The Algarve fieldtrip: An Ambition Reborn

Image: Sara Fissolo

by Pádraig Desmond

Towards the end of the 3rd year, one could be forgiven for forgetting why they first set out on a journey of biological sciences. As a mature student, I didn’t take the decision to apply to the School of BEES lightly and it involved a lot of consideration. The decisive factor in my own personal pursuit was the idea of being outdoors and actively accumulating data for studies I was personally interested in. Over the past three years, I have completed five intensive sets of examinations and completed countless continuous assessment reports under strenuous and challenging circumstances. Playing up to my enthusiastic ambitions, these reports were heavily field based with abundant environmental and biotic data collection, but despite being broad and fascinating, they somewhat lacked the thrill I expected of being in the field.

Until day one of the Practical Field Ecology field trip to the Algarve. After a relaxed initial morning of presentations on iconic species, my peers within both Ecology & Environmental Biology and Zoology set off on an afternoon of real field work in the breathtakingly beautiful Algarve. There was a contagious air of excitement filtering through the group as we ventured through the sand dunes, a new environment for all eyes to capture, full of novel plant and animal species to the Irish cohort’s mental repertoire. Our first task, to sit on the shores on Alvor Estuary in silence and anticipation of the emergence of our first study, the conspicuous but shy Fiddler Crab, stirred a satisfaction from deep within. This was a new species within a new environment that rewarded our imaginations after a small cost of patience. To me, this was field work in its true raw form.

Image: Sara Fissolo

Over the following few days, the group continued to explore, with the same eagerness and awe, the range of habitats the region had to offer, under the vastly experienced guidance of the extremely helpful and willing BEES staff. Mountains, saltmarshes, mudflats, rocky shores and skies were all scoured and scrutinized by students and staff alike, all in the hope of discovering something fantastic and wonderful. And with success. Often, excited gasps or yelps indicated a discovery, followed by a mass movement of 55 eager minds to stand over a tiny lizard, anemone or plant and indeed to the sky where birds soared above.

Image: Sara Fissolo

The six full days I spent in the Algarve as part of this module exposed me to the reality of my chosen path and with it, all it entails. We were exposed to adverse conditions from biblical rain and wind to scorching heat. Days were long and evenings were spent writing; but as a group of like-minded people, the overall mood remained eager and happy to do more. For me personally, this experience will remain deep in my archives as it ingrained the decision of my chosen path. This revitalised desire and ambition will no doubt drive me harder into my final year and help me achieve the personal goals I have set. Furthermore, the skills I have learned and practiced will undoubtedly be of use in any future career I find myself in. This module is of upmost importance to students in the school of BEES and I sincerely hope it remains for those who follow.

Image: Sara Fissolo

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Applied Plant Biology London Fieldcourse 2018 – Part 3

Tozer Seeds & Chelsea Physic Garden

by Elizabeth Vanveen (3rd Year Applied Plant Biology)

This day differed from previous ones throughout this field trip as it involved visiting two different companies. The first half of the day was dedicated to visiting Tozer Seeds, the largest independent family business selling vegetable seeds in the UK. This event commenced with a presentation that explained the company’s goals and ideals. Although Tozer began as a local company, it is now multinational with offices present around the globe such as that of Santa Maria in California, and Murcia in Spain. Plant breeding is at the heart of this company which has also been central to human civilisation for over 10,000 years (Lev-Yadun et al., 2000). By utilising the plant breeding skills adopted and used by humans throughout history, Tozer Seeds strives to develop innovative products with excellent flavour and good field performance. The seeds produced are sold directly to packet seed companies or grocery growers.

Tozer produces seeds from both obligate self-pollinating plants and cross pollinating plants. The top seller of this company is parsnip seeds. Parsnips are an example of a plant can exhibit cytoplasmic male sterility; a maternally inherited condition in which a plant is unable to produce functional pollen (Schnablea and Wiseb, 1998). This is particularly useful for hybridisation as the flowers cannot self-pollinate and eliminates the need for mechanical emasculation. Therefore male-sterile plants can be crossed with wild-type male-fertile plants to produce heterozygous hybrids with increased hybrid vigor. Due to the cytoplasm of a zygote usually being inherited by female gametes (male-sterile plant), the progeny will remain sterile. This acts as a form of security for Tozer as the seeds must be rebought. Similarly Tozer also produces F1 hybrid seeds. Selective breeding is also utilised to create new plant varieties, however this is a time consuming process that can take anywhere from 15 – 20 years to reach a desired outcome.

