Bloom by Ruth Kassinger

Bloom frontThe first things I think of when I hear the word “algae” are the microscopic green cells that were the ancestors of land plants. Reading Bloom by Ruth Kassinger was a powerful reminder that algae are so much more than this. The term “algae” actually describes a diverse collection of lifeforms ranging from single-celled diatoms to kelp and other seaweeds*. In the book, the author explores the origins of algae, their modern uses in food and other products, and the emerging algae-based technologies that may help us save the planet in future.

Kassinger strikes a good balance between scientific detail and storytelling so that the text is approachable and not too technical. I especially enjoyed how the text mixes descriptive passages with accounts of the author’s meetings with algae growers, scientists and entrepreneurs. The book is perhaps a bit long winded in places but I don’t think this detracts from the author’s message. I am looking forward to seeing how the technologies and products highlighted in the book develop in the future.

Bloom by Ruth Kassinger
Elliott & Thompson, ISBN: 9781783964413, hardback Jul 2019

(Published in the US under the title Slime by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June 2019)

*It is worth noting that there is no generally accepted definition of algae. Traditionally a group of bacteria known as cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) were also considered to be algae, but today many scientists reserve the term “algae” for the non-bacterial species. In Bloom, Kassinger uses the older definition and there is a section on the rise of cyanobacteria.

Toddler-led plant science

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Image credit: S. Shailes (CC BY 4.0)

Doesn’t time fly? My little baby is now a walking and talking toddler with a love of books and trains (and anything else on wheels!). Since my last post I have been busy trying to keep up with his ever-changing needs, alongside returning to part-time work and my volunteer role in Girlguiding.

I decided to leave my old job at the end of my maternity leave. I loved working for eLife, but the almost two-hour commute each way to the office no longer seemed compatible with my family life. I now do science writing and editing work on a freelance basis. This suits me really well at the moment as I can work when I like (or should I say when Sprog allows me to!).

I consider myself very fortunate to be able to spend most of my time at home looking after my son. We play games, read books (often the same ones “on repeat”), go for walks, meet friends at toddler groups or in parks, and do all sorts of silly things you don’t usually get to do as an adult (such as running around the dining table or rolling balls down a section of old drainpipe). We also do many jobs around the house together including cooking, gardening and laundry. These jobs take twice as long with my little helper and don’t always go to plan, but that’s all part of the fun, right?

I have to remind myself of these good times when one or more of us are unwell, very tired, or we are just having one of those days where even basic tasks (like getting dressed and out of the house) seem like insurmountable goals.

One of the most rewarding things about spending so much time with my son and other little people is observing how toddlers explore the world around them, often finding great joy from seemingly simple things. We have herbs growing in our garden and a few months ago I offered Sprog some herb leaves to sniff. He was captivated by the scents coming off the leaves and was keen to sniff the leaves of other plants. Weeks later, while preparing dinner in the kitchen, he picked up some basil we had just washed and sniffed it without any prompting from me.

As my son explores, he accidentally points out things that bring interesting scientific questions to my mind: how do plants produce fragrances? How do strawberries and other fruits change colour as they ripen? Why are there ants and aphids on the same branch of the apple tree? I’m going to try to harness his natural curiosity to help me write some new blog posts. Lead the way, son.

Guest post: Garlic mustard across the pond

 

By Mercedes Harris

Spring has finally sprung, and forests are coming to life again. Green leaves are starting to emerge along with the first colorful flowers of the season. But not all green is good. Odds are that much of the green you’re seeing this spring comes from non-native plants, especially in residential communities. At first glance, these “pretty” invaders may not appear destructive, but take a closer look and a different picture emerges.

Invasive species are non-native organisms whose introduction causes environmental or economic harm. An invasive herbaceous plant native to Europe and Asia called garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) spreads across North American forests causing multiple problems. Its presence inhibits the survival of butterflies, stops the growth of tree seedlings, and minimizes food sources for mammals. How does a 100 cm plant cause so much havoc?

