Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Extraordinary transgressive phenotypes of hybrid tomato are influenced by epigenetics and small silencing RNAs

New research from Dr Shivaprasad in the Baulcombe group explains why hybrid plants are sometimes much more vigorous or much weaker than the parents. Their findings that have been published recently in the EMBO Journal (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/emboj.2011.458) will influence thinking about evolutionary mechanisms and the use of hybrid plants in agriculture.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Scientists discover why buttercups reflect yellow on chins – and it doesn’t have anything to do with whether you like butter

New research sheds light on children's game and provides insight into pollination

Scientists have found that the distinctive glossiness of the buttercup flower (Ranunculus repens), which children like to shine under the chin to test whether their friends like butter, is related to its unique anatomical structure. Their findings were published today, 14 December, in the Royal Society journal Interface.

The researchers discovered that the buttercup petal's unique bright and glossy appearance is the result of the interplay between its different layers. In particular, the strong yellow reflection responsible for the chin illumination is mainly due to the epidermal layer of the petal that reflects yellow light with an intensity that is comparable to glass.

Scientists have been interested in how the buttercup flower works for over a century. They have previously shown that the reflected colour is yellow due to the absorption of the colours in the blue-green region of the spectrum by the carotenoid pigment in the petals. As the blue-green light is absorbed, the light in the other spectral regions (in this case, primarily yellow) is reflected. It has also been known for many years that the epidermal layer of the petals is composed of very flat cells, providing strong reflection.

This new study shows how the buttercup's exceptionally bright appearance is a result of a special feature of the petal structure. The epidermal layer of cells has not one but two extremely flat surfaces from which light is reflected. One is the top of the cells, the other exists because the epidermis is separated from the lower layers of the petal by an air gap. Reflection of light by the smooth surface of the cells and by the air layer effectively doubles the gloss of the petal, explaining why buttercups are so much better at reflecting light under your chin than any other flower.

The researchers also found that the buttercup reflects a significant amount of UV light. As many pollinators, including bees, have eyes sensitive in the UV region, this provides insight into how the buttercup uses its unique appearance to attract insects.

Dr Silvia Vignolini, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physics (Cavendish Laboratory), explained the importance of the buttercup’s unique appearance: "Although many different factors, such as scent and temperature, influence the relationships between pollinators and flowers, the visual appearance of flowers is one of the most important factors in this communication. Flowers develop brilliant colour, or additional cues, such as glossiness - in the case of the buttercup - that contribute to make the optical response of the flower unique. Moreover, the glossiness might also mimic the presence of nectar droplets on the petals, making them that much more attractive."

Dr Beverley Glover, Department of Plant Sciences, said: "This phenomenon has intrigued scientists and laymen alike for centuries. Our research provides exciting insight into not only a children’s game but also into the lengths to which flowers will go to attract pollinators."

Professor Ulli Steiner, from the Nanophotonics Centre at the Cavendish Laboratory, the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physics, said: "It is fun to revisit a problem that is more than one century old and, using modern methods, discover something new. The strong collaboration between Physics and the Plant Sciences has enabled this."

The paper ‘Directional scattering from the glossy flower of Ranunculus: how the buttercup lights up your chin’ will be published in the 14 December edition of the Royal Society journal Interface.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Study highlights how litterfall could lead to a release of stored carbon from the soil

A new study shows that as climate change enhances tree growth in tropical forests, the resulting increase in litterfall could stimulate soil micro-organisms, leading to a release of stored soil carbon.

Read more.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Food Security in Research Horizons magazine

The challenge of global food security features in much of the research and teaching in the Department of Plant Sciences. A recent issue of "Research Horizons" features three projects from the Department and one from the Sainsbury Laboratory - read online here.

There are also other articles addressing the broader context of the food security challenge that illustrate how Cambridge University can provide multidisciplinary solutions to this complex problem.

You can ask experts including Department members about food security in an online dialogue here: Your chance to ask the experts

Monday, July 4, 2011

How flowers use a touch of bling to woo the bees

Beetles use it, birds use it. Plants use it too. Iridescence is the shimmery colour effect that makes things eye-catching. Tilt a CD in your hands and you will see it change through all the colours of the rainbow. CDs are clear plastic: they appear brightly coloured because the tiny data grooves on their surface reflect different wavelengths of light at different angles. This type of colour is called structural colour to distinguish it from pigment colour, colour created by chemicals that absorb light.

