Fighting Fusarium wilt to beat the bananapocalypse

Dr. Sarah Schmidt (@BananarootsBlog), Researcher and Science Communicator at The Sainsbury Laboratory Science. Sarah got hooked on both banana research and science writing when she joined a banana Fusarium wilt field trip in Indonesia as a Fusarium expert. She began blogging at https://bananaroots.wordpress.com and just filmed her first science video. She speaks at public events like the Pint of Science and Norwich Science Festival.

 

Every morning I slice a banana onto my breakfast cereal.

And I am not alone.

Every person in the UK eats, on average, 100 bananas per year.

Bananas are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals like potassium and magnesium. Their high carbohydrate and potassium content makes them a favorite snack for professional sports players; the sugar provides energy and the potassium protects the players from muscle fatigue. Every year, around 5000 kg of bananas are consumed by tennis players at Wimbledon.

But bananas are not only delicious snacks and handy energy kicks. For around 100 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, bananas are staple crops vital for food security. Staple crops are those foods that constitute the dominant portion of a standard diet and supply the major daily calorie intake. In the UK, the staple crop is wheat. We eat wheat-based products for breakfast (toast, cereals), lunch (sandwich), and dinner (pasta, pizza, beer).

In Uganda, bananas are staple crops. Every Ugandan eats 240 kg bananas per year. That is around 7–8 bananas per day. Ugandans do not only eat the sweet dessert banana that we know; in the East African countries such as Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, the East African Highland banana, called Matooke, is the preferred banana for cooking. Highland bananas are large and starchy, and are harvested green. They can be cooked, fried, boiled, or even brewed into beer, so have very similar uses wheat in the UK.

In West Africa and many Middle and South American countries, another cooking banana, the plantain, is cooked and fried as a staple crop.

In terms of production, the sweet dessert banana we buy in supermarkets is still the most popular. This banana variety is called Cavendish and makes up 47% of the world’s banana production, followed by Highland bananas (24%) and plantains (17%). Last year, I visited Uganda and I managed to combine the top three banana cultivars in one dish: cooked and mashed Matooke, a fried plantain and a local sweet dessert banana!

 

Three types of banana in a single dish in Uganda.

Another important banana cultivar is the sweet dessert banana cultivar Gros Michel, which constitutes 12% of the global production. Gros Michel used to be the most popular banana cultivar worldwide until an epidemic of Fusarium wilt disease devastated the banana export plantations in the so-called “banana republics” in Middle America (Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica) in the 1950s.

Fusarium wilt disease is caused by the soil-borne fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense (FOC). The fungus infects the roots of the banana plants and grows up through the water-conducting, vascular system of the plant. Eventually, this blocks the water transport of the plant and the banana plants start wilting before they can set fruits.

Fusarium Wilt symptoms

Fusarium Wilt symptoms

The Fusarium wilt epidemic in Middle America marked the rise of the Cavendish, the only cultivar that could be grown on soils infested with FOC. The fact that they are also the highest yielding banana cultivar quickly made Cavendish the most popular banana variety, both for export and for local consumption.

Currently, Fusarium wilt is once again the biggest threat to worldwide banana production. In the 1990s, a new race of Fusarium wilt – called Tropical Race 4 (TR4) – occurred in Cavendish plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Since then, TR4 has spread to the neighboring countries (Taiwan, the Philippines, China, and Australia), but also to distant locations such as Pakistan, Oman, Jordan, and Mozambique.

Current presence of Fusarium wilt Tropical Race 4. Affected countries are colored in red.

In Mozambique, the losses incurred by TR4 amounted to USD 7.5 million within just two years. Other countries suffer even more; TR4 causes annual economic losses of around USD 14 million in Malaysia, USD 121 million in Indonesia, and in Taiwan the annual losses amount to a whopping USD 253 million.

TR4 is not only diminishing harvests. It also raises the price of production, because producers have to implement expensive preventative measures and treatments of affected plantations. These preventive measures and treatments are part of the discussion at The World Banana Forum (WBF). The WBF is a permanent platform for all stakeholders of the banana supply chain, and is housed by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). In December 2013, the WBF created a special taskforce to deal with the threat posed by TR4.