Eddmaps

Figure 1: Garlic mustard sightings in the United States reported to Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System (EDDMapS) 

Garlic mustard uses a variety of techniques to persist for years once introduced into new areas. Fast growth, chemical compounds that make it bitter tasting to herbivores, a cryptic rosette plant form, and hefty seed production all give garlic mustard an advantage over native wildflowers, shrubs, and tree seedlings. Garlic mustard grows quicker and taller than native plants crowding the space on the forest floor. Its chemical compounds are toxic to native butterflies and cut off the supportive fungi networks necessary for native tree seedling growth. It has a two-year growing season consisting of a basal rosette during the first year’s growth, which can go unnoticed in this form, but over-winters and bears flashy flowers in the early spring of the second growth year.

It produces high volumes of seeds to spread across landscapes; from roadsides to backyards, pastures to wetlands, hillsides, and prairies. Left unchecked, this plant forms dense populations wherever it goes. One single plant can produce anywhere from 350-7,900 seeds!

So, what can we do about this rapidly spreading herbaceous threat? Land managers commonly use two options, and neither is perfect. First, they can apply herbicide routinely. But this comes with the risk of applying herbicide onto surrounding native plants too. Second, managers can put hours and hours of manual labor into removing existing plants by hand, but garlic mustard has a large root that, if left behind, will regenerate next year.

Alliaria_petiolataseeds

Paul Henjum (public domain)

While land managers are still adjusting methods of garlic mustard removal and eradication, there are some things that everyone can do to limit the spread of garlic mustard and other invasive species. 1) When hiking, remain on marked trail ways to avoid spreading plant seeds. 2) In invaded areas, check shoes and clothing for seeds and remove them before leaving parks and trails. 3) Do not pick the flowers or open the seed pods as this will increase the seed dispersal range. 4) If spotted, report sightings of populations to land owners, or online invasive species detection databases such as EDDMapS.org.

About the author: Mercedes Harris is a recent graduate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she received a master’s degree in environmental conservation. She’s a biologist turned plant ecologist because the zoology courses always filled up too quickly during enrollment but the plant courses turned out to be great.

References:

EDDMapS. 2018. Early Detection & Distribution Mapping System. The University of Georgia – Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. Available online at http://www.eddmaps.org/; last accessed May 31, 2018.

Book review – The Quantum Realm: Philly the Photon by Mark A Montgomery

TQR BOOK COVERI spend my working life helping to repackage scientific findings into formats that allow them to reach new audiences, namely plain-language summaries and podcasts. So, when I was introduced to a SciFi novella for children that prominently features quantum physics, I was intrigued.

Quantum physics (also known as quantum mechanics) is a theory that describes nature at very small scales, at the level of atoms and the ‘subatomic’ particles they consist of. One such subatomic particle known as a photon carries light and other electromagnetic energy.

In The Quantum Realm: Philly the Photon, we meet a boy called Sebastian. After being scared by a thunderstorm, Sebastian’s father encourages Sebastian to ask questions about the nature of light. That night Sebastian has a vivid dream in which he enters the Quantum Realm, leading to an adventure in search of Grunk the Great Graviton (AKA  gravitational force). Along the way, Sebastian confronts some of his fears and learns more about quantum physics.

I have mixed feelings about this story. Some parts of it were rather entertaining and I liked how Mark A Montgomery introduces various concepts in quantum physics in the form of sentient beings that Sebastian can talk to. The characteristics of these characters has clearly been carefully thought through to reflect the nature of the particles they represent, for example, Philly the Photon is very excitable while Grunk lurks deeper within the Quantum Realm, reflecting how the gravitational force is present in atoms but not as important as the other forces at play. However, I wasn’t totally convinced by Sebastian’s character because in much of the dialogue he comes across as being much older than the young boy we meet at the beginning of the story.

I also found it quite hard to keep up with all the new information (and characters) that were introduced along the way. Admittedly, this could be partly because I’m a sleep-deprived new parent, but it does worry me because, although I am not an expert in particle physics, I am not a complete stranger to it. The sheer amount of information packed into the story’s 94 pages may be off-putting to school students who aren’t already pretty interested in physics.

