Wednesday, July 10, 2013

New website, new news blog

The  Department of Plant Sciences has launched it's new website in the University of Cambridge house style:

This comes with it's own news repository so we won't be posting any more items on this blog.  However, we will keep this up as an archive of old news.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Defra Careers in Science talk

On 20th June, Dr Robert Bradburne, Head of Science in the Sustainable Land Management and Livestock Farming team at Defra, visited the department.  He gave a talk and led a discussion with graduate students about working as a scientist in government, and about the role of science in policy making.

This visit followed a twelve-week placement by PhD student Robin Thompson (from the Theoretical and Computational Epidemiology group) at Defra, working as part of the UK-China Sustainable Agriculture Innovation Network (SAIN) team.  Robin spent the first six weeks of the placement writing six papers that were tabled at the recent SAIN Governing Board meeting in Beijing, covering a range of issues including future challenges to sustainable agriculture in the UK and the role of agriculture in social and economic development.  The papers were used as a basis for discussion about ongoing UK-China collaboration in sustainable agriculture.  Robin spent the second six weeks of the placement putting the decisions made at the Beijing meeting into practice, and learning more about the interface between science and policy by, for example, spending a day shadowing Chief Scientific Advisor at Defra, Ian Boyd.

The talk on 20th June was an excellent introduction to working at a scientist in government, and was inspirational for graduate students interested in such a career.  Robin’s twelve-week placement was undertaken as part of the BBSRC Professional Internships for PhD Students (PIPS) scheme.
Talking to students

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

David Coomes promoted to Reader

David Baulcombe is pleased to announce that David Coomes has been promoted to Reader. Congratulations to David for this well deserved recognition of his excellent contributions in research, teaching and generally to the University.

David Coomes research.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Fractal patterns in colonies of E.coli

Tim Rudge and Fernan Federici have been noticed by Scientific American for their images of bacterial growth patterns. Their paper was recently published in ACS Synthetic Biology, showing how complex fractal patterns in colonies of E. coli emerge simply from the physical interactions of rod shaped cells.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ash dieback, caused by the Chalara fungus, prompts re-evaluation of current protocols to protect UK trees and other plants

Taskforce recommends threats to plant health be taken as seriously as animal disease

Prof. Chris Gilligan
As the fungus responsible for ash dieback continues to devastate ash tree populations throughout the UK and other threats to the countryside continue to emerge, experts convened by Defra are advocating for stronger measures to protect the UK’s trees and plants.
The independent Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce, chaired by Professor Chris Gilligan, was established late last year to address the current and emerging threats to the UK’s trees and plants. Working with an advisory group made up of various stakeholder organisations, to include industry, Defra, and the Forestry Commission as well as Border Force, the taskforce is proposing a number of initiatives aimed at minimising the risk of plant pests and diseases.
Professor Chris Gilligan, chair of the taskforce and Professor of Mathematical Biology and Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Cambridge, said: “The UK needs to be better prepared for threats to plant health. In the last few years alone, several previously unknown pests and pathogens have emerged, posing significant risks to the UK’s crops as well as trees in woodlands, commercial forests and in urban environments.
“By increasing our understanding of what pests and diseases are the biggest threats and how best to mitigate their impact, we can minimise potentially devastating outbreaks.”
The task force scientists believe that the threats have increased because of globalisation in trade and travel and the subsequent escalation in volume and diversity of plants and plant products entering the UK, all of which potentially harbour plant pests and pathogens. Once established, pests and pathogens can wreak havoc on biodiversity, timber and crop production, the landscape and, in certain circumstances, human health. (In addition to Chalara, recent examples include horse chestnut leaf mining moth, oak processionary moth, bleeding canker of horse chestnut and Dothistroma needle blight on pines.)
Although the remit was to focus on trees and related woody species, the taskforce noted that many of the principles addressed in recommendations for tree health are applicable to pests and diseases that affect other plants (including agricultural, horticultural and biomass crops, indigenous vegetation and ornamental plants).

