenic technology. Breeding science makes possible mitigation of climate change, reducing for example the impact of soil degradation brought about by flooding.
Flood degraded land: Geoff Dixon
One of the most beloved flowers in China (and elsewhere) this small tree was planted here in the SCIence garden to represent the Chinese UK group. It is in bloom from late winter and the bright pink flowers have a strong perfume. It is growing in the centre at the back of the main area of the garden.
There are 309 accepted species in the genus Prunus listed on the Plants of the World Online database (plantsoftheworldonline.org). The genus is distributed mainly across the Northern temperate zones but there are some tropical species.
The genus Prunus is generally defined based on a combination of characteristics which include: a solitary carpel (the structure enclosing the ovules – a combination of the ovary, style and stigma) with a terminal style, a fleshy drupe (fruit), five sepals and five petals and solid branch pith. The drupe contains a single, relatively large, hard coated seed (stone) – familiar to us in cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches etc
This particular species, Prunus mume, originates from southern China in the area around the Yangtze River. The ‘Beni-chidori’ cultivar has been given an Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.
Over 300 different cultivars of this species have been recorded in China, perhaps not surprisingly for a plant that has been domesticated for thousands of years due to its floral beauty. A recent study on the genetic architecture of floral traits across the cultivars of this species was published in Nature Communications.1
Prunus mume was introduced from China into Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam and it is now fully integrated into the cuisines of all these countries. In addition to its uses in many foodstuffs and drinks, extracts from the fruit are also widely used in traditional Chinese medicine and in the traditional medicines in Korea and Japan. Anti-bacterial, anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties have all been ascribed to the extract which has been used to treat tiredness, headaches, constipation and stomach disorders amongst other things. A recent review published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology2 gathers together information from literature reports on the anti-cancer activity of Prunus mume fruit extract.
One standardised extract in particular (MK615) has shown antitumour activity against most common cancer types.
The anti-cancer activity has not been ascribed to a particular component. Compounds isolated from the extract include ursolic acid, amygdalin, prunasin, chlorogenic acid, mumefural and syringaresinol.
Like all the plants in the SCIence garden – there’s a lot more to this one than just its ornamental beauty.
1. Zhang, Q., Zhang, H., Sun, L. et al. The genetic architecture of floral traits in the woody plant Prunus mume. Nat Commun 9, 1702 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-04093-z
2. Bailly, C. Anti-cancer properties of Prunus mume extracts. J Ethnopharmacology 246, 2020, 112215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2019.112215
Growing in just about the most challenging of locations in the SCIence Garden are a small group of Helleborus niger. They are planted in a very dry and shady location underneath a large tree sized Escallonia and although they struggled to establish when they were first planted (in May 2017) they are now flowering and growing well.
This plant was first featured as a Horticulture Group Medicinal Plant of the Month in December 2011 and as it is now in the SCIence garden I thought a reprise was in order.
Helleborus is a genus of 15 species of evergreen perennials in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. In common with most members of the family, the flowers are radially symmetric, bisexual and have numerous stamen.
Helleborus is the Latin name for the lent hellebore, and niger means black – referring in this species to the roots.
This species is native to the Alps and Appenines. Helleborus niger has pure white flowers, with the showy white parts being sepals (the calyx) and the petals (corolla) reduced to nectaries. As with other hellebores, the sepals persist long after the nectaries (petals) have dropped.
All members of the Ranunculaceae contain ranunculin, an unstable glucoside, which when the plant is wounded is enzymatically broken down into glucose and protoanemonin. This unsaturated lactone is toxic to both humans and animals, causing skin irritation and nausea, vomiting, dizziness and worse if ingested.
Protoanemonin dimerises to form anemonin when it comes into contact with air and this is then hydrolysed, with a concomitant ring-opening to give a non-toxic dicarboxylic acid.
Many hellebores have been found to contain hellebrin, a cardiac glycoside. The early chemical literature suggests that this species also contains the substance but later studies did not find it suggesting that either mis-identified or adulterated material was used in the early studies.
It is reported to contain many other specialized metabolites including steroidal saponins.
This plant has long been used in traditional medicine – in European, Ayurvedic and Unani systems and recent research has been aimed at elucidating what constituents are responsible for the medicinal benefit.
Extract of black hellebore is used sometimes in Germany as an adjuvant treatment for some types of tumour.
