Blog search results for Tag: plant

Sustainability & Environment

Gardens and parks provide visual evidence of climate change. Regular observation shows us that our flowering bulbous plants are emerging, growing and flowering. Great Britain is particularly rich in long term recordings of dates of budbreak, growth and flowering of trees, shrubs and perennial herbaceous plants. Until recently, this was dismissed as ‘stamp collecting by Victorian ladies and clerics’.

The science of phenology now provides vital evidence that quantifies the scale and rapidity of climate change. Serious scientific evidence of the impact of climate change comes, for example, from an analysis of 29,500 phenological datasets. This research shows that plants and animals are responding consistently to temperature change with earlier blooming, leaf unfurling, flowering and migration. This scale of change has not been seen on Earth for the past three quarters of a million years. And this time it is happening with increased rapidity and is caused by the activities of a single species – US – humans!

 2 iris

Iris unguicularis (stylosa). 

Changing seasonal cycles seriously affects our gardens. Fruit trees bloom earlier than previously and are potentially out of synchrony with pollinators. That results in irregular, poor fruit set and low yields. Climate change is causing increased variability in weather events. This is particularly damaging when short, very sharp periods of freezing weather coincide with precious bud bursts and shoot growth. Many early flowering trees and shrubs are incapable of replacing damaged buds, as a result a whole season’s worth of growth is lost. Damaged buds and shoots are more easily invaded by fungi which cause diseases such as dieback and rotting. Eventually valuable feature plants fail, damaging the garden’s benefits for enjoyment and relaxation. 

Plant diseases caused by fungi and bacteria benefit from our increasingly milder, damper winters. Previously, cooling temperatures in the autumn and winter frosts prevented these microbes from over-wintering. Now they are surviving and thriving in the warmer conditions. This is especially the case with soil borne microbes such as those which cause clubroot of brassicas and white rot, which affects a wide range of garden crops.

 3 Hazel

Hazel (Coryllus spp.) typical wind-pollinated yellow male catkins, which produce pollen.

Can gardeners help mitigate climate change? Of course! Grow flowering plants which are bee friendly; minimise using chemical controls; ban bonfires – which are excellent sources of CO2; establish wildlife-friendly areas filled with native plants and pieces of rotting wood, and it is amazing how quickly beneficial insects, slow worms and voles will populate your garden.

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

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.

Careers

Today we chat to SCI member Luca Steel about her life as a plant pathology PhD student in 2020.

Can you please provide a brief summary of your research?

Zymoseptoria tritici is a fungal pathogen of wheat which can cause yield losses of up to 50%. We’re investigating an effector protein secreted by Z. tritici which acts as a ‘mask’, hiding the pathogen from host immune receptors and avoiding immune response.

What does a day in the life of a plant pathology PhD Student look like?

My days are very varied – from sowing wheat seeds to swabbing pathogenic spores onto their leaves, imaging symptoms, discussing results with my supervisor and lab team, and of course lots of reading. It doesn’t always go to plan - I recently attempted to make some wheat leaf broth, which involved lots of messy blending and ended up turning into a swampy mess in the autoclave!

 plants growing

Wheat in the incubator!

How did your education prepare you for this experience?  

The most valuable preparation was my placement year at GSK and my final year project at university. Being in the lab and having my own project to work on made me confident that I wanted to do a PhD – even if it was a totally different research area (I studied epigenetics/immunoinflammation at GSK!).

What are some of the highlights so far?

My highlight was probably attending the European Conference on Fungal Genetics in Rome earlier this year. It was great to hear about so much exciting work going on – and it was an added bonus that we got to explore Rome. I’ve also loved getting to know my colleagues and being able to do science every day.

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

My biggest challenge so far has probably been working from home during lockdown. Although I am very privileged to have a distraction-free space and good internet connection, it was difficult to adjust to working from my kitchen! It was sad abandoning unfinished experiments, and I missed being in the lab – so I’m glad to be back now.

 working on a laptop

Pandemic Workstations

What advice would you give to someone considering a PhD?

If you’re sure you want to do one, then absolutely go for it and don’t be afraid to sell yourself! If not, I’d recommend spending some time working in a lab before you apply and chatting to any prospective labs. If you don’t get a reply from the PI, existing students/post-docs in the group are often very happy to talk and give honest opinions.