Following this presentation a tour was carried out through the premises beginning with the seed germination room. One particular project being carried out was testing for mildew tolerance in seedlings. Those seeds that appeared to be resistant will go on to be grown in field conditions, and homozygous / uniform individuals will be selected. The process is then repeated until resistance is and homozygosity is achieved. The seed washing station was also observed. Seed washing is necessary for those seeds that are prone to pathogens, however this comes with challenges as moisture typically reduces seed longevity (Vertucci and Roos, 1990). Therefore thorough drying of seeds follows the washing stage. The tour continued through to the glasshouses. Where a number of different plants were being growing at different stages of development. Amongst the most abundant plants on site were celery, peppers and basil. Of the plants growing here only those exhibiting homozygosity will be pollinated. The pollination stage is carried out by hand and plants are then tagged identifying the family, plant number and age. The final stage in this tour was to the seed storage area where a range of machines are utilised to clean and grade the seeds by weight and size. After this point the seeds are packaged, labelled and dispatched.

Although Tozer Seeds is involved in work that is similar to that of Syngenta, both companies contrast greatly. For example, Tozer utilised biological control in their glasshouses while Syngenta has recently moved away from these methods of crop protection, and focusses on agrochemicals. The ethos of both companies also differs with Tozer being of a smaller scale, with more simplified apparatus’ and being family rooted. Despite both companies being multinational, Tozer is strongly rooted in the UK.

The second half of this day was spent at Chelsea Physic Garden, a three and a half acre garden growing approximately 5,000 different plant species. The garden was initially established by the apothecaries as a place to study medicinally important plants and learn to accurate identify different species. At present however, the garden holds an arrangement of useful plants including those that are edible, poisonous and medicinal. The different plants are subdivided into different areas throughout the garden.

The conservatory holds a number of cacti and succulents which are typically watered only once every two weeks. Alongside these plants which have evolved to deal with drought, there are also an arrangement of plants that have evolved to live on nutrient poor soils. These are carnivorous plants which meet much of their nitrogen requirements through the capture of insects by either passive traps (pitcher plant) or active traps (sundews).

One other particularly interesting area within the garden was a bed containing an arrangement of poisonous plants. Unpalatability is an evolutionary strategy against herbivory which remains a problem particularly for children. In 2012, the US poison control centres reported that over 30,000 potential exposures of children under the age of five to toxic plants were reported (Mowry et al., 2012). Therefore accurate identification of poisonous plants is particularly important to avoid poisoning, particularly because many poisonous and edible plant have similar physiology. The plants within this area included the mandrake and the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).

A number of plants that are poisonous are also of medicinal value which can be clearly observed in Chelsea Physic Garden as T. baccata is found in both the poisonous and medicinal gardens due to its anti-cancer qualities (Rowinsky and Donehower, 1995). Other useful medicinal plants exhibited in the garden include the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) and star anise (Pimpinella anisum). The tour also included a guide through an evolutionary glasshouse containing a range of bryophytes and ferns, a tropical glasshouse containing many important plants including Cinchona (source of antimalarial quinine), and dicotyledonous order beds containing plants arranged by family. The final area visited during the tour was the garden of useful plants which displayed plants such as bamboo and sunflower.

Chelsea Physic Garden typically gives good insight to plants that are or have been of interest to human civilisation in an approachable manner by subdividing the garden. This garden may have some similarities to Kew Gardens in terms of horticulture, however Kew would be of greater interest to an individual who cares for ecology and conservation. Chelsea Physic Garden would be best suited to an individual with an interest in taxonomy and medicine.

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Applied Plant Biology London Fieldcourse 2018 – Part 2

PS3020 is a BEES plant biology field course based in London. Over a packed four days, students visit a range of internationally-renowned institutions as well as several research centres managed by industry.