A recent paper* reports the results of a safety and efficacy investigation. The Helleborus niger extract tested was shown to exhibit neither genotoxic nor haemolytic effects but it was shown to have anti-angiogenetic effects on human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC), anti-proliferative effects and migration-inhibiting properties on tumour cells thus supporting its use in cancer treatment.
* Felenda, J.E., Turek, C., Mörbt, N. et al. Preclinical evaluation of safety and potential of black hellebore extracts for cancer treatment. BMC Complement Altern Med 19, 105 (2019) doi:10.1186/s12906-019-2517-5
Holly berries are emblematic of Christmas. Decorative wreaths containing sprays of holly boughs, bright red with berries, or sprigs set on cakes and puddings help bring seasonal cheer.
Holly is a problem for horticulturists! Male and female flowers develop separately requiring cross-pollination before fertilised berries develop. Dutch nurserymen got around this by selecting a self-fertile variety ‘J. C Van Tol’ which sets copious berries. Adding further colour in the winter garden is the variety ‘Golden King’ producing mixtures of creamy-white and green foliage. Most hollies in Great Britain are Ilex aquifolium which is a native of Northern Europe and is still found wild in the Welsh Marches. It is a flexible and valuable garden evergreen, very suitable for hedges as they form tough, prickly, impenetrable barriers.
Why plants use considerable energy to produce brightly coloured fruits is a puzzle for botanists. Co-evolution is an explanation. Bright berries attract birds which eat them, digesting the flesh and excreting the seeds. Wide seed distribution accompanied by a package of manure helps spread these plants increasing their geographical range.
Which came first, bright berries or vectoring birds? A combination is the answer. Plants with brighter berries attracted more birds spreading their seed more widely. Brighter berries are more nutritious and hence those birds which ate them were stronger and better fitted for the rigours of winter. Garden residents such as blackbirds and thrushes now thrive and survive on such natural food. Migratory species such as fieldfares travel from Scandinavia, attracted particularly by other berried treasures such as Cotoneaster.
Fleshy fruits such as those of holly or Cotoneaster are examples of some of the last energy sinks formed in the gardening year.
They draw products of photosynthesis from the manufacturing centres in leaves and accumulate sugars plus nutrients drawn up from the soil via root systems. That provides a rich diet for birds.
While digestive acids in the vector’s gut starts degrading the hard shell which surrounds the seed at the centre of the berry. Botanically that term is a misnomer since true berries, such as gooseberry fruits contain several seeds. Holly has one seed contained within a hard case encased in flesh and should be a drupe! Not a term which fits well for Christmas carols, decorations or cards!
Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.
Gooseberries- true berry
Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins, Apollo 11’s brave astronauts were the first humans with the privilege of viewing Earth from another celestial body. These men uniquely wondered “what makes Earth special?” Certainly, within our Solar System, planet Earth is very special. Its environment has permitted the evolution of a panoply of life.
Green plants containing the pigment, chlorophyll either in the oceans as algae or on land as a multitude of trees, shrubs and herbs harvest energy from sunshine. Using a series of chemical reactions, known as photosynthesis, light energy is harvested and attached onto compounds containing phosphorus.
Captured energy then drives a series of reactions in which atmospheric carbon dioxide and water are combined forming simple sugars while releasing oxygen. These sugars are used further by plants in the manufacture of larger carbohydrates, amino acids and proteins, oils and fats.
The release of oxygen during photosynthesis forms the basis of life’s second vital process, respiration. Almost all plants and animals utilise oxygen in this energy releasing process during which sugars are broken down.
Released energy then drives all subsequent growth, development and reproduction. These body-building processes in plants are reliant on the transfer of the products of photosynthesis from a point of manufacture, the source, to the place of use, a sink.
Leaves and shoots are the principle sources of energy harvesting while flowers and fruits are major sinks with high levels of respiration.
Figure 1: Photosynthesis vs respiration, drawn by James Hadley
Transfer between sources and sinks occurs in a central system of pipes, the vascular system, using water as the carrier. Water is obtained by land plants from the soils in which they grow. Without water there would be no transfer and subsequent growth. Earth’s environment is built around a ‘water-cycle’ supplying the land and oceans with rain or snow and recycles water back into the atmosphere in a sustainable manner.
Early in Earth’s evolution, very primitive marine organisms initiated photosynthetic processes, capturing sunlight’s energy. As a result, in our atmosphere oxygen became a major component. That encouraged the development of the vast array of land plants which utilise rain water as the key element in their transport systems.