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

I was lucky that the pandemic came early on in my PhD, so I had a lot of flexibility to change what I was working on. I switched from lab work involving lots of bioimaging, towards a more bioinformatic approach. My poor laptop will be glad when I’m back to using my computer at work!



Agrifood

This year’s wheat harvest is currently underway across the country after a difficult growing season, with harvest itself being delayed due to intermittent stormy weather. The high levels of rainfall at the start of the growing season meant that less winter wheat could be planted and dry weather in April and May caused difficulties for spring wheat as well. This decline in the wheat growing area has caused many news outlets to proclaim the worst wheat harvest in 40 years and potential bread price rises.

 wheat harvest

Difficult weather during this year’s growing season. Photo: Joe Oddy

This is also the first wheat harvest in which I have a more personal stake, namely the first field trial of my PhD project; looking at how asparagine levels are controlled in wheat. It seemed like a bad omen that my first field trial should coincide with such a poor year for wheat farming, but it is also an opportunity to look at how environmental stress is likely to influence the nutritional quality of wheat, particularly in relation to asparagine.

The levels of asparagine, a nitrogen-rich amino acid, in wheat grain have become an important quality parameter in recent years because it is the major determinant and precursor of acrylamide, a processing contaminant that forms during certain cooking processes. The carcinogenic risk associated with dietary acrylamide intake has sparked attempts to reduce consumption as much as possible, and reducing asparagine levels in wheat is a promising way of achieving part of this goal.

 asparagus

Asparagus, from which asparagine was first discovered and named.

Previous work on this issue has shown that some types of plant stress, such as sulphur deficiency, disease, and drought, increase asparagine levels in wheat, so managing these stresses with sufficient nutrient supply, disease control, and irrigation can help to prevent unwanted asparagine accumulation. Stress can be difficult to prevent even with such crop management strategies though, especially with environmental variables as uncontrollable as the weather, so it is tempting to speculate that the difficulties experienced this growing season will be reflected in higher asparagine levels; but we will have to wait and see.


Sustainability & Environment

Single plant cells have amazing capacities for regenerating into entire plants. This property is known as ‘totipotency’ discovered in the 1920s. Linking this with increasing understanding of growth control by plant hormones resulted in the development of the sterile, in vitro, culture. Tiny groups of cells, explants, are cut from the rapidly growing tips of shoots in controlled environments and washed in sterilising agents. These are cultured sterile jars containing a layer of agar supplemented with nutrients and hormones.

 Green plantlets growing on sterile agar

Green plantlets growing on sterile agar

The process is known as ‘tissue culture’ or micropropagation. As the cells divide and multiply, they are transferred through a series of sterile conditions which encourage root formation.

 Roots growing from newly developing plantlets

Roots growing from newly developing plantlets

Ultimately numerous new whole plants are generated. At that point they are removed from sterile conditions and weaned by planting into clean compost in high humidity environments. High humidity is essential as these transplants lack the protective coating of leaf and stem waxes which prevent desiccation. Ultimately when fully weaned the plants are grown under normal nursery conditions into saleable products.

Why bother with this processes which requires expensive facilities and highly skilled staff? A prime advantage is that micropropagated plants have genotypes very closely similar to those of the original parent, essentially they are clones. As a result vast numbers of progeny can be generated from a few parents preserving their characteristics. That is particularly important as a means of bulking-up newly bred varieties of many ornamental and fruit producing plants which otherwise would be reproduced vegetatively from cuttings or by grafting and budding onto rootstocks. Micropropagation is therefore a means for safeguarding the intellectual property of plant breeding companies.

Explants cut from parent plants before culturing can be heat-treated as a means of removing virus infections. The resultant end-products of rooted plants are therefore disease-free or more accurately disease-tested. These plants are usually more vigorous and produce bigger yields of flowers and fruit. Orchids are one of the crops where the impact of micropropagation is most obvious in florists’ shops and supermarkets. 

Orchids have benefitted greatly from micropropagation

Orchids have benefitted greatly from micropropagation

Large numbers of highly attractive orchids are now readily available. Previously orchids were very expensive and available in sparse numbers.   

