PhD Life Trips: My Brazilian Experience

In September, I was lucky enough to be invited to join a group of fellow Environmental Scientists on a trip to the beautiful Brazil! The group consisted of three academics and three very over-excited PhD students. The aim of the trip was to set up collaborative work with a University in the North Federal Rural University of the Amazon (URFA) based in Belem. Additional academics, who had previous links with the University of Nottingham, also attended the meetings in Belem facilitating a great collaboration between three Universities in inter-disciplinary areas.

Acai seeds are a waste product in Brazil. While in Brazil, we discussed producing charcoal from Acai and exploring the potential positive benefits on soil.

Acai seeds are a waste product in Brazil. While in Brazil, we discussed producing charcoal from Acai and exploring the potential positive benefits on soil.

Whilst in Brazil, the first thing that struck me was the different approach to research. Many of the Brazilian academics and post-docs couldn’t understand why we wanted to work in collaboration with them, other than the obvious: getting to visit Brazil!! The trip to Brazil was especially exciting for me as the concept on which I base my PhD project, biochar, originated from ancient Amazonian farming practises where charcoal is added to soils to improve fertility. So working with Brazilians on the topic really brought out the geek in me! The local academics loved the enthusiasm, but couldn’t completely relate. I learnt that the agricultural sector faces a lot of social issues. There are the huge companies, such as Monsanto, which dominate the market in the South and are trying to penetrate the North, where farming is seen more on a sustenance level. The North struggle with a reduced capacity for farming due to protection of the rainforest therefore reduced land. The reduced capacity, sustenance levels and pressure from corporations means farmers in the North are reluctant to make any changes to their tried and tested farming practices. Any additions or changes to the farming traditions in the North need to be 100% beneficial due to the heavy reliance on local farms for food. While in Brazil, my understanding of the extent to which locals depend on farming massively increased, putting into context the impact of my own PhD work.

While in Belem I was asked to present my work on soil remediation through biochar amendment to soils, and after seeing the enthusiasm for biochar in the area, I was excited to present my ideas! The language barrier made the presenting difficult, but thankfully a postdoc was on hand to act as translator. The academics then presented suggestions or potential oversights within our projects which, although slightly daunting, turned out to be extremely beneficial. The presentation was given in a fairly relaxed manner allowing the Brazilian academics and postgrad students to be critical without being intimidating. The feedback as extremely useful to really get me thinking and highlighted the importance of having clear aims in order to develop the impact of my work. After the presentations we enjoyed the sun set over the amazon with a beer: I definitely felt I deserved it due to the interrogation after my presentation!
Overall I found the trip extremely interesting as I got to observe first hand how different education, farming and economic systems work globally! It was also great to see the potential impact my work could be having, a long way down the line… The key drive for sustainability in Brazil was brilliant and is something the UK agricultural industry could learn a thing or two from. The country values the magnificence of the rainforest and understands that any newly developed technologies need to respect and maintain the forest. Brazil. It was an absolute pleasure and I have no doubt I will be back- as long as I can string together a few quid for the air fare!

The amazing Amazonian sunset

The amazing Amazonian sunset

Rosie Brian

The University of Nottingham



Improving the sex lives of plants… and saving the world!!

Food security is defined as everyone having access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. This has been a concern for decades, and advances have been made toward reaching this goal. In the 1960s, the ‘Green Revolution’ saw grain production double in some countries thanks to new cultivars. Notably, this included dwarf wheat varieties developed by Norman Borlaug, who has been credited with saving one billion lives.

Once again, in 2015, we face an impending food crisis. Earth’s population has been booming at an unprecedented rate. In 2011, the Day of 7 billion was declared, and by 2050 we expect the Day of 10 billion. This will place a huge strain on agriculture. To have sufficient food, agricultural output needs to increase by approximately 60%. Currently, this output only increases at an average of 1.1% per year. And just to make it worse, climate change will bring a wave of issues all of its own!

So why are we struggling?

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that can be produced within two years are still not permitted for human consumption in the EU, and so we are still largely reliant on traditional breeding methods. Developing crops this way can take decades. Why? It turns out that plants are not particularly good at recombining their genes; this is why we are interested in plant sex!

Specifically, we’re interested in meiosis: the production of gametes, during which inter-homolog recombination occurs, and genetic diversity is introduced. This shuffling of alleles is what the traditional breeding methods rely on. Yet our main food crops maize, rice, wheat, and barley have biological constraints on where these sites of recombination (crossovers) occur. In barley, for example, only the ends of the chromosomes recombine, leaving the gene-rich interstitial and proximal regions relatively untouched. This limits the genetic variation available to breeders.

We need to learn how to manipulate meiosis; we need to find key players in the recombination process, and work out if changing their role can allow us to harness all of the allelic variation available. The chromosome axis is a key area of current research, as it is proposed that where the axis bends when placed under torsional strain is what designates a crossover site. This is because crossovers cut straight through the chromosome axis in preparation for swapping that section of the chromosome with its homolog, therefore reducing tension in that area.

The questions we ask therefore relate to how we might be able to increase tension along the axis to induce the requirement for more crossovers. Related to this is the question of crossover interference: the phenomenon identified in 1914 that crossovers tend to form far away from each other due to ‘interference’. Can we manipulate how far the interference ‘signal’ spreads, allowing crossovers to form more closely together?

Agriculture is finally paying the price for years of selecting for homogeneity, and what we now require are tools to influence what genes we can introduce into new cultivars.

Plant sex is far more important than you might have thought!


Alice Darbyshire

The University of Birmingham


News Round-Up October 5th-11th

Bioscience news 1

Hello, and welcome to the #bioscisews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

Pitcher plants’ ant trap. Until recently, carnivorous plants fell into two classes, active and passive, based on how they ‘receive’ their prey. Venus fly traps are an example of ‘active’ carnivorous plants, while all pitcher plants were thought to be ‘passive’. However a species of pitcher plant has now been classified as a ‘free energy’ species, as it uses the force of raindrops hitting its unique lid, to fling ants into its pitcher for digestion.

ants crawling on a pitcher plant leaf

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Mammals flourish at Chernobyl. The human exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is acting as the perfect method of creating a virtually human free nature reserve, and a long-term study has found that mammals appear to be flourishing under these conditions.

Roe deer near Chernobyl nuclear power plant (c) Tatyana Deryabina

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Decline of the cactus? A global study has concluded that almost one third of cactus species are under threat, due to over harvesting, slow growth and small distribution range.

Carnegiea gigantea (Image: Craig Hilton-Taylor)

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Hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Stewart Barker                                                                                                                   The University of Sheffield                                                                                                     @Stewart_Barker