Day 2 – Wakehurst Gardens & The Millennium Seed Bank

by Christopher M. Doyle (3rd Year Applied Plant Biology)

Applied Plant Biology students at staff at the Millenium Seed Bank and UK Native Seed Hub at Wakehurst Place with Kew’s Ted Chapman

Similar to the previous day, today’s tour was divided into several parts. The morning consisted of a talk on Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), and a tour of how the seed bank operates. In the afternoon students were given a talk on how Kew grows, distributes and displays seeds followed by a guided tour of the management, establishment and zonation of the Gardens.

Plants are some of the most important organisms on our planet, with the majority of living things being dependent on them as either a food source or habitat. As a species, we rely on plants for food, medicines and recreational use (i.e. smoking tobacco, brewing alcohol or gardening). The MSB on the grounds of Wakehurst aims to preserve a vast catalogue of seeds form plants all over the world should they become endangered or extinct. There exists another seed vault in Svalbard, however, that vault is unmanned and stores only crop species, the MSB is a research and education facility and contains mainly non-crop species.

Inside the Millennium Seed Bank

The preservation process involves drying the seeds to around 5% relative humidity and storing them at -20o C in underground freezers. This method allows most seeds to remain dormant for hundreds to potentially thousands of years. Certain species can not be stored this way and new techniques, including cryogenic freezing of embryos are being explored. With extinction rates at 1000 times the background rate, Kew aims to have secured 25% of the world’s bankable species by 2020.

Applied Plant Biology students accessing the vault at the Millennium Seed Bank.

Not only does the MSB store seeds, they have multiple laboratories and horticultural areas for germinating and growing seeds. When storing seeds, it is important to know that the samples are model specimens, uncontaminated and undamaged. The use of inspection methods, such as x-ray imagery, are often employed. Long-term storage may have certain effects on seeds and it is important to know how to germinate and grow each species, and many seed are tested out in the MSB gardens, not just for research purposes but also commercial distribution (Kew provides wild-type seeds for garden centres, botanical gardens and scientific facilities all over the world) and aesthetic display.

The botanical gardens on display to the public at Wakehurst are owned by the National Trust but used and managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. First created in the early 20th century, they currently contain hundreds of plant species, from many different parts of the world. In the tour, it was explained how the gardens are arranged both for aesthetic and scientific value. Various beds have been set up to specific colour-schemes or seasonal themes and as entire areas dedicated to groups of plants from particular geographic regions, all growing together as they might occur naturally. There is a need for the gardens to have an appeal to the public, as they are no longer entirely government funded and must rely on external patronage in order to maintain previous levels of service and upkeep.

A tour of Kew’s Wakehurst Place collection with Francis Annette of Kew.

From just one day, it can be easily seen that a great amount of effort goes into the running of both the MSB and the Gardens. The achievements in both species conservation and horticultural excellence are the result of years of hard work and diligence from members of staff and volunteers that ensure Wakehurst not only grows, but flourishes.

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Applied Plant Biology London Fieldcourse 2018

PS3020 is a BEES plant biology field course based in London. Over a packed four days, students visit a range of internationally-renowned institutions as well as several research centres managed by industry.

Day 1 – Kew Gardens

by Lorna Murphy (3rd Year Applied Plant Biology)

To start the visit to Kew, Melanie-Jayne Howes spoke about the connection between plant chemicals and Alzheimer’s disease. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, only medication to ease symptoms, and two of the current drugs on the market are plant derived – galantamine and rivastigmine. Galantamine is an alkaloid isolated from plants of the Amaryllidaceae family, primarily snowdrops and rivastigmine is derived from neostigmine, originally isolated from the Menispermaceae plant family, which proved to have unreasonable side effects (Raghavendra, 2002).

Dr Pepijn Kooij of Kew Fungarium with Applied Plant Biology students and staff.

Both drugs act as acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors, an enzyme which breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh) in the brain. The action of AChE in the brain can result in neuronal degeneration and a build up of amyloid proteins which clump and block neurons, all resulting in the symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease. The inhibition of AChE by drugs such as rivastigmine help to ease these symptoms (Ren et al., 2004). A very interesting aspect was hearing about recent research, in which plants such as Aloe purpurea are emerging as potential neuroprotectants thanks to the presence of the phytochemicals aloin and vitexin (Lobine et al., 2017).