The world is not perfect and there are disadvantages with micropropagation. Because the progeny are genetically similar they are uniformly susceptible to pests and pathogens. Crops of clonal plants can be and have been rapidly devasted by existing and new strains of insects and diseases to which they have no resistance.


Sustainability & Environment

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.

 genus Prunus

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.

 Prunus mume

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.

 MK615-extract

Like all the plants in the SCIence garden – there’s a lot more to this one than just its ornamental beauty.

References

1.  Zhang, Q., Zhang, H., Sun, L. et al. The genetic architecture of floral traits in the woody plant Prunus mumeNat 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


Sustainability & Environment

Flowering plants are one of nature’s greatest gifts. Brilliant colourful displays decorate wild places and cultivated gardens, created landscapes and are the basis of hugely profitable multinational industries. Why should plants expend considerable energy on this process? The underlying reason is sex.

 lavender field

A lavender field near Provence, France.

Flowering is the process by which higher plants transfer male gametes to female organs thereby uniting two sets of chromosomes and increasing natural diversity. During the formation of male and female gametes, slight changes take place in chromosome structure. Consequently, the resultant next generation differs slightly from its parents. That is the stuff on which natural selection operates.

blossoming flower gif

Originally posted by heartsnmagic

Useful variations increase the survival fitness of some offspring, while individuals with disadvantages wither and die. Charles Darwin recognised the power of natural selection for the environmentally fittest individuals and how that leads eventually to species evolution. Succeeding generations of scientists have discovered details of the processes involved and how these may result in more useful plants for humankind by plant breeding.          

Transferring the male gametes (i.e. pollination) happens by a variety of mechanisms which are suited for the environment in which particular plants grow. At its simplest, pollen which consists of cells containing male gametes is transferred within the same flower. That is suitable for plants growing in for example, alpine environments where few other options exist.

 pollen grains

Pollen grains contain both reproductive and non-reproductive cells.

Cross-transfer of pollen from one flower to another is achieved either by physical means such as wind or water, or by partnerships with animals – particularly insects and especially bees. Wind transfer is suitable for trees such as hazel, birch and willow, which flower ahead of leaf formation in the early spring when it is too cold for insect flight. Biologically, it is a wasteful mechanism because much of the pollen does not reach its target. 

Cross-pollination by insects produces by far the most colourful and exuberant flowers. These have evolved brilliantly colourful displays and intricate mechanisms suitable for either general interaction with insects or as means for partnership. These relationships have co-evolved and converged over numerous generations meeting the needs of both parties.

Sexual reproduction in plants. Video: FuseSchool - Global Education

Plant scientists are presented with intriguing questions in understanding how these relationships could have developed. On the practical side, plant breeders are presented with enormous opportunities for developing massive arrays of new varieties, particularly with ornamentals such as the garden favourites like dahlias, chrysanthemums, lilies and roses. 

Enormous international trade has developed over the last hundred years exploiting increasingly colourful flowering plants.

bee gif

Originally posted by spacefairytales

An estimated 24% of Europe’s bumblebees are threatened with extinction.

Cross-pollination is absolutely vital for many field vegetable crops, especially peas and beans and the top and soft fruits. A reduction in beneficial insect populations now presents dire threats for natural biodiversity, our food supplies and the enjoyment of ornamentals.



Sustainability & Environment

Flowering plants are one of nature’s greatest gifts. Brilliant colourful displays decorate wild places and cultivated gardens, created landscapes and are the basis of hugely profitable multinational industries. Why should plants expend considerable energy on this process? The underlying reason is sex.

 lavender field

A lavender field near Provence, France.

Flowering is the process by which higher plants transfer male gametes to female organs thereby uniting two sets of chromosomes and increasing natural diversity. During the formation of male and female gametes, slight changes take place in chromosome structure. Consequently, the resultant next generation differs slightly from its parents. That is the stuff on which natural selection operates.

blossoming flower gif

Originally posted by heartsnmagic

Useful variations increase the survival fitness of some offspring, while individuals with disadvantages wither and die. Charles Darwin recognised the power of natural selection for the environmentally fittest individuals and how that leads eventually to species evolution. Succeeding generations of scientists have discovered details of the processes involved and how these may result in more useful plants for humankind by plant breeding.          