Subsequently, plants formed the diets of all animals either by direct consumption as herbivores or at second-hand as carnivores. As a result, evolution produced balanced ecosystems and humanity has inherited what those astronauts saw, “the Green Planet”.
Earth will only retain this status if humanity individually and collectively defeats our biggest challenge – climate change. Burning rain forests in South America, Africa and Arctic tundra will disbalance these ecosystems and quicken climate change.
Controlling when and how vigorously plants flower is a major discovery in horticultural science. Its use has spawned vast industries worldwide supplying flowers and potted plants out-of-season. The control mechanism was uncovered by two American physiologists in the 1920s. Temperate plants inhabit zones where seasonal daylength varies between extending light periods in spring and decreasing ones in autumn.
Those environmental changes result in plants which flower in long-days and those which flower in short-days. ‘Photoperiodism’ was coined as the term describing these events. Extensive subsequent research demonstrated that it is the period of darkness which is crucially important. Short-day plants flower when darkness exceeds a crucial minimum, usually about 12 hours which is typical of autumn. Long-day plants flower when the dark period is shorter than the crucial minimum.
Irises are long day flowers. Image: Geoffery R Dixon
A third group of plants usually coming from tropical zones are day-neutral; flowering is unaffected by day-length. Long-day plants include clover, hollyhock, iris, lettuce, spinach and radish. Gardeners will be familiar with the way lettuce and radish “bolt” in early summer. Short-day plants include: chrysanthemum, goldenrod, poinsettia, soybean and many annual weed species. Day-neutral types include peas, runner and green beans, sweet corn (maize) and sunflower.
Immense research efforts identified a plant pigment, phytochrome as the trigger molecule. This exists in two states, active and inactive and they are converted by receiving red or far-red wavelengths of light.
Sunflowers are day neutral flowers. Image: Geoffery R Dixon
In short-day plants, for example, the active form suppresses flowering but decays into the inactive form with increasing periods of darkness. But a brief flash of light restores the active form and stops flowering. That knowledge underpins businesses supplying cut-flowered chrysanthemums and potted-plants and supplies of poinsettias for Christmas markets. Identifying precise demands of individual cultivars of these crops means that growers can schedule production volumes gearing very precisely for peak markets.
Providing the appropriate photoperiods requires very substantial capital investment. Consequently, there has been a century-long quest for the ‘Holy Grail of Flowering’, a molecule which when sprayed onto crops initiates the flowering process.
Chrysanthemums are short day flowers. Image: Geoffery R Dixon
In 2006 the hormone, florigen, was finally identified and characterised. Biochemists and molecular biologists are now working furiously looking for pathways by which it can be used effectively and provide more efficient flower production in a wider range of species.
The David Miller Travel Bursary Award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers.
Juan Carlos De la Concepcion was awarded one of the 2018 David Miller Travel Bursaries to attend the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy, which was held in Boston, US. Here, he details his experience attending the international conference and the opportunities it provided.
I’m currently completing the third-year of my rotation PhD in Plant and Microbial Science at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. My work addresses how plant pathogens cause devastating diseases that affect food security worldwide, and how plants can recognise them and organise an immune response to keep themselves healthy.
Because of the tremendous damage that plant diseases cause in agricultural and horticulturally relevant species, this topic has become central to achieving the UN Zero Hunger challenge.
Thanks to the David Miller Award, I was able to participate in the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy held in Boston, US. This event is the major international conference in the plant pathology field and only occurs once every five years.
This year, the conference gathered together over 2,700 attendees, representing the broad international community of plant pathologist across the globe. In this conference, the leading experts in the different aspects of the field presented the latest advances and innovations.
Juan’s current research looks at the rice plant’s immune response to pathogens.
These experts are setting a vision and future directions for tackling some of the most damaging plant diseases in the agriculture and horticulture industries, ensuring enough food productivity in a global economy.
At the SCI HQ in Belgrave Square, London, we have curated a beautiful garden filled with plants that represent our technical and regional interest groups. Each of these plants has a scientific significance. On World Wildlife Day, we take a look at how some of our plants are doing in March.
Cyclamen hederifolium - the ivy-leaved cyclamen. Image: SCI
Cyclamen hederifolium is included in the SCIence garden to represent the horticulture group. This beautiful pink flower has a mutualistic relationship with ants, in which the ants carry the seeds far away, ensuring no competition between young plants and the original.