Despite its massive impact on banana production, we know very little about the pathogen that is causing Fusarium wilt disease. We don’t know how it spreads, why the new TR4 is so aggressive, or how we can stop it.

Fusarium Wilt symptom

Fusarium Wilt symptoms in the discolored banana corm.

Breeding bananas is incredibly tedious, because edible cultivars are sterile and do not produce seeds. I am therefore exploring other ways to engineer resistance in banana against Fusarium wilt. As a scientist in the 2Blades group at The Sainsbury Laboratory, I am investigating how we can transfer resistance genes from other crop species into banana and, more recently, I have been investigating bacteria that are able to inhibit the growth and sporulation of F. oxysporum. These biologicals would be a fast and cost-effective way of preventing or even curing Fusarium wilt disease.

 

Twitter:           @BananarootsBlog

Email:              mailto:[email protected]

Website:          https://bananaroots.wordpress.com

Round-up of Fascination of Plants Day 2016

On May 18th, botany geeks around the world shared their love of plants in this year’s Fascination of Plants Day! Here’s our round-up of some of the best #fopd tweets!

First things first, test your skills with this challenging plant science quiz:

Check out some of the amazing work done by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI):

Have you read this thought-provoking post from The Guardian?

Check out these amazing ears of maize! 

Read on to learn how signals are converted to epigenetic memory:

More from BGCI:

Includes the amazing subheading “Ovules before brovules”!:

Great to hear from some of our younger plant scientists:

Some fun facts to share with your friends:

A fantastic image featuring the adaptations of marram grass to its sand-dune home:

This fascinating mutation results from an elongated apical meristem:

How long does this starch need to last? Plants use their internal circadian clock to ration their energy stores:

The loblolly pine’s genome is over seven times larger than yours!

Need more Fascinating Plants? There are lots of great ‘Roots and Shoots’ articles on eLife‘s Medium page

How did you celebrate Fascination of Plants Day this year? Let us know in the comments below!

A year at the Global Plant Council

Last April I joined the Global Plant Council as a New Media Fellow along with Sarah Jose from the University of Bristol. The GPC is a small organization with a big remit: to bring together stakeholders in the plant and crop sciences from around the world! As New Media Fellows, Sarah and I have have assisted in raising the online profile of the GPC through various social media platforms. We wrote about our experiences in growing this blog and the GPC Twitter and Facebook accounts in the The Global Plant Council Guide to Social Media, which details our successes and difficulties in creating a more established online presence.

 

Why do it?

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

I chose to apply for the fellowship during the third year of my PhD. Around this time I had started to consider that perhaps a job in research wasn’t for me. It was therefore important to gain experience outside of my daily life in the lab and field, explore possible careers outside of academia and of course to add vital lines to my CV. I still loved science, and found my work interesting, so knew I wanted to stay close to the scientific community. Furthermore, I had always enjoyed being active on Twitter, and following scientific blogs, so the GPC fellowship sounded like the perfect opportunity!

 

The experience

I think I can speak for both Sarah and myself when I say that this fellowship has been one of the best things I’ve done during my PhD. Managing this blog for a year has allowed me to speak to researchers working on diverse aspects of the plant sciences from around the world. My speed and writing efficiency have improved no end, and I can now write a decent 1000 word post in under an hour! I discovered the best places to find freely available photos, and best way to present a WordPress article. Assisting with Twitter gave me an excuse to spend hours reading interesting articles on the web – basically paid procrastination – and I got to use my creativity to come up with new ways of engaging our community.

Next career move, camera woman?

Filming interviews at the Stress Resilience Forum. Next career move, camera woman?

Of course going to Brazil for the Stress Resilience Symposium, GPC AGM and IPMB was a highlight of my year. I got to present to the international community both about my own PhD research and the work of the GPC, Sarah and I became expert camera women while making the Stress Resilience videos, and I saw the backstage workings of a conference giving out Plantae badges on the ASPB stand at IPMB. It didn’t hurt that I got to see Iguassu Falls, drink more than a few caipirinhas and spend a sneaky week in Rio de Janeiro!