Overall, I think this book is a fun story that provides a different way to learn about the basics of quantum physics and the scientific method. I think it would be of interest to educators who are looking for an unusual way to introduce quantum physics to their students, perhaps in extracurricular science clubs. Montgomery promises to return to the Quantum Realm so it will be interesting to see where the story goes next.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from a book publicity company. The views are my own.

A change of pace

As you may have noticed, Plant Scientist has been quiet for most of 2017. This wasn’t intentional, but a consequence of various, mostly positive events in my life that made it hard to find time and energy to write for the blog.

By far the most significant of these events was giving birth to my first child in the autumn. My son (who I shall refer to as Sprog) arrived after a straightforward labour and, although I can’t pretend that the earliest days of motherhood have been completely smooth sailing, becoming a parent has been an overwelmingly positive experience so far.

Pregnancy was one of the most amazing and weird experiences of my life. Even though I am a biologist I still find it hard to comprehend how I managed to grow a new human in the space of 9 months. In the second and third trimesters feeling the baby move inside my belly was exhilarating, often distracting and, when he kicked my ribs, painful. By the end of my pregnancy my friends and family were laughing at my slow waddling gait (to be fair, I was laughing too) and — due to a combination of feeling hot, swollen ankles and struggling to reach my shoe laces — I was still walking around in slip-on sandals when people around me were reaching for their winter coats…

Of course, the world doesn’t stop turning when you are pregnant so I’ve also been juggling my job, my voluntary work running a Girl Guide unit, and tending to my allotment. Even though I’ve stayed in pretty good health, tiredness and joint aches and pains in the last couple of months meant I had to spend much more time resting than normal. Fortunately people were generally very understanding when it took me longer than usual to do something I had promised. My husband was also very supportive and didn’t complain when he landed up cooking dinner even when it was supposed to be my turn.

I’ve also had a productive year at work. Alongside my usual editing tasks at eLife I researched and wrote my first two feature articles for the journal. The first discussed some of the many journals and other organisations that publish plain-language summaries of research articles. The second article discussed peer review in the context of research grant funding. I really enjoyed the challenge of writing the articles and I’m pleased with the end results.

I’m on maternity leave for the next few months so I’m planning to get back into science blogging as a bit of a break from looking after Sprog. Hopefully my next post will be ready in January.

Wishing you a Happy New Year.

Science without the jargon

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Image credit: vividbiology.com (CC BY 4.0)

Have you ever read a scientific paper and struggled to understand the main findings of the research? If so, you are not alone.

When I worked as a research scientist one of my biggest frustrations was how difficult it could be to read research papers, even those within my own field. Research papers are written in a very formal style with lots of jargon, long words and lots of nouns, which help to keep the word count down but also make the text harder to read.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not “anti-jargon”, I do think that careful use of jargon in articles meant for a specialised audience can be very helpful to readers. For example, using the term “photosynthesis” in a scientific paper on leaves is going to be much more concise and less clumsy than writing “the process by which some organisms use energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars” several times.

However, researchers working in different fields can all use different sets of jargon (like different dialects in a language) to the point that a plant scientist like me may not be equipped with the right vocabulary to understand a neuroscience paper (without a significant amount of googling and head-scratching at any rate). New technologies and advances in one field may be relevant to researchers working in other fields, so using different scientific dialects may delay the spread of new knowledge. Another issue is that a lot of scientific research is funded by public money and therefore should be answerable to the public. So how can we make the findings of scientific research more accessible to anyone who is interested?

The media play a big role in communicating the findings of research to the wider public. However, the media can only highlight a tiny fraction of research being published, and they (understandably) focus on the most exciting, weird or funny discoveries. But what about all the other research that might still be of interest to to other scientists and members of the public?