Howes also spoke about the importance of safety, efficacy and conservation with regard to medicinal plants. Samples of Ginseng were shown to highlight this point, with one being collected from markets in China and the other by a botanist in the field to show the variation in not only quality but also how different species can be grouped under one name. Howes emphasised that this is an important aspect of working with medicinal plants as improper identification or labelling of medicinal plants can result in severe side effects or even death.

Dr Melanie Jayne Howes of Kew speaking to Apllied Plant Biology students and staff regarding her work on plant-derived drugs for Alzheimer’s disease.

Hauke Koch, a researcher at Kew, spoke about the interactions between plant chemicals and pollinators. He spoke about his own research identifying 85 species of bees in Kew Gardens (of 275 in the UK), and his work on the microbiome of bees (Koch & Schmid-Hempel, 2011; 2012). In the lecture we also heard about how the mass-deaths of bumblebees in urban environments from consuming Linden tree pollen could potentially be an indicator of bees starving due to a lack of other sources of nectar, leaving only the Linden trees as a source of food. Koch also worked on conditioning of bees, finding that theophylline and caffeine may alter bee behaviour.

The Fungarium at Kew was founded in 1879 and holds around 1.25 million specimens from the UK and around the world. It serves as an important point of research for mycologists such as Pepjin Kooij, who spoke to us about the collection. The uses of fungi in food, dyes and medicine (e.g Claviceps purperea in the treatment of migraines) were discussed while viewing the samples. Samples included those collected by Charles Darwin, and some samples collected before Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature system had been implemented. Kooij also gave a great insight into how he carries out his own research and what it’s like to be a researcher at Kew.

At the Kew Herbariumwith Dr Richard Allen of Kew.

At the Herbarium, Richard Allen spoke about some of the seven million plant specimens that have been collected at the Kew Herbarium since 1852, however specimens date back as far as 1696 from Samuel Brown’s India collection. The Herbarium is also home to Nathaniel Wallich’s collection of around 20,000 specimens. As in the Fungarium, a specimen collected by Charles Darwin was on display – Adiantum henslovianum from the Galapagos. The Herbarium also contains extinct plants, for example a pressed Solanum schumannium from Tanzania which was discovered in 2000, however the area where this thought to be shade tolerant aubergine was endemic to has since been cleared for agricultural use.

Bananas – wild and cultivated at Kew’s tropical palmhouse (Photo: Chris Doyle)

Other points of interest at Kew included the palm house and the Princess of Wales conservatory. The palm house is kept at levels of humidity, temperature etc. that create a rainforest type environment for various tropical plants to grow, with stairs to the higher level to get an aerial view of the whole glasshouse. The Princess of Wales conservatory allows visitors to experience ten different climate zones, including dry and wet tropics and an exhibit featuring carnivorous plants.

Overall, Kew Gardens makes for an enjoyable visit with information that is very applicable to the Applied Plant Biology course. A behind the scenes look at the work of the scientists at Kew and the ongoing projects was a great insight into botanical gardens and the work they do.

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CoCoHaCa Cruise Blog – Latest update


Monday’s 4am shift got off on the right note as myself and Siobhan decided to upgrade our midnight snack to midnight steak (sandwich) thanks to the delectable leftovers from Sundays’ dinner.

It has been really interesting being on the Granuaile, as an Irish Lights vessel she carries on the legacy of all the beautiful lighthouses around the Irish coast. Today Sarah from the crew let me have a look at the Portolan, a handwritten, draw and photographed book put together showing all the lighthouses around Ireland and all the knowledge about them and how to navigate to them. And I couldn’t make this up if I tried, it was compiled by Captain Hook (Captain Colin Myles-Hook).

With slightly shorter ROV survey lines we got a good few covered today. Lots of coral and Bogna and I were really excited to see a meter long shark (possibly bigger), an enormous monkfish and some really amazing sponges.


The morning dawned with a beautiful sunrise. Today was a massive success for the cruise, after finishing off the last of our video survey lives (and witnessing and absolutely spectacular sunset) we moved on to rock drilling.