Helping out on the ASPB stand

Helping out on the ASPB stand with Sarah

 

Thank you

Working with the GPC team has been fantastic. I learnt a lot about how scientific societies are run and the work they do by talking to the representatives from member societies at the AGM. The executive board have been highly supportive of our activities throughout. Last but not least, the lovely GPC ladies, Ruth, Lisa and Sarah have been an amazing team to work with – I cannot thank you enough!

I have now handed in my PhD, left the GPC, and moved on to a new career outside of academic research. I’m going into a job focused on public engagement and widening access to higher education, and have no doubt my GPC experiences have helped me get there. My advice if you’re unsure about where you want to end up after your PhD? Say “yes” to all new opportunities as you never know where they will take you.

Thank you the GPC! Hopefully I’ll be back one day!

 

Thank you! It's been amazing!

Thank you! It’s been amazing!

Creating stress resilient agricultural systems: Video interviews

The global population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, and to accommodate this, crop production must increase by 60% in the next 35 years. Furthermore, our global climate is rapidly changing, putting our cropping systems under more strain than ever before. Agriculture will need to adapt to accommodate more extreme weather events and changing conditions that may mean increased instance of drought, heatwaves or flooding. The Global Plant Council Stress Resilience initiative, was created to address these issues.

Back in October the Global Plant Council, in collaboration with the Society for Experimental Biology brought together experts from around the world at a Stress Resilience Forum to identify gaps in current research, and decide how best the plant science community can move forwards in terms of developing more resilient agricultural systems. We interviewed a number of researchers throughout the meeting, asking about their current work and priorities for the future.  Watch the best bits in the video below:

Plant scientists respond: “Plants are boring!”

Throughout my PhD, I often found myself explaining why plants are fascinating, justifying why I was devoting four years of my life to researching the minute details of their biology.

A few weeks ago, I thought I’d ask the #plantsci community on Twitter what makes them love plants. The response was phenomenal, so I thought I’d share it here as a fun way to transition to 2017!

(This is just a handful of the huge number of comments. To read them all, click here.)

 

 

Many of us are amazed by the fact that they can fend for themselves, rather than running away from harsh conditions or predators:

 

Don’t worry though, because plants can fight back:


They can alter their environments in really interesting ways too:

   

A lot of people are interested in plant reproduction:

 

 Some species can survive for millennia:


Much of the rest of the ecosystem relies on them…


… and of course, they give us much of what we need to survive…


We need to highlight how amazing plants are, to counteract “plant blindness”:


Plant blindness means that many people are unaware of the amazing things that are happening around them:


Being scientists, a lot of people liked how easy plants are to work with!

Some of the biggest scientific discoveries were made in plants:


In conclusion:

Thanks to everyone who took part in this twitter chat! This is just a subset of the huge number of comments we received. To read them all, click here!

Have we missed anything? Why do you love plants?

The Global Plant Council Guide To Social Media

Here at the GPC we love social media. It provides a fantastic platform upon which we can spread awareness about our organisation and the work we do. Since Lisa Martin’s appointment as Outreach and Communications Manager in February of this year, and the New Media Fellows two months later, we have expanded our online presence and are reaching more people than ever before. We still have a way to go, but here are a few things we’ve learnt over the past year that might provide you with a bit more social media know-how.

  1. Tweet, tweet, and tweet some more

To increase your following as an individual try to produce maybe one or two good tweets everyday. If you’re tweeting on behalf of an organization and have more time or people power, 5–8 tweets a day should be your target.

Global Plant Council twitter account

The Global Plant Council twitter account now has over 1500 followers. Find us @GlobalPlantGPC

Our Twitter following has grown rapidly over the past year. We had 294 followers on Twitter in September 2014 and now have over 1500! Much of this has been down to there now being four of us maintaining the account rather than Ruth Bastow (@PlantScience) on her own.

The more you tweet, and the better you tweet, the more followers you will get. Things move fast in the Twittersphere, so just a few days of inactivity can mean you drop off the radar.