Transferring the male gametes (i.e. pollination) happens by a variety of mechanisms which are suited for the environment in which particular plants grow. At its simplest, pollen which consists of cells containing male gametes is transferred within the same flower. That is suitable for plants growing in for example, alpine environments where few other options exist.

 pollen grains

Pollen grains contain both reproductive and non-reproductive cells.

Cross-transfer of pollen from one flower to another is achieved either by physical means such as wind or water, or by partnerships with animals – particularly insects and especially bees. Wind transfer is suitable for trees such as hazel, birch and willow, which flower ahead of leaf formation in the early spring when it is too cold for insect flight. Biologically, it is a wasteful mechanism because much of the pollen does not reach its target. 

Cross-pollination by insects produces by far the most colourful and exuberant flowers. These have evolved brilliantly colourful displays and intricate mechanisms suitable for either general interaction with insects or as means for partnership. These relationships have co-evolved and converged over numerous generations meeting the needs of both parties.

Sexual reproduction in plants. Video: FuseSchool - Global Education

Plant scientists are presented with intriguing questions in understanding how these relationships could have developed. On the practical side, plant breeders are presented with enormous opportunities for developing massive arrays of new varieties, particularly with ornamentals such as the garden favourites like dahlias, chrysanthemums, lilies and roses. 

Enormous international trade has developed over the last hundred years exploiting increasingly colourful flowering plants.

bee gif

Originally posted by spacefairytales

An estimated 24% of Europe’s bumblebees are threatened with extinction.

Cross-pollination is absolutely vital for many field vegetable crops, especially peas and beans and the top and soft fruits. A reduction in beneficial insect populations now presents dire threats for natural biodiversity, our food supplies and the enjoyment of ornamentals.



Sustainability & Environment

Flowering plants are one of nature’s greatest gifts. Brilliant colourful displays decorate wild places and cultivated gardens, created landscapes and are the basis of hugely profitable multinational industries. Why should plants expend considerable energy on this process? The underlying reason is sex.

 lavender field

A lavender field near Provence, France.

Flowering is the process by which higher plants transfer male gametes to female organs thereby uniting two sets of chromosomes and increasing natural diversity. During the formation of male and female gametes, slight changes take place in chromosome structure. Consequently, the resultant next generation differs slightly from its parents. That is the stuff on which natural selection operates.

blossoming flower gif

Originally posted by heartsnmagic

Useful variations increase the survival fitness of some offspring, while individuals with disadvantages wither and die. Charles Darwin recognised the power of natural selection for the environmentally fittest individuals and how that leads eventually to species evolution. Succeeding generations of scientists have discovered details of the processes involved and how these may result in more useful plants for humankind by plant breeding.          

Transferring the male gametes (i.e. pollination) happens by a variety of mechanisms which are suited for the environment in which particular plants grow. At its simplest, pollen which consists of cells containing male gametes is transferred within the same flower. That is suitable for plants growing in for example, alpine environments where few other options exist.

 pollen grains

Pollen grains contain both reproductive and non-reproductive cells.

Cross-transfer of pollen from one flower to another is achieved either by physical means such as wind or water, or by partnerships with animals – particularly insects and especially bees. Wind transfer is suitable for trees such as hazel, birch and willow, which flower ahead of leaf formation in the early spring when it is too cold for insect flight. Biologically, it is a wasteful mechanism because much of the pollen does not reach its target. 

Cross-pollination by insects produces by far the most colourful and exuberant flowers. These have evolved brilliantly colourful displays and intricate mechanisms suitable for either general interaction with insects or as means for partnership. These relationships have co-evolved and converged over numerous generations meeting the needs of both parties.

Sexual reproduction in plants. Video: FuseSchool - Global Education

Plant scientists are presented with intriguing questions in understanding how these relationships could have developed. On the practical side, plant breeders are presented with enormous opportunities for developing massive arrays of new varieties, particularly with ornamentals such as the garden favourites like dahlias, chrysanthemums, lilies and roses. 

Enormous international trade has developed over the last hundred years exploiting increasingly colourful flowering plants.

bee gif

Originally posted by spacefairytales

An estimated 24% of Europe’s bumblebees are threatened with extinction.