At Science Live, the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London this week (5-10 July), a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge will present some of the latest research into structural colours in flowers. This phenomenon was only identified in 2009 when hibiscus flowers were shown to use the same trick as CDs. Plant scientists have collaborated with physicists to create a series of interactive displays. How nature dresses to impress explores the science of colour in plants, and shows in particular how some flowers use structural colour to give them the edge in attracting pollinators.

Plants use animals, such as bees, to carry pollen from one flower to another so that fertilisation can take place. To attract pollinators, flowers offer a reward such as sugary nectar. The bright colours of flowers act as adverts, making them visible against a green background. Structural colour can be very intense, and makes flowers even more vivid and irresistible to pollinators. Visitors to Science Live will be able to watch a colony of live bumble bees explore different objects, and observe how they select between varying colour effects.

It used to be thought that plants with structural colours were exotic rarities. But some of our best-known garden flowers, such as tulips, are now known to have them. They use nanostructures – surface grooves or layers of different materials - that cause interference and allow some colours of light to be reflected while others pass through the flower. Only some of the colours produced by these nanostructures are visible to the human eye, which explains why scientists have only just begun to investigate them: until quite recently they were simply not known to exist.

Presenting their research to the public in the highly interactive environment of Science Live will be plant scientists from the University of Cambridge led by Dr Beverley Glover, who heads the Evolution and Development lab in the Department of Plant Sciences. She and her team have worked with Professors Ulli Steiner and Jeremy Baumberg from the Nanophotonics Centre at the Cavendish Laboratory to illustrate the interaction between flower colours and the physics of light. "We're really keen to show the public, and school students in particular, how biology and physics interact and how exciting it is to explore the ways that plants and animals play tricks with the light." The exhibit also includes collaborative work from Professor Pete Vukusic from the University of Exeter and Dr Lucas Joppa from Microsoft Research Cambridge.

Visitors to Science Live will be able to test their skills in a specially-devised "Nanoblocks" game which will allow them to design their own nanostructure and see what colours it would produce to the human eye and to a bee’s eye. Every hour, one of the Cambridge University scientists taking part in the exhibition will perform an "interference dance" with bubbles – devised to show how interactions between different wavelengths of light can result in spectacular colours. Beverley says "We hope that people will find this a fun way of learning about the physics of colour - I certainly enjoy watching my physicist colleagues dancing!".

How nature dresses to impress is one of 22 displays at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London, open to the public 5-10 July, no charge. For full details go to http://royalsociety.org/summer-science/2011/

How nature dresses to impress has its own website at http://www.colours.phy.cam.ac.uk/

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Board of the Natural History Museum

The Prime Minister has appointed Professor Christopher Gilligan to the Board of the Natural History Museum for a period of four years from 18 May.

Professor Christopher Gilligan
Professor Gilligan is a Mathematical Biologist and Head of the School of Biological Sciences at University of Cambridge. He has a range of senior experience at national and international levels including as an ad hoc advisor to UK Government Departments and to International Government Organisations.

The Museum was looking for for a person with broad expertise in natural sciences.

The Natural History Museum is a scientific research institution and a major cultural attraction that welcomes nearly 5 million visitors a year, at the heart of which is the national collection of 70 million specimens from the natural world and 6 million rare books and manuscripts. These collections are of international significance and are regarded as an important part of the UK’s science infrastructure. The Natural History Museum comprises the main site at South Kensington, a small museum based on Walter Rothschild’s former home at Tring and a storage centre at Wandsworth.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Alex Webb promoted to Reader

Dr Alex Webb has been promoted to Reader in Cell Signalling as from the start of the next academic year.

This is a very well deserved promotion for one of the young(ish) stars of the department and I am sure that, like me, you will want to offer your best congratulations.

David Baulcombe

Friday, April 1, 2011

Independent and Parallel Recruitment of Preexisting Mechanisms Underlying C4 Photosynthesis

Work conducted by Naomi Brown and others in Julian Hibberd's lab (including two former Part II students) is published in Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1201248). Naomi provided the first evidence that multiple genes important in the C4 pathway share a common regulatory mechanism. The work also shows that genes in phylogenetically distant C3 plants are primed to be recruited into the C4 pathway, and so offers major insight into the origins of the C4 pathway. When Naomi returns from maternity leave she will investigate the importance of these new findings on a recently funded grant by the BBSRC.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Possible loss of website

There is a possibility of the Plant Sciences website (http://www.plantsci.cam.ac.uk/) going down this weekend as power on the Downing Site is interrupted

Beverley Glover awarded the William Bate Hardy Prize

The Council of the Cambridge Philosophical Society unanimously agreed with its nominating committee that Dr Beverley Glover, jointly with Dr Peter Forster, should be awarded the William Bate Hardy Prize for 2010.