For more hints about using Twitter see this great article from Mary Williams (@PlantTeaching): Conference Tweeting for Plant Scientists Part 1 and Part 2.

  1. If your followers won’t come to you, go to your followers

Decide on who you want to connect with, find out which social media platform they se most, and set yourself up!

As a global organization we want to connect with all our members and plant scientists around the world, so we need to use different means of communication to do this. In April 2015 we set up a Spanish language Twitter account with Juan Diego Santillana Ortiz (@yjdso), an Ecuadorian-born PhD student at Heinrich-Heine University in Dusseldorf, Germany, who translates our tweets into Spanish.

Of course Twitter is not universally popular, and our main following seems to come from the

Scoopit

The newest edition to the GPC social media family is our GPC Scoop.It account which you can find here

UK and US. To connect with those choosing to use different communication platforms, New Media Fellow Sarah Jose set up a GPC Scoop.It account in September 2015. Around this time we also set up a GPC Facebook page after many of our member organizations told us this was their primary means of connecting with their communities. Although relatively new, this page is slowly gaining momentum and we hope it will provide a great outlet for conversation in the future. Find out about which of our member organizations are on Facebook here.

If there’s a site you use to stay up to date with science content that we don’t have a presence on, do let us know and we will look into setting up an account!

  1. Generate your own content

Ultimately, the best way to expand your reach online is to generate your own content.

The GPC blog was started in October 2014, and in its first 14 months of life received an average of 142 views per month. However, since Lisa, myself and Sarah started working with the GPC, we have been generating one blog post every week, with the result of our monthly views shooting up to almost 700 views per month since May.

This just shows that generating interesting and regular content really does work in terms of increasing reach and online presence. All these blog posts have also contributed towards a growing following on our various social media sites over the past six months.

If you want to write for us, please send us an email or get in touch on Twitter! We are always looking for contributions from the plant science community. Perhaps you’ve recently attended a scientific meeting, are doing a really cool piece of research, organized a great outreach activity or have seen something relevant in the news. Whatever it is, we want to know.

We’re also happy to write about the GPC for your blog or website, so if you would like us to contribute an article, please get in touch!

  1. Cover as many platforms as possible

Try to have a global presence across as many platforms as you think you can maintain, although an inactive account on any social media site won’t do you any favors, so don’t take on too much!

I’ve already described our presence on Twitter, Facebook, Scoop.It and the blog, all of which help make our organization accessible, however people want to use social media.

In addition to this we of course have the GPC website, and Lisa sends out a monthly e-Bulletin providing a summary of all the information published on the website for that month. Anyone can sign up here to stay up to date with our activities, and it’s free!

In a bid to further reach out to members that perhaps don’t engage with social media (yet!), Lisa wrote this article explaining what the GPC does and sent it out to be published by our various member organizations.

  1. Plantae
New Media Fellow Sarah Jose promotes our new Plantae platform at IPMB 2015

New Media Fellow Sarah Jose promotes our new Plantae platform at IPMB 2015

Confession time, this isn’t really a helpful hint on how to use social media, but Plantae is so good it deserves a section all on its own!

We are hoping Plantae, set up by the GPC in collaboration with the ASPB, and with support from the SEB, will be the digital ecosystem for the plant science community. It will provide a platform for plant scientists to collaborate with one another, network, and access journals, advice and jobs. You can read more about Plantae on our blog, here.

It’s now in beta testing and you can sign up to give it a go at http://www.plantae.org. Let us know what you think!

An Interview with Mary Williams: Plant Teaching & Social Media

Mary Williams headshotThis week we spoke to Mary Williams about plant science education, her role as features editor of The Plant Cell, and effective use of social media for scientists.

 

 

 

What inspired you to focus your career on education in the plant sciences? 

As a biochemistry student whose friends were arts majors, I discovered that I really enjoyed the challenge of explaining things through plain language and analogy. After a postdoc I took a faculty position at a primarily undergraduate institution where professors were encouraged to explore different approaches to teaching.

By sharing ideas and resources through ASPB Teaching Tools in Plant Biology, workshops, and my blog, I try to help young scientists gain confidence and become better teachers.