Cross-pollination is absolutely vital for many field vegetable crops, especially peas and beans and the top and soft fruits. A reduction in beneficial insect populations now presents dire threats for natural biodiversity, our food supplies and the enjoyment of ornamentals.



Careers

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.

 Juan Carlos De la Concepcion

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.

Originally posted by thingsfromthedirt

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. 

 rice plant

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.

Sustainability & Environment

Plant breeders are increasingly using techniques to produce new varieties they say are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods. New genome editing technologies can introduce new traits more quickly and precisely.

However, in July, 2018, the European Court of Justice decreed they alter the genetic material of an organism in a way that does not occur naturally, so they should fall under the GMO Directive. This went against the opinion of the Advocate General.

In October 2018, leading scientists representing 85 European research institutions endorsed a position paper warning that the ruling could lead to a de facto ban of innovative crop breeding. 

crops gif

Originally posted by sunbursts-and-marblehalls

The paper argues for an urgent review of European legislation, and, in the short term, for crops with small DNA adaptations obtained through genome editing to fall under the regulations for classically bred varieties.

‘As European leaders in the field of plant sciences […] we are hindered by an outdated regulatory framework that is not in line with recent scientific evidence,’ says one of the signatories, Dirk Inzé, Scientific Director at Life Sciences Institute VIB in Belgium.

 

Sustainability & Environment

We begin our new series breaking down key innovations in agriculture with the Haber-Bosch process, which enabled large-scale agriculture worldwide. 

Nitrogen is essential to plant growth, but its natural production, through the decay of organic matter, cannot replenish nitrogen in soils quickly enough to keep up with the demands of agriculture. 

Ammonia – a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen – is therefore a key ingredient in fertilisers, allowing farmers to replenish the soil with nitrogen at will. As well as fertilisers, ammonia is used in pharmaceuticals, plastics, refrigerants, explosives, and in numerous industrial processes. 

But how is it made? At the turn of the 20th Century, ammonia was mostly mined from deposits of niter (also known as saltpetre – the mineral form of potassium nitrate), but the known reserves would not satisfy predicted demands. Researchers had to find alternative sources. 

 Fritz Haber left and Carl Bosch right

Fritz Haber (left) and Carl Bosch (right) created and commercialised the process.

Atmospheric nitrogen, which makes up almost 80% of air, was the obvious feedstock – its supply, to all intents and purposes, being infinite. But reacting atmospheric nitrogen, which is exceptionally stable owing to its strong triple bonds, posed a challenge for chemists globally.

In 1905, German chemist Fritz Haber cracked the riddle of fixing nitrogen from air. Using high pressure and an iron catalyst, Haber was able to directly react nitrogen and hydrogen gas to create liquid ammonia. 

His process was soon scaled up by BASF chemist and engineer Carl Bosch, becoming known as the Haber-Bosch process, and this would lead to the mass production of agricultural fertilisers and a phenomenal increase in the growth of crops for human consumption.

The Haber-Bosch process is conducted at a high pressure of 200 atmospheres and reaction temperatures of 450°C. It also requires a large feedstock of natural gas, and there is a global research and development effort to replace the process with a more sustainable alternative – just as the Haber-Bosch process replaced niter mining over a century ago. 


Sustainability & Environment

We begin our new series breaking down key innovations in agriculture with the Haber-Bosch process, which enabled large-scale agriculture worldwide. 

Nitrogen is essential to plant growth, but its natural production, through the decay of organic matter, cannot replenish nitrogen in soils quickly enough to keep up with the demands of agriculture. 

Ammonia – a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen – is therefore a key ingredient in fertilisers, allowing farmers to replenish the soil with nitrogen at will. As well as fertilisers, ammonia is used in pharmaceuticals, plastics, refrigerants, explosives, and in numerous industrial processes. 

But how is it made? At the turn of the 20th Century, ammonia was mostly mined from deposits of niter (also known as saltpetre – the mineral form of potassium nitrate), but the known reserves would not satisfy predicted demands. Researchers had to find alternative sources. 

 Fritz Haber left and Carl Bosch right

Fritz Haber (left) and Carl Bosch (right) created and commercialised the process.

Atmospheric nitrogen, which makes up almost 80% of air, was the obvious feedstock – its supply, to all intents and purposes, being infinite. But reacting atmospheric nitrogen, which is exceptionally stable owing to its strong triple bonds, posed a challenge for chemists globally.

