Plants, Microbes and Climate Change at Ness Botanic Gardens’ Family Science Fair

 

di and georgeThe annual Family Science Fair, held during British Science Week on the 10th March, was one of Ness Botanic Gardens’ largest public engagement events. This year, the event attracted over 1000 visitors. Amongst these, many families took the opportunity to visit Ness, and came in for an afternoon of fun, science-oriented hands-on activities, demonstrations or talks. Members of Raj Whitlock’s research group (Christoph Hahn, Di Yang, Toby Irving, Yuan-Fu Chan) ran a stall themed around “Plants, Microbes and Climate Change”. Both kids and “bigger kids” learned about soil microbes and where they live, what they do, but also how climatic changes might affect belowground ecosystems. We introduced some of the most important soil microbial species that help to maintain the health of plants, using an interactive poster. One of our aims was to reveal the belowground world of soil as an interacting and extremely diverse network of microbes that has strong effects on the plants above. To help our visitors understand how this belowground world fits together, we prepared observation pots (“rhizotrons”) and a big tank containing plants rooted into see-through Phytagel. Visitors of all ages were amazed to see intricate the root networks of plant roots growing into a translucent gel. Many visitors also took part in a competition to guess the number of microbes present in 1 g of soil, with a chance to win a cuddly toy (plushy) version of the common cold or flesh-eating disease. The day was an extremely positive one, and widely appreciated by visitors, some of whom did not want to leave the exhibition! There is just under one year to wait until the next Family Science Fair at Ness…team whitlock

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Knowledge Exchange – Advancing Food Security with Sensors and Analytical Instrumentation

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Dr Simon Maher (EEE) with Dr Iain Young (IIB) and Prof Joe Spencer (EEE) in Thailand last week as part of an Institutional Links Award with Chulalongkorn University where they delivered a workshop Advancing Food Security with Sensors and Analytical Instrumentation to staff and students from Chulalongkorn University and representatives from leading Thai biotechnology and food companies. They also provided their partners on the Award, Dr Thanit Praneenararat and Prof. Tirayut Vilaivan, a prototype bespoke portable Ion Mobility Spectrometer to test for antibiotics in food utilizing technologies developed jointly with the partners. While in Thailand, the group met with several companies in the global food industry including senior managers from the CP Group (seen in the picture), a global conglomerate with revenues > $45 billion USD. The plan is to expand the utility of the devices for the food and biotechnology sector and to expand its capability to include detection and quantification of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, food-borne pathogens and other contaminants.

 

AEC Outreach at BBC Gardeners’ Question Time

The BBC Gardeners’ question time event at Ness Botanical Gardens on the 16th of September was a great avenue for Researchers from the Department for Evolution, Ecology and Behaviour to showcase how the nature of gardens is underpinned by ecology and evolution.

Gardens are much more than the plants they contain. Georgia Drew, Jo Griffin & Louise Reynolds introduced visitors to the fascinating world of bees, butterflies, fruit flies and the ecosystem of microbial symbionts that these organisms host. Visitors were fascinated and horrified, in equal measure, at the case of male-killing bacteria in a population of tropical butterflies. Many were eager to know the potential applications of such information, including the fascinating role of symbionts in the control of aphid and other plant pest populations. Jo talked to the BBC producers about the use of symbionts in the prevention of insect-borne disease.

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Meanwhile, Franziska Brunner, Stew Plaistow & David Atkinson gave tours around their newly-renovated experimental ponds at Ness, and introduced visitors to their work on climate change impacts on aquatic ecosystems and pond life. Many were very impressed by the experimental ponds, and the logistics and methods needed to carry out this kind of study. The group’s pond-dipping tour gave visitors a chance to reconnect with their “inner child”, and come face-to-face with the incredible biodiversity concealed just beneath the surface of the garden pond. Catching sticklebacks turned out to be a major attraction during these pond-dipping sessions!

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Last but not least, visitors attended guided tours of an ongoing long-term experiment investigating how grassland plants cope with climate change, given by Raj Whitlock, Christoph Hahn, Di Yang, and George Airey. Visitors learned of the vital importance of grasslands for conservation and for providing crucial services to people, and of the threats posed to grasslands by climate change. The tour introduced a large drought manipulation experiment comprising 1,952 model grasslands, which assessed the potential for climate-driven evolution within plant species. After some hands-on botanical training, almost all of the visitors were able to identify all of the plant species in this experiment (although there were none keen enough to taste the delicious salad burnet [Sanguisorba minor] or sweet vernal grass [Anthoxanthum odoratum] on offer).

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All of us were impressed by the depth of questions that visitors asked, and by their enthusiasm for the underpinning science. It was a rewarding day, and we are looking forward to our next visit to Ness!

Grasslands at Ness Family Science Fair

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Raj Whitlock and PhD student Di Yang took part in the Ness Family Science Fair for British Science Week in March. They manned a stall with model grassland communities, and talked with members of the public about the importance of plants, how plants work, grasslands, their conservation and threats to plants from climate change. Their installation at the science fair also included a grassland-inspired arts area, which became a popular relaxation point for parents and kids in the hustle and bustle of the event (which was attended by ~1500 people).

The Fascination of Plants

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PhD student Di Yang took part in the Fascination of Plants Day event at Liverpool’s World Museum in May. Di helped inspire visitors of all ages with the fascination of plants, helping them to make recycled pots out of newspaper and to plant sunflowers, runner beans and pak-choi. It was a great day with 856 family visitors to our section of the event.

Harambee! Let’s all work together!

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An exciting part of the activities of the Mara Herbivore Research project is the work we do with the local communities around Talek in Kenya. For more than a decade we have been running a training course for Kenyans working in the tourist sector. Here we develop the knowledge and skills required to work as a professional tourist guide. The main focus is on making up-to-date scientific knowledge about the African ecosystems and their inhabitants accessible locally. It leads to many stimulating discussions when we are comparing research findings with local ideas about nature: sometimes science is merely confirming what has been long known locally, sometimes the two are at odds and we discuss why this may be.

We also teach on the ecology and conservation of African ecosystems at primary and secondary schools in both Kenya and the UK. Here it is encouraging to experience the connection that kids everywhere have with nature and feel their enthusiasm. We are always hoping that we may inspire some to follow a career in science or conservation later on.

As opportunities arise, we moreover give talks to raise the awareness of the general public on the urgent threats facing Africa’s savannas, particularly from encroaching human populations, intensifying livestock production, poaching and climate change. In doing so, we encourage locals to reflect on the sustainability of some current land-use practices, and we seek to convey to people elsewhere that conservation in developing countries is a global responsibility.

For more details about Dr Jakob Bro-Jorgensen‘s work, click on this link: Mara Herbivore Research project

IIB researcher features in award winning documentary on synchronised swimmers

Dr Michael Berenbrink’s research is a major focus of an award winning TV documentary about the world-best synchronised swimmers. The documentary, made by Japan’s public broadcasting company, NHK,  won the first prize in the Sports Activity Category in  the 2017 World Media Festival, with the prize awarded on at festival in Hamburg on the 10th of May.

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The documentary is available on YouTube miracle body documentary. Although in Japanses, the footage of the athletes and their under and over water acrobatics is stunning. Dr Berenbrink was involved in filming in Tokyo, Barcelona and Liverpool, and developed a protocol for measuring changes in the size of the red blood cell storing spleen while the athletes were holding their breath in an MRI scanner, and compares the athletes’ abilities to those of specialised diving mammals, such as otters.

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