We start this issue by wishing all a happy and prosperous 2015.
January and February see a rash of major horticultural exhibitions. The Commercial Horticultural Association is taking groups to IPM in Essen, Germany (27 - 30 January) and Fruit Logistica in Berlin (4 - 6 February). Meanwhile crop production exhibition Sival will be taking place in Angers (13 - 15 January) followed by the nursery stock event Salon du Vegetal (17 - 19 February). On the home front the main event will be the British Turf Management Exhibition in Harrogate (20 - 22 January). Details of these exhibitions can be found in our e-calendar below along with many other meetings and conferences of interest.
Our first event of 2015 will be the annual Professional Horticulture Group South West conference at Bridgewater College, Cannington on 13th February. The topic will be 'Exotic Plants – benefits & penalties' and speakers will include Professor Sir Ghillean Prance, former Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. This promises to be, as usual, an excellent meeting. More
On a broader note the first SCI evening lecture of 2015 will take place on 29 January. Prof Michael Stephenson will be speaking on the topic Shale gas and fracking: the science behind the controversy.
UK Plant Science: meeting future challenges
Plant of the Month
Medicinal Plant of the Month
News from our Associates
Horticulture Industry News
Horticulture Group contact details
The UK plant Science Federation (UKPSF), a special interest group of the Society of Biology, held its Annual General Meeting at the end of November to review the way forward in 2015.
Much of the Federations activity in 2014 revolved around the promotion and follow-up of the status report, UK Plant Science: Current status and future challenges published in January 2014. This was officially launched at the Royal Society to a select audience of 80 guests followed by a parliamentary launch attended by 560. Since then some 5-600 printed copies have been distributed and it has been viewed 1300 times online with 450 copies being downloaded. This activity generated 28 known news stories across press, radio and TV and the report is being regularly quoted both in the science arena and government. It has raised the profile of UKPFS in both industry and government circles and provided the basis for consultation meetings with BBSRC, BIS, Innovate UK and DEFRA, all of whom have welcomed the report as a useful foundation for policy making.
The Federation has started to act on the report by forming four working groups on: Training & Skills; Funding; Translation and Regulation. The reports of these groups were presented and discussed at the AGM. This produced a list of some 30 actions, an impossible task for the Federation's one administrative officer. The list was first whittled down by identifying a number of actions which were already being undertaken in some form either by UKPFS or other bodies. From the remainder it was felt that the first stage should be identifying what was already being done as part of an overarching road-mapping process. However it was accepted that this would require funding of up to £10K to undertake.
Funding is a major issue for the Federation at this time. From its inception in 2012 UKPSF has been funded by grants from the Gatsby Foundation and the Society of Experimental Biology. These end in July 2015. It has also been earning between £8K-£10K per annum from its successful annual conferences and they have built up reserves sufficient to maintain the Federation until the end of 2015 but not beyond. It is clear that further support from the current sponsors will be dependent on funding coming from other sources especially the other members of the Federation. The basic cost of the Federation is around £60K per annum but more is really needed to undertake work such as the road-map exercise.
The Society of Biology has provided an umbrella for the Federation and given strong in-kind support but no direct financial help. However it is clear that the Society is very supportive and wishes the Federation to survive. Given the excellent work the Federation has already undertaken under the leadership of Jim Benyon and with the excellent support from the Federation's Executive Officer, Mimi Tanimoto, it deserves to thrive.
Buxus sempervirens, Buxaceae, Box
Box is most widely known to us nowadays as a formal hedging plant, or clipped closely into a myriad of other shapes. Sadly, in the mid-1990s, box blight began to ravage the box hedging of the United Kingdom. This fungal disease, caused by two different pathogens (Cylindrocladium buxicola and Volutella buxi), results in the dieback of box foliage and sometimes even of the young shoots, causing unsightly bare patches. Unfortunately there are no fungicides available to amateur gardeners that are specifically recommended for control of box blight, although others recommended for use on ornamentals can be legally, if not successfully, used.
Whether or not Buxus sempervirens is a native species of the British Isles is a surprisingly contentious issue, and there is no agreement on the answer. There are those who argue that it is indigenous point to the naming of Box Hill in Surrey which has a population of Buxus trees growing on it; there have also been archaeological finds of Roman graves in England with Buxus sempervirens leaves thrown in, suggesting that they have been present in the British Isles for some time. On the other hand, the herbalist, John Parkinson drew a distinction between Buxus humilis (Buxus sempervirens) and 'our common Boxe tree' [sic], saying that the former was found only in gardens and that the latter was common in woodland. So, is Buxus sempervirens native to the British Isles or not? The best answer may well be the one expressed by one recent group of authors: 'its native status is uncertain'.