How have people responded to the Teaching Tools in Plant Biology (TTPB) you have developed, and how are these being used?

The response has been really positive. I regularly hear from undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, lab heads and educators who are using them for a multitude of purposes including lesson preparation, self-learning and outreach. The articles can be accessed through most university libraries or via ASPB membership. They are also available throughout the developing world through the AGORA program.

The teaching tools articles are quite technical, so we didn’t anticipate that high school teachers would want to read them. However, in response to their expressed interest I started posting interesting newsclips and videos onto the various social media sites that I manage. This summer we’re moving all of the content onto a new platform, Plantae.org, which will provide a centralized place for educators to connect in what I have described as a Global Plant Science Learning Community. I’m really excited about providing a space for people to share their ideas and promote discussions about effective plant science teaching.

Why do you think teaching the plant sciences in an inspirational way proves so difficult?

The biggest obstacle is the preconception that plants are not interesting, which too often is conveyed by teachers in primary and secondary education. Additionally, many students have no first-hand experience of growing or caring for a plant, and this first-hand experience is really key. We find that many of the most engaged young people have grown up in close contact with plants, perhaps through a family’s involvement in agriculture or horticulture.

In terms of status and salaries, our society places a much higher value on medical sciences and medical research than the plant sciences; the tangible rewards of working with and studying plants are not always evident.

How can we better capture student imaginations when it comes to plants?

Giving students the opportunity to physically engage and inquire about plants is critical, and this has to span from the earliest years through university education. Students need to use all of their senses when exploring plants, and being allowed to explore in an open-ended way lets students develop an interest and curiosity about plants.

This idea of exploration and open-ended inquiry should continue into university, even in large lecture classes. Give students a pea in a pot to take home and observe. Hand out Brussels sprouts, green onions and daisies for students to pull apart and examine. Use some class time to pose open-ended questions. Good ideas are plentiful!

Innovative tools and support for teachers can also be found on sites such as Wisconsin Fast Plants developed by Paul Williams, SAPS and PlantingScience.org.

You are features editor for The Plant Cell. What does this role involve? 

TTPB is published by The Plant Cell, and we made the decision early on to focus our effort on the teaching of upper-level plant biology. This is the point at which students transition from using textbooks to the primary literature.

To write each article, I read dozens of recent papers and review articles to identify the key questions and the foundational concepts a student needs. I then create both a written article and an image-rich version of the information. Images are powerful ways to explain difficult concepts, and also are useful to people who teach and learn in languages other than English. After I finish the articles I send them out to several experts for peer review. I update the articles regularly so that they continue to reflect our current understanding.

A new initiative this year has been to draw on the talents of the community to develop additional Teaching Tools topics. We’ve been running competitions to solicit pre-proposals for development into Teaching Tools – you can read more about that here.

When did you first get involved with social media? How can social media platforms such as blogging and Twitter be of benefit to researchers? 

My social media roots stretch back to the early 1990s when I was active in the usenet email-based Arabidopsis and Plant Education newsgroups. These networks were excellent sources of resources, ideas and support as I became an independent researcher and educator.

I started using Twitter, ScoopIt and Facebook in earnest in 2011 with the encouragement of Sarah Blackford (@BiosciCareers) and the Global Plant Council’s Ruth Bastow (@plantscience). Like many people, I quickly realized the power of Twitter and other social media tools as a way to connect and converse with the broader community of plant scientists, plant educators, and other plant enthusiasts. Social media not only lets me meet and learn from plant scientists from around the world, but also keep abreast of new publications and get a glimpse into what is being discussed at conferences.

Mary identifying moss in the west of Scotland

Mary identifying moss in the west of Scotland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary’s top tips for getting started on social media:

  1. Apply the same social rules online as you would in real life
  2. Be friendly
  3. Give credit where it’s due
  4. Avoid talking about religion and politics; be culturally sensitive
  5. Listen a lot, talk a little
  6. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to get noticed
  7. Be professional; swearing, gossip and slander are common in the social sphere, but when it’s being broadcast to the world and recorded for posterity, think twice