The Prize is founded in memory of Sir William Bate Hardy (1864-1934) who was a Fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. It is awarded once in three years “for the best original memoir, investigation or discovery by a member of the University of Cambridge in connection with Biological Science that may have been published during the three years immediately preceding”.

Since the awards began in 1965, five of the twenty-two previous prize winners have gone on to win Nobel Prizes in either chemistry or physiology and medicine.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cambridge Scientists win major component of $4 Million joint funding initiative

Cambridge Scientists win major component of $4 Million joint funding initiative funded jointly by BBSRC (UK) and NSF (US)

Plants really matter, and for the next generation, plant and microbial productivity will become the focus of key global issues: the basis for feeding an additional 2-3 billion mouths, to drive forward an economy currently trading on past sunlight, and maintain biodiversity in the face of climate change. The enzymatic powerhouse at the heart of these processes takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and uses light energy to produce sugars and other building blocks of life. This enzyme, called Rubisco, is rather flawed and somewhat promiscuous: it engages with oxygen as well as carbon dioxide, to the detriment of potential plant productivity. Some plants have evolved mechanisms, which act like biological turbochargers, to concentrate CO2 around Rubisco and improve the enzyme’s operating efficiency. These carbon concentrating mechanisms have evolved in certain key crops, such as sugar cane and maize. Other plants, such as aquatic algae, have developed mechanism in parallel which actively concentrate bicarbonate as a source of CO2 for Rubisco.

An $8 million collaborative funding opportunity was recently offered by the UK BBSRC and the US NSF, with the challenge of surpassing these known pathways of carbon fixation, and maximising plant yield for the future. Selected scientists were pitched together to develop international consortia to develop novel ideas, prompted and guided by a scientific mentors and administrators. Four proposals were invited to be taken forward for development and funding, two of which involve scientists in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge. The Ideas Lab experience was likened by Prof Griffiths to be a combination of Big Brother, The Weakest Link and The Apprentice! Prof. Griffiths is the consortium leader for one of the joint proposals funded, which will be exploring the operation of an algal carbon concentrating mechanism, and the possibility for introducing components into higher plant cells. Dr Julian Hibberd is part of another consortium also supported by the BBSRC/NSF initiative, seeking to increase the efficiency of light harvesting by broadening the wavelengths of light, as used by bacteria, to power biophysical transport processes in higher plants.

This research support will consolidate a major Plant Sciences initiative at Cambridge, which is exploring the means to improve photosynthesis from the perspective of sustainable plant productivity and crop yields for the future. Additional work is also being undertaken by Dr Hibberd, investigating the potential introduction of C4 photosynthetic traits into crops such as rice. This programme is part of a broader sweep of strategic research relevant to sustainable crop development, involving RNAi, pathogen suppression and epidemiological controls to maintain yields in a changing climate.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Peter Barham, 1926-2011

I am sorry to announce the recent death of Peter Barham on Sunday 23 January 2011. Peter started work at 14 years of age in the then Botany School in 1941 in the Plant Physiology section. After a period of National Service Peter graduated to Senior Technician. In 1965 together with Tom ap Rees Peter was instrumental in organizing the first Biology of Cells practicals which were held in the Elementary Lab (Teaching Lab) before being transferred to Zoology. In his time in Plant Physiology Peter trained many technicians, three of whom have remained in the department for the last forty years.

In 1971 Peter was promoted to Chief Technician, a post he held until his retirement in 1989. Peter’s funeral will be held at the Cambridge Crematorium West Chapel at 11-15AM on Friday 4th February 2011.

Glyn Jones

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Seeding growth: plant sciences

An article from Research Horizons Magazine:

The study of plants is blossoming in Cambridge, with new facilities, new research and soon a major new institute.

Increasingly, plants are recognised as being at the heart of sustainable solutions to many global concerns, whether it’s the need to secure food supplies, develop biofuels or tackle environmental issues. ‘Plant-related research is now much more prominent as a result of this new awareness,’ said Professor Sir David Baulcombe, Head of the Department of Plant Sciences and first incumbent of the newly created Regius Professorship of Botany. ‘We want to be in a position in Cambridge to step up to the mark and generate the understanding and applications needed to meet these challenges.’

Read more online