It would appear that Buxus was not really considered as a medicinally useful plant in the 1600s. Parkinson said that 'it is not much used in Physicke by any now adayes' but he does describe a medicine made of Buxus leaves that he 'learned of a friend, who had tryed it effectuall' which could 'cure the biting of a mad dogge'. However, in the centuries since, many substances have been isolated from this species with a wide range of biological activities including acetylcholinesterase activity, which renders it potentially useful as an Alzheimer's treatment.
While it was not traditionally used in medicine, Buxus was not entirely useless. It became highly regarded for making woodcuts to illustrate books, a technique developed in the eighteenth century by engraver and author Thomas Bewick. It is a very close-grained wood, possibly the hardest and most dense wood of any tree found commonly growing in Europe.
Further reading: Decocq G et al 2004. A practical approach to assess the native status of a rare plant species: the controversy of Buxus sempervirens L. in northern France revisited. Plant Ecology 173, 139-151.
Pictures by Oxford Botanic Garden
Upper; Leaves of Buxus sempervirens
Lower; 'Buxus. The Box tree' from John Gerard's The Herball (1633)
Oxford Botanic Garden
Taxus baccata, Taxaceae, Yew
A familiar, if somewhat gloomy sight in most churchyards, the English yew tree can live for thousands of years. Still a youngster, the largest yew tree growing in the Oxford Botanic Garden is also the garden's oldest tree, planted in 1645 by the first Curator, Jacob Bobart. Despite herbalists at the time saying yew 'had no place among medicinal plants', Bobart planted an avenue of these trees in what was Britain's very first physic (medicinal) garden. More likely to be used in the seventeenth century for making longbows or knife handles, almost four centuries later, we know now that yew does indeed have a place among medicinal plants.
In 1962 a sample of Taxus brevifolia (Pacific yew) bark was collected, from which a potent anti-cancer substance was subsequently isolated. This substance was found in such small amounts that six fully mature trees were required to provide enough drug substance to treat a single patient. Bark removal necessitated killing the trees - clearly not a sustainable source of supply. However, the mode of action of paclitaxel was unravelled and found to be novel. Paclitaxel binds to a protein called tubulin which plays a key role in cell division (mitosis). The microtubules it binds to are prevented from disassembling, thereby stopping cell division. New modes of action are appealing to the pharmaceutical industry as the drug should have a different (and hopefully improved) profile to existing drugs. So the hunt began for an alternative supply.
The chemical structure of paclitaxel is complex and whilst several academic groups have achieved chemical synthesis in the laboratory it is not feasible to produce commercial quantities in this manner. Different species in the same genus often contain similar molecules and so other species of yew from across the globe were tested to see if they contained paclitaxel. Eventually it was found that a similar molecule could be isolated from Taxus baccata leaves. With a small amount of modification in the laboratory this molecule could be converted to paclitaxel. Today paclitaxel (Taxol) has been joined on the market by docetaxel (Taxotere), a slightly more water-soluble analogue. Paclitaxel is used to treat ovarian cancer and both drugs are used to treat breast cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Commercial supplies of paclitaxel now come from a plant cell culture technique initially developed by scientists in the United States Department of Agriculture and then licensed to a commercial company.
Further reading: Goodman J, Walsh V 2006. The story of taxol: nature and politics in the pursuit of an anti-cancer drug. Cambridge University Press.
Pictures by Oxford Botanic Garden
Upper: Female cones of yew
Lower: The yew tree record made by Jacob Bobart the Elder from the Oxford Botanic Garden in the 1648
Oxford Botanic Garden
Commercial Horticultural Association
CHA continues to recruit for IPM in Essen, Germany between 27 - 30 January 2015 and Fruit Logistica held in Berlin between 4 - 6 February 2015. Working in conjuction with HDC and the Potato Council the UK presence at Fruit Logistica promises to be larger than ever. For further information on these shows and particularly the grants available to UK companies exhibiting at them contact CHA.
UK Plant Science Federation
The Federation responded to The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry into the future of Kew Gardens. In summary they said 'The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is held in high esteem worldwide for the quality and importance of its scientific work, and for its contributions to international research and conservation partnerships. Scientists at Kew are responsible for maintaining and continually upgrading globally important biodiversity collections that are the foundation upon which knowledge of plant and fungal diversity is based. These underpin the research and knowledge base allowing plants to be utilised for benefit to the environment, food security, human nutrition and health. The knowledge generated through Kew’s research and collections is also essential for delivering specialist education and training provisions in vulnerable academic subject areas, and in helping to inform policy development at national and international levels.'
