A batter way to make sugar

If you ever need inspirations for a blogpost, buy a dozen(or two) doughnuts and 1)bribe your friends so they can give you some ideas 2) feed your brain so it can think!

While indulging in some chocolate doughnuts ( it was the K brand if you were interested), my friend inspired me to write about them. After all, food is my number one passion in life and I’d like to keep away from alcohol posts for now.

So, doughnuts. It is calorific and very, very tasty.   It is the white sweet chemicals that makes you high and apparently,  stupid as well (covered by daily mail on this study by UCLA) .  Sugar is a core part of our western diet and increasingly, the demand has been soaring partly because of the developing countries .  Climate change is not the only global problem that we are going to face by 2050, we areexpecting to provide sugar ( and other types of food)  for a few other billion people  in the next few decades. How is it going to be possible?

Sugar is made from a natural process called photosynthesis, where plants turn sunlight into sugar and use it as an energy source. We and other animals are useless in this aspect, we cannot make our own food from walking round under the sun.  The growing demand of food means scientists are looking at ways to improve photosynthetic yield. Professor Howard Griffiths and his team, from University of Cambridge, are planning to  genetic modify photosynthesis to improve its yield.

Photosynthesis takes place in chloroplast where it contains all the sugar-making machinery. Although it is a complex machinery and have a long evolutionary history, it is not perfect.  Theoretically photosynthesis is only 5% efficient, which means most of the energy is lost to detoxifying itself from the harmful by-products during photosynthesis. By looking at ways to overcome this challenge in plants, we can potentially increase the yield for food production or biofuels with the same amount of light energy.  There are a few ways you could do this and the Cambridge team has focused on two initiatives . Firstly, they aim to improve the enzyme activity. Some other plants such as maize and pineapple, have evolved to use a more efficient process called Carbon 4 ( C4) to improve its efficiency.  Another group has the idea of broadening the spectrum of  “functional” light in chloroplast so plants can use a wider range of light. Both of these ideas are recognised by the plant science community as the best way forward to increase yield. It is a battle between the two groups to see who can win the sweet prize of success.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite biology song of all times ; I often play this song for my A-level students as an intro to the world of photosynthesis



Shall we pop a bottle for climate change?

[Following my most popular post on Gin and Tonic , I have scraped my original plan and decided to write more about alcohol and climate change]

Did the BBC’s The Apprentice candidates do a good job of promoting British wine? I think not. Source : Here 


In my first post I have professed my love for Gin and Tonic, but unfortunately I am a lonely soul when it comes to drinking. My choice of drinks always raise a few eyebrows but I have no shame in it.  When it comes to wine, I am a fan of Portuguese wine but since I now live in England, we shall talk about English wine.  It might be your first time to hear about English sparking wine on The Apprentice last year and the standard of  British wine is creeping up.The Brits have won two golds in  International Wine and Spirit Competition last year and have put other famous brands like Moet to shame. What happened? climate change.

Vine was first bought into England in AD43. Back in the days England (annoyingly, still is) rainy climate and cold temperature made vine growing and grape ripening very difficult. Although wine growing is still seen a hobby around the country, there are now more than 400+ vineyards around UK . Professor Richard Selley is a senior research fellow at Imperial College London (hurrah!) on the impact of geology and climate change on viticulture. In his publication  ,he has pointed out a very simple but true fact : temperature is rising in England.  Temperature in England has raised an average 3F and 4.5F around Europe and North America. Vineyards and productions are moving northwards to new areas and England has become a new gold mine for wine making.  Grape is one of the most temperature sensitive agriculture crop and the entire industry depend on the climate . So far, the increasing temperature has been good for wine making but most wine making regions have already reached their optimum temperature.


Would this Saint-Émilion vineyard still be around in the next 50 years? Hard to say.

So far so good, Britain can grow  grapes and make tasty wine. What does it mean to the rest of Europe? Many wine are branded and given name according the region of production. For example, a genuine champagne must be made from a region of France called Champagne. An authentic Sauvignon Blanc is produced in Bordeaux in France. By 2049, Bordeaux will become too hot to grow white grapes . Can you imagine the world with no more Sauvignon Blanc?  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted temperature will rise 1.1C to 5.6C globally, that means winemarkers will have to make the transition quickly. In a paper published by Jones, he said :

Climate change impacts are likely to be region-specific. Changes in cool climate regions (Table I – i.e., the Mosel Valley, Alsace, Champagne, and the RhineValley) could lead to more consistent vintage quality and possibly even ripening of warmer climate varieties. However, the quadratic models indicated each ofthese cool climate regions may be at or near their optimum climate for producingthe best quality wine with current varieties. Other regions, currently with warmergrowing seasons (TableI– i.e., southern California, southern Portugal, the Barossa Valley, and the Hunter Valley) may become too warm for the existing varieties grown there and hot climate maturity regions

“If Burgundy warms to the point where Pinot Noir and Chablis are not longer the best grapes for that region, will people buy a new product? … At some point a grower in a region that has become too warm has to make a decision.”