In 1905, German chemist Fritz Haber cracked the riddle of fixing nitrogen from air. Using high pressure and an iron catalyst, Haber was able to directly react nitrogen and hydrogen gas to create liquid ammonia. 

His process was soon scaled up by BASF chemist and engineer Carl Bosch, becoming known as the Haber-Bosch process, and this would lead to the mass production of agricultural fertilisers and a phenomenal increase in the growth of crops for human consumption.

The Haber-Bosch process is conducted at a high pressure of 200 atmospheres and reaction temperatures of 450°C. It also requires a large feedstock of natural gas, and there is a global research and development effort to replace the process with a more sustainable alternative – just as the Haber-Bosch process replaced niter mining over a century ago. 


Agrifood

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.

 irrigation system

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%.

image

Originally posted by magical-girl-stims

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.’

 fertiliser2

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.’

Sustainability & Environment

English wine is on the rise. In 50 years, production has increased by more than three orders of magnitude, from a negligible 1,500 bottles/year to a respectable 5.3 million.  

Meanwhile, on the other side of the English Channel, grapes are harvested around two weeks before the traditional dates. In the Champagne region, harvest kicked off on 26 August 2017, while the average date for previous years was 10 September. In Burgoyne, home of Beaujolais wines, harvest began on 23 August, also two weeks ahead of schedule. Harvest workers in that area are also doing night shifts to reduce heat stress for the sensitive grapes.

 French vineyards

French vineyards are struggling with the changes to traditional harvests. Image: Max Pixel

Both phenomena – the success of English wine and the earlier harvests in France – are linked to climate change. In a few decades, the favourable wine-growing conditions historically enjoyed by the Champagne region may have migrated to England.

As the life cycle of the grapevine – and therefore quality and quantity of the wine obtained – is extremely sensitive to temperature and weather extremes, wine growers have already been noticing the effects of climate change for years. Researchers have detailed how conditions have changed, how they are likely to change further, and what vineyards can do to adapt.


High-value product

All agricultural products are likely to be affected by climate change at some point, but wine occupies a special position due to its high value. Therefore, wine growers have always watched the weather and its effects on their vineyards very closely, and recorded their observations.

cheese and wine gif

Originally posted by butteryplanet

Climate scientist Benjamin Cook from Columbia University at New York and ecologist Elizabeth Wolkovich from Harvard University, have analysed harvest data spanning more than 400 years, from 1600 to 2007, from European regions, together with the weather data.

While many studies have covered the last few decades, this one reaches back to the time before the Industrial Revolution.

Higher temperatures in spring and summer generally speed the whole process and lead to earlier harvests, like the one in 2017, while cool and rainy summers can delay the phrenology and thus the harvest time. Traditionally, the observation was that a warm summer and a period of drought just before grape picking is the best recipe for an early harvest.

 Grape picking

Grape picking is easiest after a warm summer. Image: Pixabay

‘Our research, and other work, has clearly and unequivocally demonstrated that climate change is already affecting viticulture worldwide,’ explains Cook, adding that: ‘There are lots of opportunities for adaptation in various locations, such as planting different varieties, but the most important thing is for people to starting planning for the next several decades, when conditions are likely to get even warmer still.’


Adapt or move?

So, what could be changed? Short of pulling up Pinot Noir vines in Champagne and replanting them in Dorset, there are some steps wine-makers can take to ensure a good harvest.

The Chemistry of Wine. Video: Reactions

For instance, growers could add a few days to the ripening cycle by delaying the spring pruning, or by allowing the vines to grow higher above the ground, where the air is slightly cooler than just above the soil. While these changes are benign, other measures, such as reducing the leaf area, may have complex consequences that could interfere with the quality of the wine.

In selecting the plant material, growers could reverse the trends of the 20th Century, when it made sense to select rapidly ripening varieties. Simply by adapting the choice of variety from among the range of varieties already used in a given region to the changing climate, growers can to some extent mitigate the anticipated effects.

cheers gif

Originally posted by wildsouls-thirstyhearts

Alternatively, wine production could migrate closer to the poles. Wines now coming from California may be produced in Washington State, and the premium fizz we now call Champagne may one day be known as Devon or Kent.