The full response can be viewed here.
Sh--, it's phosphorus
One ingredient, which will play an important role in making sure we have enough food to feed ourselves, is phosphorus – a mineral that is vital to plant growth and a key component of fertiliser. Yet, according to some experts, minable reserves of phosphorus may be completely depleted in a few hundred years. We also continue to use excessive amounts of phosphorus in agriculture, which creates problems such as algal blooms and nutrient pollution when the fertiliser runs off into our waterways. One sewage plant in London, however, is dealing with both the shortage of phosphorus and also the environmental damage its inappropriate use causes. Using technology developed in Canada, the plant is turning faeces into fertiliser and creating a new, greener way to grow crops. More
Reviving America’s Chestnut forests
The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) once reigned over eastern forests from Maine to Georgia until, in the early 1900s, a fungus from Asia (Cryphonectria parasitica) began to kill off billions of trees, and to this day it still plagues the remaining trees preventing the species from reasserting its dominance. The fungus enters the tree through a wound in the bark and, once inside, it releases oxalic acid to kill nearby tree tissue, getting it ready for the fungus to colonize. American scientists have now transferred into the chestnut a wheat gene which enables the tree to break down the oxalic acid. This will hopefully enable the re-establishment of America’s chestnut woodlands and the wildlife which depends on them. More
Pollinators died out before agricultural intensification
Pollinators are fundamental to maintaining both biodiversity and agricultural productivity, but habitat destruction, loss of flower resources, and increased use of pesticides are causing declines in their abundance and diversity. Using historical records, researchers have assessed the rate of extinction of bee and flower-visiting wasp species in Britain from the mid-19th century to the present. They found that the most rapid phase of extinction appears to be related to changes in agricultural policy and practice beginning in the 1920s. This was before the agricultural intensification prompted by the Second World War which is often cited as the most important driver of biodiversity loss in Britain. Slowing of the extinction rate from the 1960s onward may be due to prior loss of the most sensitive species and/or effective conservation programs. More
Algae clean up heavy metals and make biofuel
A pioneering research project to clean up a flooded Cornish tin mine is using algae to harvest the precious heavy metals in its toxic water, while simultaneously producing biofuel. If the project, which is at a very early stage, is proven to work, it could have huge environmental benefits around the world. They are taking untreated mine water samples from the Wheal Jane tin mine in Cornwall and growing algae in them in a laboratory. They are exploring whether the algae is effective in removing harmful materials, such as arsenic and cadmium, from the mine water. Researchers hope to convert the algae into a solid from which heavy metals can be extracted and recycled for use in the electronics industry. The remaining solid waste will then be used to make biofuels. More
Vegetarian carnivorous plant
The bladderworts (Utricularia) are one of the largest genera in carnivorous plants with over 200 species. Aquatic bladderworts catch their prey with highly sophisticated suction traps. A valve-like trap door opens upon stimulation and the surrounding water including tiny organism flushes in rapidly within three milliseconds. Once inside the trap, the prey dies of suffocation and is degraded by digestive enzymes. The minerals released enable bladderworts to live and propagate even in habitats that are extremely poor in nutrients. Now it appears that animals are not the only prey. Algae were first observed within the traps of bladderworts around 1900 but only now has their role within the prey spectrum been analysed. Screening of the prey objects in more than 2,000 traps showed that only 10 % were animals whereas 50 % of the prey objects were algae. Especially in nutrient poor habitats like in peat bogs, algae were even more dominant in the prey. More than one third of the prey consisted of pollen grains from trees growing on the shore areas of the home waters. Utricularia plants that trapped numerous algae and pollen grains were larger and formed more biomass. More
Wild genes could make plants more resilient
Reinstating genes lost during domestication can make crops tougher and provides an alternative to using foreign genes to modify plants, researchers say. Wild plants tend to manage much better under harsh conditions than their cultivated relatives and many of these important properties of wild plants were unintentionally lost during thousands of years of breeding. New techniques that tinker with DNA, swapping in genes from undomesticated relatives, can make crops more similar to their original wild versions. These techniques could restore some of the properties lost in domesticated crops. More
Dutch growers cannot pay their bills
At the moment, 50% of Dutch greenhouse vegetable companies are unable to pay their bills, with another 15% having no money to invest in the company. If the sector doesn't change, the remaining 35% will also run into problems. That's what a McKinsey & Company report, looking into the position of Dutch horticulture, shows. That the Dutch greenhouse vegetable sector is not in great shape, is clear to everyone in the sector. But what is the situation exactly? The current market structure, with 15 European purchasers buying 84% of the produce, is bad in every way for the growers, and good for the buyers. A reverse auction has evolved, in which buyers can change suppliers without problems or cost. More
