New gold in them thar hills

By Mariecia Fraser

We’ve just had the first paper from the daffodil project published – hurray!  But why are we so interested in daffodils?  Well, it’s because they are a source of a plant chemical called galanthamine (gal/anth/amine), which is used to produce the pharmaceutical product galantamine (gal/ant/amine).  Galantamine is an approved treatment for Alzeimer’s disease.  It isn’t a cure (the world is still waiting for one of those) but it can help alleviate the symptoms and slow down progression of the disease.  However, at the moment it is estimated that the global demand for the product is ten-times greater than the supply.

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Cross sections of the brain showing atrophy, or shrinking, of brain tissue caused by Alzheimer’s disease (more here).

A whole group of plants, including other garden favourites such as snowdrops and snowflakes, produces galanthamine as a chemical defence.  However, of these, only daffodils have the potential to be cropped, and the UK is already the world leader in terms of the supply of cut daffodils and bulbs (yes, really – no, not the Netherlands).  But while production for the cut flower and bulb markets is concentrated on better quality soils in coastal areas, there could be big advantages to growing daffodils for galanthamine in upland areas.  The plants produce the chemical in response to stress, and growing in poorer soils in cold, wet conditions could help trigger higher concentrations.

But of course we can’t just go ploughing up hillsides to plant daffodils without risking serious environmental damage.  So our project is taking a completely different tack and evaluating the potential of sowing lines of daffodils into long-term upland permanent pasture and then harvesting the green growth in spring.  Our first experiment tested this approach in small-scale plots at five different locations.  These ranged in altitude from 250 m (850 ft) to 430 m (1400 ft) above seas level, all on poorer soils.  The good news was that the concentrations of the galanthamine were higher than reported in previous lowland and lab-based studies.  However, the biomass yields were lower than we were hoping for.  As a result, sets of new experimental plots planted up last October will be exploring the extent to which different agronomic factors affect the amount of harvestable material available.  Without this information it’s not possible to weigh up the true economic potential of it all as yet.

You can read the full paper here.

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That was the year that was

By Mariecia Fraser

happy-new-year-fb-coverAs the year turns it’s difficult not to reflect on the tumultuous votes and events of the past twelve months.  Who’d have guessed this time last year we’d be where we are now; 2016 was certainly the year we learned to expect the unexpected!

But keeping it closer to home, the past twelve months have seen lots of exciting new developments at Pwllpeiran. We started the year with just four of us based at the site, but by February Dan had arrived to begin his PhD project on the effect of management on soil/plant/animal interactions within permanent pasture.  After weeks out in the field taking hundreds of soil samples the data is just starting roll in; always an exciting time!

A month later Prof Mike Wilkinson arrived with tales of wombats, stress and plant reproduction, and before we knew it we’d learned a whole new vocabulary.  Epigenetics and methylation are new regular topics of conversation around the Pwllpeiran kitchen table!  Mike’s brought a whole new perspective to the science at Pwllpeiran, and ideas for new projects are flowing thick and fast.  The coming year is most definitely going to involve an awful lot of grant writing.

hsSoon after, in April, Hannah became part of the team, managing the day-to-day running of the daffodil project. She brought with her a fantastic set of skills related to fieldwork, labs and cameras. Watch out for more creative photo and film updates in 2017. We have had to tighten up our risk assessments though!

Over the year we have been delighted to show hundreds of visitors around Pwllpeiran.  Those of you that have been on one of our tours will know just how enthusiastic we are about the uplands and the research we’re doing.  And if you haven’t been yet, why not add it to your list of things to do in 2017?!  As well as our ‘day visitors’, we also had the pleasure of hosting a visiting researcher from Bulgaria.  Dr Renáta Sándor was awarded a Stapledon Memorial Travel Fellowship to spend three months with us adapting a pasture simulation model for use with marginal grasslands.  The scientific and cultural exchanges were excellent and time just flew.  We waved Renáta off just before Christmas, but her desk won’t be empty for long as several new faces are due to join us in January.

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Sharing festive traditions. From left: Dan, Ben, Renata, John, Mariecia and Hannah

For a while over the summer we weren’t sure if we were going to be waving goodbye to Ben as well.  His Knowledge Transfer Partnership project on regulatory pathways came to an end in September.  But while working at Pwllpeiran he’d been bitten by the research bug, and over the summer he successfully applied for a new IBERS PhD studentship, developed in collaboration with the RSPB and the Elan Valley Trust.  It’s a joint project with Computing Science and will involve all sorts of novel technologies.  Another great example of the way Pwllpeiran is pushing boundaries.

So those were some of the highs of 2016; what about the lows?  Well, it’s been tough to watch inexplicably influential national and international political figures promote a culture devaluing experts and undermining science.  As we head into uncharted territory, we need well informed, evidence-based decision-making more than ever.

Another, more practical, cause of much frustration and interesting language has been the exceptionally poor broadband we have at Pwllpeiran; a common enough problem in many rural areas. With more people trying to access the main university network our on-site system regularly grinds to a complete halt, almost inevitably just as a deadline looms.  But our area is one of many that has seen green fibre-optic cable being strung up alongside existing copper lines, with promises of unimaginable link speeds to come.  They’ve missed all the predicted completions dates so far, so fingers crossed 2017 is the year superfast finally becomes fact rather than fantasy.