Science secrets of Harpenden research centre offer hope for our planet's future

PUBLISHED: 07:04 23 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:56 06 May 2010

Charlotte and Dr Huw Jones, head of the cereal transformation lab, inspect some of the strains of wheat grown at the centre

Charlotte and Dr Huw Jones, head of the cereal transformation lab, inspect some of the strains of wheat grown at the centre

TRESPASSERS beware – bloodsucking beasties, genetically mutated plants and mad scientists await anyone who stumbles off the beaten track and into Rothamsted Research Centre territory. But I am no stranger to danger and so when I was invited to take a tour

Charlotte inspects a machine once used for extracting soil samples with Professor Keith Goulding

TRESPASSERS beware - bloodsucking beasties, genetically mutated plants and mad scientists await anyone who stumbles off the beaten track and into Rothamsted Research Centre territory.

But I am no stranger to danger and so when I was invited to take a tour of the building in Harpenden, I accepted straight away.

Creepy crawlies aside, Rothamsted is the largest agricultural research centre in the UK and as it boasts on its website, at 160 years old it is "almost certainly" the oldest one of its kind in the world. But what exactly happens at an agricultural research centre? It was up to my tour guide for the day, head of external relations Dr Sharon Hall, to show me the ropes.

Our first meeting was with Dr James Logon, a chemical ecologist who studies "anything that bites" and is currently trying to find an eco-friendly way to repel the nation's most hated insects - mosquitoes.

Mosquitos

These blood-thirsty pests are repelled by some naturally-occurring chemicals and James is on a mission to find out exactly which ones, and then create some kind of miracle spray for humans to use on their holidays.

But that is no easy task and James uses an array of complex methods and machines for his work. One of them involves knocking a mosquito out cold with ice, chopping off its antennae (or 'nose', to me and you), sticking a micro-electrode into it and passing various chemicals over the tiny antennae to see - or hear, if you use a super fancy machine - how the antennae responds.

James will do anything for the sake of science and to analyse what chemicals human beings produce (we each emit a mix of about 500), he spent three years of his PhD zipping various friends up in thermal survival bags, collecting their smelly chemicals and turning the odours into liquid sweat. Nice. Especially if the test subject had eaten a curry and garlic bread the night before, as James once had the misfortune to find out.

Following further conversations about bed bugs and midges, I was feeling fairly itchy by the time we left James and so Sharon whisked me off to an insect-free part of the building to meet Dr Femke van den Berg, a biologist-cum-mathematician who likes nothing better than to study the evolution of diseases.

Using her brilliant maths skills, Femke can even apply homemade maths models to data in order to predict the future health of crops.

Later on in the canteen, her colleague Professor Chris Rawlings told me that he used one of these giant equations (he often leaves work with a headache) to work out that hotter weather in the future is likely to have an adverse impact on wheat yields.

Femke is a firm believer in the marriage between biology and maths and she goes out of her way to promote her favourite subjects to the youth of today.

As a STEM ambassador - everyday people who volunteer their free time to inspire youngsters - Femke often visits local schools to teach the pupils a bit of biomathematics.

Did you know, for example, that you can spot the Fibonacci sequence on everything from the flowering of an artichoke to the arrangement of a pine cone?

Next up was a visit to see Dr Huw Jones, head of the cereal transformation lab.

With a title like that, images of morphed Shredded Wheat and mutated bran flakes sprang to my mind and I was not far off the mark.

Huw has the technology to "cut and stick" genes from one plant to another and could, in theory, create anything from a tomato-sprouting wheat plant to supersize sprouts.

But every genetically modified (GM) project has to be given the go-ahead by Rothamsted's GM safety committee and any GM plants they grow have to be thoroughly burnt when the scientists are done with them to make sure that not so much as a GM piece of pollen escapes into the atmosphere.

Plants have just under 30,000 genes and at the moment Huw is working on identifying which ones make a plant good at absorbing nitrogen.

Then, using a petri dish and a pipette, he can create plants which, instead of relying on nitrogen-pumped pesticides, can absorb nitrates from the soil at a super-fast pace.

With the smell of cooking plants hot on our heels, Sharon and I left Huw and his GM crops (or his "babies", as he likes to call them) in the greenhouse and headed off to meet Professors Keith Goulding and Andy Whitmore.

Both of them are self-confessed soil connoisseurs (yes, there is such a thing) and we finally caught up with them in the soil incendiary, a never-ending corridor which is home to thousands of neatly stacked jars of soil.

Rothamsted has been collecting soil for hundreds of years and Keith was particularly proud of one jar, a musty-smelling five kilo sample taken from 1846 just three years after Rothamsted was established.

What was with the soil hoarding, I wondered? Apparently, from just a teeny sample of soil these professors can tell what the weather was like in ye olde days and can even make models from current samples to predict future climate changes - be prepared for sunny spells and light showers in 2020 folks.

Time for more bugs and one of our final visits was to see Dr Richard Harrington, who looks after 40 foot-high traps dotted around the country.

Bug catchers

These upside-down vacuum cleaners catch any insects unfortunate enough to fly past them and are emptied every single day so the Rothamsted scientists can keep track of bug populations.

Midges, for example, are taking the world by storm at the moment, so keep an eye out if you are off to the Scottish Highlands on your summer holidays.

Over a fish and chips lunch, Dr Ian Denholm, head of plants and invertebrate ecology, told us how working at Rothamsted is "far more than just a job" and other than a quick lunch break and a drink or two at the Rothamsted bar, these scientists never seem to take a break.

Ian has had 140 scientific papers published and he once spent four years solid on an experiment to see if GM crops affected biodiversity (answer: "only very slightly").

Meeting Dr Angela Karp was my final port of call and she amazed me with her talk of alternative fuel sources. Rothamsted thinks it can "grow energy" by breaking down the sugars in a humble willow tree plant cell and converting them into biofuel.

Forget woven baskets: if this works, willow will be the latest renewable energy source and we could be walking amidst miles of willow tree farms in the future.

From homemade thimbles of sweat to super-strong plants and 40-year-old midge samples, I had seen enough wonders to last me a lifetime over the course of my tour.

Rothamsted is a treasure trove of secrets and, with the answer to the fossil fuel problem safely tucked away in my notebook, I left feeling very important indeed.


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