With potential sites for the drilling identified in previous surveys of the area and also a few from our own video survey lines, the ROV team had a map and plan and a new drill to test. Yesterday was the first time a rock drill has been used on the Holland 1 ROV and the first time any ROV has drilled in Irish waters for science. This drill created for the Holland 1 is also unique as it allows us to drill rock exposures (vertical rock faces) instead of drilling down through the whole bank with a huge drill rig. It’s compact, powerful and gets right to the base of things. There have been some granites drilled on top of the bank a few years ago, but the two cores recovered on this survey are the first ever drilled from the base of the bank.

With cores taken from two different sites, our geology team are eager to get the samples back to Cork and begin deducing what kind of rock they’ve got their hands on. So far there’s been a lot of speculation (perhaps even a few bets) but no one is 100%.

We had hoped for one more chance at coring but the weather had other ideas and so as the winds reached gusts of up to 50km (gale force 9) and 3.5m swell we packed up our things and set course for home.



As the gale descended on us we quite literally battened down the hatches, with all our belongings in our cabins making a solid attempt at escaping right out the door. Last night there was great camaraderie in the dining room/living area as we attempted to rustle up snacks while not getting thrown across the room. The opposite to being scared, the mood onboard was positively jolly. Sleep was funny with all the motion, but we got some great videos of the waves at around 5am this morning.  After a bit of sleep, we’ve spent our rolling transit day (it will take a full 24h to be back in site of land) backing up our data, checking through our videos and just generally getting ready for the end of the cruise.

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CoCoHaCa Cruise Blog – Update


Finn Ni Fhaolain

With all our coring completed successfully earlier in the week it was high def video time. With 6 scientists on board we work in shifts of two and hang out in the ROV Shack with the ROV guys (singing “ROV Shack” to the tune of “Love Shack”), logging CTDs, taking video, snapping stills and logging the different species, substrates and sediments that we see. Since we’re generating so many hours of video footage it’s really important to note different interesting features and their time stamp and lat and long locations so it’s easier in the future for other scientists to work with. Last night we had a brief pause in work as a gale force 8 wind caught us in a 3 meter swell. But the bridge crew kindly angled the ship away from the worst of it.

The down time was spent drinking tea, eating chocolate and swapping sea going stories and hearing about the worst weather everyone has been out in. I’m currently writing, sitting on the floor of the conference room as we brought all the electronics down off the table in case they went flying when the ship would roll. There was a lot of laughing, so no time for cabin fever to set in. Being far too easily amused I thought it was great to see water flowing sideways out of the taps when the ship would roll. An absolute highlight of the trip so far was getting to see a pod of pilot whales off the stern just before sunset last night (we had been watching waves splash across the deck). The biologists among us we delighted to see our “first bit of blubber” on the trip.


Today we were mostly seeing non-reef areas on our video log but saw some interesting species like rabbit fish and some sharks. While it isn’t quite as exciting to watch areas of sand, it is important to record which areas have life coral, dead coral and just sand. By knowing where the coral is, isn’t and where it used to be (eroded coral framework with no live coral) it can help to build up an understanding of what environmental factors – e.g. slope, direction, current flow, sedimentation level, temperature etc – affect the “start up” and “shut down” of cold water coral mounds.


Absolutely fantastic day today, a real Sunday buzz going on. Very interesting coral mounds with massive cliff faces covered in live corals hosting a plethora of other species – octopuses, glass sponges, sharks, rabbit fish, sea pens, crinoids, tube worms.

After lunch we saw perhaps 4 pods and nearly 50 pilot whales including calves! Even the toughest among us were reduced to hollering “look at the baby whales” in delight on seeing the tiny tail flukes and little heads spyhopping. They stayed with the ship for quite some time and everyone came out for a gander.

To top off a great day Decco & Billy whipped up some amazing steaks (probably one of the best I’ve ever had) with all the trimmings and then the secret stash of chocolate was cracked out for the evening shift in the ROV shack. Needless to say moral is high!

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CoCoHaCa Cruise Blog Day 2


Finn Ni Fhaolain

After waking up for the 4am shift it was so exciting to see the first video recordings from the ROV. There was successful coring through the night and everyone was pleased to see that the brand new vibrocorer on the ROV worked well. The scientists have been trying to core this site for 3 years so this is new vibrocorer is a great success. The video allowed use to see all of the coring efforts as well as the coral habitats – some coral rubble, reef and cliff face. It was really exciting to see the different species on the reef – several different species of corals, crabs, urchins and even a deep sea shark!