Taskforce recommendations

Currently, there are numerous risk assessments for individual pests and pathogens at both the national and European level. The taskforce recommends a single national Risk Register for plant health. This new UK Plant Health Risk Register would serve to identify and prioritise pests and pathogens that pose a threat to the UK and to identify what actions must be taken should the threat materialise. 
The taskforce is also advocating an individual at a senior level who is responsible for overseeing the UK Plant Health Risk Register and providing leadership for managing those risks. The Chief Plant Health Officer would work in a similar fashion as the Chief Veterinary Officer, who oversees animal-related emergencies.
The appointee would also be responsible for developing and implementing procedures for preparedness and contingency planning to predict, monitor and control the spread of pests and pathogens. There was also a recommendation that current governance and legislation needed to be reviewed, simplified and strengthened.
Because of globalisation, more and more people and goods are travelling greater distances at an increasingly greater rate. As a result, there is a significant increase in the risk of introducing non-native pests and pathogens. In order to minimise the risks of introduction at the border, the taskforce has made several recommendations regarding the import of trees and other plants. They propose that no plant material for personal use be imported from outside the EU.
The import of live plants, foliage, branches and other plant parts has seen a 71 per cent increase since 1999, dramatically increasing the risk a pathogen or pest might be introduced.  Therefore they also propose the Plant Passport scheme, which currently only applies to some plants associated with pests and pathogens, be strengthened and also applied to seeds as a means of ensuring traceability (showing all ports of calls within the EU and last port before entry to the EU).

Additional recommendations include improving the use of epidemiological intelligence from EU/other regions and work to improve the EU regulations concerned with tree health and plant biosecurity, developing a modern, user-friendly, system to provide quick and intelligent access to information about tree health and plant biosecurity, and addressing key skills shortages.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

New lecturer appointed

Dr Andrew Tanentzap has been appointed to a Lectureship in the Department and will take up his new post in October. Andrew is currently a Banting Fellow at York University in Canada and also conducts research for Landcare Research in New Zealand. He studied for his PhD at Cambridge, supervised by Dr David Coomes.

To Paris in 24 hours

On Saturday afternoon, twelve cyclists (including James Cox from Epidemiology) arrived at the Eiffel Tower in Paris just over 24 hours after leaving Trafalgar Square in London using only bikes and the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe.  They didn't quite meet their  target (~30 mins over) but still consider it a challenge that was successful enough to raise money for Access Sport ( whose mission is to give more children, particularly in disadvantaged areas, access to a wide range of quality local sport. If you would like to sponsor them then you can do so here:

Friday, March 8, 2013

Bioscience boost to battle ash dieback

New computer models will help to monitor and predict the course of the disease

A bioscience response to ash dieback, a devastating disease caused by a fungal pathogen (Chalara fraxinea), that threatens our third most common broadleaf tree (after oak and birch), has been launched by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). University of Cambridge researchers, who have already been working closely with the government on the issue, will be an integral part of the initiative.

£2.4M of fast-track research funding has been awarded to gather an in-depth understanding of the ash dieback fungus and to provide genetic clues about some ash trees’ natural resistance to attack. Computer models will also be built to develop monitoring plans for the distribution and spread of the fungus, as well as charting how the disease might progress. This knowledge will help to fight the fungus and replace lost trees with those more able to survive.

Professor Christopher Gilligan with Drs Nik Cunniffe and Matt Castle at the University of Cambridge and Dr Frank van den Bosch at Rothamsted Research, have been awarded £1M in funding to develop and test mathematical, computer-based models to predict the spread of ash dieback in the UK, to improve strategies for surveillance and monitoring of the disease, and to inform ways to stop or delay the spread.

Professor Chris Gilligan, Head of the Epidemiology and Modelling group welcomed the award, saying: “This timely award will enable us to solve some of the fundamental epidemiological questions that underpin the ability of the UK to respond quickly and effectively to pest and disease incursions. The project is also designed to provide practical advice about the spread, where to sample, and the potential for management of ash dieback to policy makers and stakeholders throughout the course of the project.”

The ability to predict the future spread of an epidemic is crucial for designing both efficient sampling strategies and effective management plans. The use of models, informed by the most up-to-date data, allows different potential surveillance and management strategies to be explored in advance so the most effective ones can be identified and put into practice.

Specifically, using computational models for the spread of a pathogen provides a way to integrate information from the different strands of research (such as what environmental conditions are suitable for infection and how much of the ash tree population is resistant). This framework will allow management questions, such as “given the uncertainties involved, what control strategies would be effective?”, to be explored prior to the implementation of any given management program.

Dr Castle said: “This is an exciting opportunity for us; the award will allow us to build upon our existing modelling capabilities and explore even more sophisticated techniques for investigating the dynamics and future spread of ash dieback. This in turn will place us in an even stronger position to provide practical management advice.”