Dichroa febrifuga - a hydrangea with anti-malarial properties. Image: SCI
Not yet flowering, D. febrifuga is a traditional Chinese herbal medicine that is used for treatment of malaria. It contains the alkaloids febrifugine and isofebrifugine which are thought to be responsible for it’s anti-malaria properties.
Fatsia japonica - the paper plant. Image: SCI
F. japonica is also known as the glossy-leaved paper plant and is native to Japan, southern Korea and Taiwan. This plant represents our materials group.
Rosmarinus officinalis aka rosemary - a herb with many uses from culinary to chemical. Image: SCI
Rosemary is a common herb that originates in the Mediterranean. It has many uses, including as a herb for cooking and fragrance. One of it’s more scientific uses is as a supply of lucrative useful phytochemicals such as camphor and rosemarinic acid.
Prunus mume ‘Beni-chidori’ - a Chinese ornamental flower. Image: SCI
The Prunus mume tree is a beautiful ornamental tree that has significance in East Asian culture. It has a wide variety of applications, from medicinal to beverages, and can been seen in many pieces of art. This plant is in the SCIence garden to represent our Chinese Group UK.
Pieris japonica - the Dwarf-Lilly-of-the-Valley-Shrub. Image: SCI
The Pieris japonica ree has Asian origins, and represents our Agrisciences group. The leaves contain diterpenoids which inhibit the activity of feeding pests, such as insects.
Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ - lungwort. Image: SCI
The lungwort has been used since the Middle Ages as a medicinal herb to treat chest or lung diseases. It is an example of the use of the doctrine of signatures - where doctors believed that if a plant resembled a body, it could be used to treat illness in that body part.
Euphorbia amygdaloides - the wood spruce. Image:SCI
Euphorbia amygdaloides is planted to represent our Materials Chemistry group. It has a waxy feel, and has potential to be used as an alternative to latex.
Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ - a flowering plant in the cabbage family. Image: SCI
The Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ is a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae). This plant was used to make the first synthetic dye, Mauvine, when SCI founding member William Perkin discovered in in 1858.
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.’
Russian researchers have developed new fertilisers based on nanopowders of transition metals. In field trials on agricultural crops, harvests increased by more than a quarter, compared with conventional fertilisers.
Iron, cobalt and copper affect a plant’s level of resistance to pests and diseases. These microelements are typically introduced into the soil as soluble salts, but rain and irrigation can wash them away, requiring further applications. They also have potential to disrupt local ecosystems as they pass into the groundwater.
An irrigation system in Idaho, US. Image: Jeroen Komen@Wikimedia Commons
The team, led by the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Moscow, has developed a group of fertilisers that are applied as a powder to plant seeds, without losses to the soil or water systems. In this way, ‘the future plant is provided with a supply of necessary microelements at the stage of seeding,’ reports Alexander Gusev, head of the project at NUST’s Department of Functional Nanosystems.
‘[It’s] a one-seed treatment by a product containing the essential microelements in nanoform. These particles of transition metals – iron, copper, cobalt – have a powerful stimulating effect on plant growth in the initial growth phase.’
Gusev reports improved field germination and increased yields of 20-25%.
The main difficulty was to produce a powder from the nanoparticles, which tended to quickly stick together as aggregates, says Gusev – a problem they solved by using organic stabilisers and then subjecting the colloidal solutions to ultrasonic processing.
Gusev now wants to discvover how the new fertiliser acts in different soils, and in relation to different plant cultures. Its environmental safety also needs to be evaluated before widespread use, he adds.
But Steve McGrath, head of sustainable agricultural sciences at Rothamsted Research, is sceptical. Plants are adapted to take up ionic forms of these microelements, not nanoparticles, he says. ‘Also, seeds do not take up much micronutrients. Roots do that, and depending on the crop and specific nutrient, most uptake is near to the growing ends of the root, and throughout the growing season, when the seed and nearby roots are long gone.’
Critics are skeptical of the efficacy of the new kind of fertiliser. Image: Pexels
If there is an effect on crop yield, he thinks it is more likely to be due to the early antifungal and antibacterial effects of nanoparticles. ‘They have a large and highly reactive surface area and if they are next to membranes of pathogens when they react they generate free radicals that disrupt those membranes. So, in a soil that is particularly disease-infected, there may be some protection at the early seedling stage.’