Now its on to more coring, more video and a bit of CTD. On a foodie note we were all raving today about the amazing Thai green curry that the guys whipped up in the kitchen. As a dessert fiend I also went a bit mad for the rice pudding. Stomachs are full and spirits are high going into the evening shift.

Across the evening we cored the summits of two different mounds with successful cores from both areas. There was also a great array of wildlife with the different watches observing corals, urchins, crabs, tube worms, cushion starfish, lantern fish, ling, eels (potentially juvenile congers) and sharks. With the coring completed we are sailing off into the sunrise to our next location to start our video transects in earnest.

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CoCoHaCa Cruise Blog


Finn Ni Fhaolain

I was so excited to get the call from Andy (Wheeler) earlier in the year to join him and a great group of scientists from around the country for a research cruise to the Porcupine Bank Canyon Mounds. The mounds are about 300km due west of Dingle on the edge of the continental shelf. This area holds personal significant as it was my research area many moons ago for my thesis project in UCC with Andy as my supervisor.

For myself and most of the scientific crew this was our first time on the vessel the ILV Granuaile so day one was getting familiarised with where everything is and getting our safety tour. Add pics of survival suits. The Granuaile is owned by Irish Lights so her usual work is servicing and supplying the lighthouses around the country. She also looks after the weather buoys around the coast. I’m a big fan! As the charts generated from these buoys data are what surfers use for the surf forecast.

This cruise is all about getting high def imaging of the cold water coral mound habitats, with a bit of coring and some CTD profiling for good measure. The Holland 1 ROV has an amazing array of features, but for this mission we’re interested in its high definition video camera and the stills camera which will be used to recorded predefined lined running up the Porcupine Bank Canyon from the deep sea to the plateau at the top. This allows us to observe the change of habitat with depth (and other conditions) between, mud, rocky outcrops, coral rubble, coral mounds and areas of live coral reef. While we get most excited seeing coral and fish, its important to get a look at all the habitats so we can better understand the mechanisms of the entire canyon system. The CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth sensor) will be used to profile the water column of the canyon and allow us to observe the different water masses.

Onboard we have the crew of the Granuaile who’ve been so welcoming and I’ve already found a fellow surfer, next the ROV (remotely operated vehicle) team from the Marine Institute who look after the Holland 1 ROV and finally there is the scientists a mash up of UCC, GMIT and me!

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Plant Science London Field Trip – Part 3

BEES Plant Scientists at Tozer Seeds – part of the PS3020 London Field trip (Image: Tozer Seeds)

by Michael Rochards (APB3)

One of the world’s largest agrochemical, seed, and biotechnological companies, Syngenta, is a diverse active site with cross functionality. After tea and biscuits, we were introduced to the company by the biologist Jim Morton, who after a brief presentation, acted as our affable host around the greenhouses and the laboratories. The greenhouse tour took in work with Double Haploid breeding programmes between maize and winter wheat which allow for a plant to achieve homozygosity. Taking 7-8 years to achieve, every ear of corn checked every day for signs of pollination. Other greenhouses showed spraying systems (including a rain-station to replicate constant downpour, which would assess the efficiency of products in the field). Low tech met high tech as plants men were seen with plastic buckets, plants being sprayed by test solutions and the results assessed visually; biologists and chemists meet regularly to discuss results.

Students at Syngenta (Image: Eoin Lettice)

Then into the smarter laboratories; ‘mother’ plates holding novel chemical compounds and plants (here Arabidopsis) were allowed to grow (or rather not grow!) and then analysed with a high throughout phenotyping platform. 3-5,000 possible configurations being assessed which may eventually lead to one product; their ‘library’ a repository of tens of thousands of chemical signatures. An £8 million pound robotic system, probably the world’s most expensive cocktail shaker, takes samples, photographs (and lots of other things besides) and allows for assessments to be made of developmental solutions.