Dr Cunniffe said: "This award will allow us to develop epidemiological techniques and models applicable not only to ash dieback, but also to threats to our trees that we may face in the future."

The models will build on preliminary work by the Cambridge group to model the initial incursion of ash dieback and other diseases. Models of the patterns, causes, and effects of the disease will link with geographical information systems to predict the spread of disease across the UK landscapes.

The research will help inform where the disease is most likely to occur, where it will spread most rapidly and cause most damage, and where and when mitigation strategies should be most effectively used to slow or halt the spread. It will also help to answer key questions about monitoring the disease, such as: how to detect the disease in new areas early enough to control it; where to sample to find new outbreaks efficiently; and how we know if the disease is absent from an area.

The project will also look at how diseases might spread due to industries and trades involving trees and through atmospheric dispersal.

In addition to Cambridge, funding has been awarded to the Nornex consortium that brings together tree health and forestry specialists with scientists working with state-of-the-art genetic sequencing, biological data and imaging technologies to investigate the molecular and cellular basis of interactions between the fungus and ash trees.

Genome sequences of up to 30 samples of the fungus from the UK and Europe will rapidly help to acquire in-depth genetic information to shed light on the infection process. These data will reveal clues to the origins of the disease and provide genetic ‘markers’ to allow the spread of different strains of the fungus to be followed. Genetic data will also provide direct insights into the nature of the fungus.

The consortium will obtain information about how the disease spreads by studying infection in climate-controlled growth facilities, tracking the fungus as it colonises the plant. This vital information will help to develop effective disease control strategies.

The project will also uncover how some ash trees can partially resist attack. About 2% of Danish trees appear to ward off the disease but little information on the genetic basis for this is known. Genetic data from these trees will be compared to susceptible trees to find variations in their genetic codes. By identifying these differences, genetic makers can be developed to help breeders produce more resistant trees.

BBSRC Chief Executive Professor Douglas Kell said: “This agile funding response will ensure we improve our understanding of this devastating tree disease as quickly as possible. Little is known about the fungus, why it is so aggressive, or its interactions with the trees that it attacks. This prevents effective control strategies. These grants will enable the UK’s world-leading bioscience community to speed up the response to tackling the disease directly. It will also help us to understand and harness the ways in which some ash trees can defend themselves naturally.”

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Future-proofing sugar production - CambPlants leads discussions with global AB Sugar Management

As part of their annual global operations conference, AB Sugar invited members of the CambPlants Initiative to an afternoon of talks, posters and discussions surrounding how the company could respond to challenges and opportunities posed by global developments.

Dr Bhaskar Vira (Geography) gave an overview of the Strategic Initiative in Global Food Security and issues around political economy, such as land- and resource-grabbing; Prof Howard Griffiths (Plant Sciences) talked about water stress, carbon concentrating mechanisms and genetic innovation in crop plants, and Prof Paul Dupree (Biochemistry) highlighted opportunities for production of energy and chemicals from sugar and lignocellulosic by-products.

The talks were followed by a lively panel discussion and then a poster-pitch session. Dr Matthew Castle (Plant Sciences) introduced modelling of disease spread and mitigation options, Dr Matthew Davey (Plant Sciences) explained bioremediation and generation of value-from-waste using algae, Dr Paolo Bombelli (Biochemistry) and Ross Dennis (Plant Sciences) showcased the power of biophotovoltaics with the moss clock, and Dr Sue Barnard (Zoology and Tropical Biology Association) highlighted benefits of biodiversity conservation.

Throughout the afternoon, delegates captured ideas of how the new information could be incorporated into forward planning of the business, and follow-up conversations will take place with AB Sugar's innovation department.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

2013 Portrait unveiling

Two new portraits are officially unveiled in the Department Tea Room. Professor Enid MacRobbie and Professor John Gray join the wall of previous Heads of Departments.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Director news

An announcment from David Baulcombe:

I am pleased to announce that Beverley Glover will be the next Director of the Botanic Garden. She will take up her post in July 2013. This is excellent news for her, for the Garden and for Plant Sciences generally.
Beverley's current research.
Botanic Garden news announcment

Another happy development in the Botanic Garden is the news that Ottoline Leyser will be the next Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory. Best wishes to her also as she takes on this exciting challenge.
Ottoline's current research.