Youngest trees in a forest tell the biggest story
The largest trees in a forest may command the most attention, but the smallest seedlings and youngest saplings are the ones that are most critical to the composition and diversity of the forest overall. While many people gaze up into the forest canopy, one American scientist has spent much of his career looking down quite closely at the forest understory and produced a 50-year collection of data on individual trees in Australia's protected rainforests. He repeatedly ran simulation analyses on six tiers of trees based on size in order to predict the expected outcome of diversity at each tier, then compared the expected levels of diversity in each tier with the true collected data. What he found was that the seedlings are more diverse than the statistical expectations predicted them to be, but the larger trees' levels of diversity were about the same as the predictions. These results are the first quantitative evidence that the earliest life cycle stages of individual trees are more critical than later stages to the overall relative abundances of mature trees in a forest. More
Mother plants teach seeds about seasons and give them a thicker coat when it’s cold
New research has found that plants can 'remember' the seasons and use this 'memory' to modify their seeds and control the optimum time for their germination. In a study of Arabidopsis thaliana, it was found that the parent plant forms a long term temperature memory which influences the behaviour of the seeds. These temperature memories modify the seeds to adjust their germination rates and ensure that their growth and development is coordinated with the seasons. If the parent plant experiences warmer temperatures, it produces more of a protein called Flowering Locus T (FT for short) which, in the fruit of the plant represses production of tannins, making seed coats thinner and more permeable and thus able to germinate quicker. Conversely if the parent plant experiences cooler temperatures prior to flowering it will produce less FT protein in its fruit and therefore produce more tannins. Seed coats will be correspondingly thicker and less permeable and will germinate later. In this way the parent plant can manipulate seed germination in this short lived annual to be optimal for the time of year. More
Can organic crops compete?
A systematic overview of more than 100 studies comparing organic and conventional farming finds that the crop yields of organic agriculture are higher than previously thought. The study also found that certain practices could further shrink the productivity gap between organic crops and conventional farming. The yields of organic farms, particularly those growing multiple crops, compare well to those of chemically intensive agriculture. The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies — a dataset three times greater than previously published work — comparing organic and conventional agriculture. They found that organic yields are about 19.2 percent lower than conventional ones, a smaller difference than in previous estimates. More
Beneficial fungi improve drought tolerance in strawberry crops
Strawberry growers in the UK may be able to maintain yields and reduce irrigation inputs by up to 40%, by inoculating plants with naturally-occurring beneficial soil-dwelling fungi (arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi or AMF). The results of a study are especially important to fruit growers in the south-east of England where over 50% of the UK’s fruit is grown – and will be of interest to all fruit growers facing irrigation restrictions resulting from legislation affecting water abstraction. Results showed that two different species of AMF or a combination of the two all gave similar beneficial results over the control plants. This work provides an opportunity to reduce irrigation by 40% and still retain required growth and yield outputs. More
SCI Horticulture Group events are listed here
Other Events of Interest
13 - 15 Jan 2015,
The march of the Harlequin Ladybird
13 Jan 2015, James Hutton Institute
IPM Innovation in Europe
14 - 16 Jan 2015, PURE
BIGGA Turf Management Exhibition
20 - 22 Jan 2015, BIGGA
Crop Protection and the Food Chain: The Future
21 Jan 2015, Crop Protection Association
UK Brassica and Leafy Salad Conference
28 Jan 2015, Brassica Growers Association & British Leafy Salads Association
Genomics of Plant Parasite Interactions Workshop
3 - 6 Feb 2015, The British Council and the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology
4 - 6 Feb 2015, Messe Berlin
Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum
11 - 12 Feb 2015,
Salon du Vegetal
17 - 19 Feb 2015
Leek Growers’ Association Agronomy Day
19 Feb 2015, Leek Growers’ Association
25 Feb 2015, Haymarket
25 Feb 2015
British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) Business Conference & Exhbition
3 Mar 2015, British Frozen Food Federation
Medicinal Plants and Natural Products
16 - 18 Mar 2015, International Society foe Horticultural Science
Communicating reliably and effectively about plants: using names appropriately
23 - 24 Mar 2015, University of York
Global Berry Congress 2015
23 - 25 Mar 2015, Eurofruit
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Improving Soil Health - Developing tools for land managers
31 Mar 2015 - 1 Apr 2015, Association of Applied Biologists
Advances in Plant Virology
31 Mar 2015 - 2 Apr 2015, Association of Applied Biologists & Society for General Microbiology
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