Demonstration of double haploid breeding at Syngenta (Image: Eoin Lettice)

After kindly providing lunch of sandwiches, crisps, and chocolate, an ecotoxicology presentation by Heidi Cunningham showed Syngenta’s work with environmental assessment models, which fitted well with our AE3010 module; altogether a welcoming and interesting experience, showing insight into Syngenta’s work.


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Plant Science London Field Course – Part 2

At the Millennium Seed Bank vault (image: Eoin Lettice)

Day Two by Bianca Govi (APB3)

Today we took a trip to Sussex to complete our tour of Kew by visiting Wakehurst Place. The site is unique in that it houses in-situ and ex-situ conservation efforts, and boasts the highest living plant biodiversity in the world. This latter claim concerns the Millennium Seed Bank, an active seed library of non-crop species, providing an insurance policy against extinction as well as education and research opportunities. The facility, which was inaugurated in 2000 and currently holds 82000 separate collections, has the goal of storing 25% of the world’s floral biodiversity by 2020.

the goal of storing 25% of the world’s floral biodiversity by 2020

Although the seeds preserved in the vault are not directly economic crops, human benefit is one of the strategic priority of the project. A significant example of how this can be achieved is through the storage and study of the genetic diversity of crops’ wild relatives, for future introgression breeding. At the moment, research in this area is focusing on wild rice species Oryza nivara, O. officinalis and O. longistaminata, and wild bananas Musa accuminata and M. balbisiana. Other target priorities in the selection of the new entries include criteria of endangerment and endemism.

UK Seed Hub entrance (image: Bianca Govi)

Seed material -ideally with accompanying herbarium samples- arrives to Kew from 170 partner institutions from 80 different countries, under the convention of Biological Diversity. Once in Wakehurst, seed parcels are stored in a dry room (at 15% relative humidity and 15°C) under a constant, controlled airflow for up to 6 months, to decrease moisture content. We were shown how samples are then taken to a cleaning laboratory, where material is cleaned and sorted manually, through sieves, aspirators and scanned in a medical X-ray machine. For this last step, a subset of 50 seeds is analysed, and the internal integrity of the contents used to estimate germination potential for the whole collection. After the cleaning, seeds are taken into the vault basement where they undergo further drying, are packed, and finally stored in one of the 4 cold rooms (-20°C). Although there is a high degree of variability between species, it had been estimated that the average seed’s lifespan can be increased by 50% for every 1% reduction in ambient relative moisture and 5°C drop in temperature. In general, conditions of low temperature and low humidity slow down seed aging by dampening the release and activity of reactive oxygen species within the tissues. This is unfortunately not true for “recalcitrant” seeds, which do not tolerate drying and storage.

Millennium Seed Bank glasshouse (image: Eoin Lettice)

Commonly, they are large-sized seeds (acorns, chestnuts, giant coconuts), but also some very small ones such as orchid micro-seeds can suffer from substantial drops in germination rates after desiccation. In contrast, some seeds have been observed to maintain their viability even under non-optimal condition. In the succulents’ glasshouse we had the chance to see a 10-year old potted Leucospermum, an African flowering shrub, with an adventurous life history. It was brought to Kew as a seed from the National Archives, where it had been sitting inside the leather-bound notebook of a Dutch merchant who had collected it around the Cape of Good Hope some 200 years previous.

After the tour of the building, we stepped outside, past the parterres representing natural habitats in a gradient from shore shingles, to grasslands, to heath, to bog land, and into the UK Native Seed Hub propagation field. This initiative initiative was launched to address the issue of habitat fragmentation and impoverishment and its goal is to provide the starting stock of seed material for native habitat restoration projects. Special attention is given to rare and difficult to propagate species, which are not widely available from commercial providers. At the moment the field is being used to propagate calcareous soil wildflowers, a particularly niche and threatened community. The area, which is open to the public during the summer, is decorated with willow and wire sculptures.

Millennium Seed Bank (image: Bianca Govi)

Finally we had a brief tour of the Wakehurst Gardens: developed by Gerald Loder, were donated by the following owner to the National Trust and are now managed by Kew. The plant collection features rare exotic entries such as the extinct-in-the-wild Franklin tree and the endangered Wollemia pine, which seems to do particularly well on the local soil. Native woodland protected areas are also part of the estate, making Wakehurst the first botanic garden to also incorporate in-situ conservation operations.

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