One way that some journals, medical charities and other scientific organisations are making research more accessible to broader audiences is by publishing summaries of research articles written in everyday language using few technical terms. This includes eLife (the journal I work for) and my current job involves producing plain-language summaries called “eLife digests” (you can read a selection of eLife digests on our Roots and Shoots blog.

To highlight the plain-language summaries eLife and other organisations produce, we (the eLife features team) have recently published a collection called “Plain-language summaries of research”. The collection includes articles and blogposts about the experiences of various organisations as well as our advice on how to write plain-language summaries. Furthermore, you can listen to my colleague Stuart King and I discuss plain-language summaries in the latest eLife podcast, episode 37.

The most exciting thing I learned while working on the collection is that there is an enormous variety of plain-language summaries out there covering different areas of science from astrophysics to ecology. Furthermore, different organisations target their summaries at different audiences. For example, the summaries produced by some medical journals and medical charities are often primarily aimed at patients and their families. On the other hand, some journals (e.g. PNAS) produce summaries that are aimed at other scientists who read the journal. I think all of these different approaches have a place in widening access to scientific research.

To help people find plain-language summaries on topics that interest them we have compiled a list of over 50 organisations that produce them. Please do make use of this list, and let eLife know of any other organisations that should be included.

 

A community repository of plant illustrations

Guest post by Erin Sparks, Guillaume Lobet, Larry York and Frédéric Bouché

Plant illustration resource.png

It is midnight on a cold winter evening and you are scheduled to give a seminar at 8 am the next morning. All you are missing to complete your presentation is one last graphic to illustrate your conclusions. You wearily open Adobe Illustrator, stare at a blank artboard and think “isn’t there a better way?” What if there was a place where you could access community plant illustrations to use or modify? Good news! A Plant Illustrations Repository is now available to the plant scientific community!

In a time when scientific communication is becoming increasingly important, one method of communication is through illustrations and graphics. For example, graphical abstracts are now frequently employed by journals to summarize the contents of a manuscript and provide a visual overview of the work. These graphics are generated in programs such as Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, or even PowerPoint. For additional information about graphical abstracts, we refer the reader to this blog post and a recent webinar by Fred entitled: “Communicate your Research Efficiently Using Graphical Abstracts” hosted by Plantae and the American Society of Plant Biologists.

In an effort to promote scientific communication and the use of graphical abstracts, we have initiated a repository for community-generated pictures and vector graphic illustrations of plants. It takes a lot of effort to make vector graphics so we might as well share them among the community. Thus our goal was to provide a central location where plant scientists can contribute their images and graphics to be used or modified by others (and you get credit for it!).

We decided to use a figshare Collection for a couple of reasons:

  • It is free to use and any scientist can deposit data there in a couple of clicks.
  • One dataset can contain more than one file (for instance, .ai + .png + .pdf).
  • It provides unlimited storage for data that are made public.
  • It provides each public dataset with a doi (digital online identifier), which make citation possible, even for a single figure.
  • Finally, the Collection feature of figshare allows us to collect images and illustrations from multiple accounts (yours!) into a single place and to present it nicely!

We invite you to visit the Plant Illustrations Repository to learn more about contributing and utilizing this resource.

Happy Communicating!

Erin, Guillaume, Larry and Fred

 

Erin Sparks is a Postdoc with Philip Benfey at Duke University and her recent work focuses on understanding the development and function of maize brace roots. You can follow Erin on Twitter @ErinSparksPhD

Guillaume Lobet is an Associate Professor at the Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany and the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. His work focuses on the development of whole plant models. You can follow Guillaume on Twitter @guillaumelobet

Larry York is an Assistant Professor at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK, USA. His work focuses on root functional phenomics including high-throughput phenotyping of root system architecture and physiology. You can follow Larry on Twitter @LarryMattYork

Frédéric Bouché is a Postdoc with Rick Amasino at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work focuses on the identification of the genetic mechanisms controlling the timing of flowering in the model grass Brachypodium, a species closely related to wheat, barley, and oats. You can follow Fred on Twitter @Frederic_Bouche

Note: This post has been published on several sites on the same day to help spread the word about this new community resource.