I am fully aware this paper was published in 2005 and it is not the most up-to date paper, but it doesn’t change the core message of what the wine industry needs to hear. Vine takes years to grow and mature, would winemakers take this risky major investment in digging out money making vines and  growing  new ones for the unpredictable future?  It is a difficult decision to make. But for wine drinkers, your might want to keep hold of your vintage and drink British wine instead .Unlike gin, your Burgundy or Sauvignon Blanc may not be around for much longer, and it looks like we will be popping English Sparkling wine instead of Champagne very soon.

A Spark of Floral Love

Whenever I think of pretty flowers, this scene from Shrek always springs into my mind :

I think you would agree with me that the flight of the bonblebee would be incomplete without a post on bumble bee,particularly , the co-evolution of bees and flowers. You could argue that bumblebee is only an interdule in the whole episode of flowers and insects co-evolution, but nevertheless, it plays a striking chord in flower biology.

Bees have got intuitive senses to pick out and detect their ideal flowers. Symmetrical, bright colours and enchanting fragrance are voted as the most desirable partner of bees evolutionary history. Flowers’ bright colour petals are neon sign of attractiveness and their perfect symmetrical bodies captivate more than just bumblebees ; Charles Darwin described them as an “‘abominable mystery”. In February this year , Professor Daniel Robert and his group  from University of Bristol have published a paper on the discovery of  bumblebee’s ability to detect electric field.  Plants were speculated to have an electric field around them ( there is a new field of science of  “plant neurobiology” if you are interested, this is a good place to start )  to communicate signals to other plants under stress.  Flowers can beam out electric signals to their insect pollinators and  make an electrical billboard of their own.

“Pick me! Pick me!”

Bees produce a positive charge on their body as they fly. They are able to change their charges with their antennae to orientate themselves during flight, communicate with other bees and detect the weather. Sadly, this area of biology is rarely pursued after the initial findings but thankfully, Prof. Robert  has started a voyage with his group to explore  the flight of the bumble bee to its final  destination .  Plants produce a weak electric charge around them and as you may have guessed, the opposite attracts. Plants routinely carries charged molecule up and down the plant ( all minerals are carried as charged ions i.e. K+ ,Ca2+ etc) and the positive charge around them creates a negative charge on their petals.

” It’s that way. I can sense it”
Credit : Mark A. Hicks, illustrator.

This novel communication is old news. Back in 1970s, botanists have suggested this “crazy” idea of this electric attractions between flowers and pollinators. Thank you for 21st century technology, the scientists can now use electrodes to detect the electric fields.  As the bee lands on the flower, the charges changes and pollen literally jump onto the bee.  Like Charles Darwin ,the researchers asked more questions , ” does this electric field mean anything to the bees? ”  As a sensory biologist, Prof. Robert is interested in communications between living things and this sparks his interest in creating computer stimulated flowers with different electric field. Bees can use detect and discriminate different voltages of different pattern and shape of petals.  What is more fascinating is the researchers  taught the bees to associate certain patterns with certain electric fields.  For example, they made two artificial flowers ; one with sugary syrup like nectar and another with a bitter liquid . The two flowers were given different charges and over time, the bees have learnt to pick the sugary reward.  In reverse, they messed up the electric charge once they have learnt the trick and the bumble bees were awfully confused and couldn’t tell the flowers apart (awww, bless!).  The researchers also made two artificial flowers with a slightly different shades of green and the clever bees have learnt to distinguish the two with its powerful electrical senses.

Flowers are honest advertisers, they can also beam out dramatic signals when they are out of nectar or been recently visited.  If they are open for business, they would produce a much more static signals .  Flowers advertise themselves accordingly, and bees will learn its lesson and associate them with a certain electric signal . False advertisement would discredit its reputation and flowers would be out of business if bees refuse to shop there for their daily supplies again.

So flowers have evolved to produce signals to advertise its  pretty petals, sweet tasting nectar and appealing smell and bees have evolved to respond to the electric billboards – so now we know, the flower-bee co-evolution may have begin with a spark (not literally)  .


Gin and Tonic

Everyone loves a refreshing glass of gin and tonic. I personally like it with a wedge of lime and frozen tonic water.  As a gin and tonic lover , it concerns me whether I would be able to enjoy the same drink in the next few decades.

Gin is made from  juniper berries ( Juniperus communis) and it is one of the most popular spirits around the world. A recent published paper in PNAS  gave us a little insight into the evolutionary history of these “magical” berries ( it was once used as a medical remedy, see here ) and perhaps help us make a guess of the fate of these (very!) important crop .

Juniper berries are belongs to a family called Cupressaceae and it has an incredible range of physical and environmental preference. Some of  the  Cupressaceae prefer a hydrated environment such as water-logged soil and the others live in dry climates such as northern and southern hemispheres .

Juniper trees are like all other woody plants; they are constrained by the temperature and water availability. Woody plants have transporting tubes called xylem ; and it’s primary role is to transport water around the plant.  The scientists examined the water activity in the xylem and compared its composition with other members of the  Cupressaceae family. They found Juniperus  trees are extremely drought tolerant and possiblity one of  reason why it has become the most diversified member of the family. Its special ability to adapt to dry conditions allow it to expand through  Europe,North America and North Africa through it evolutionary history ; while the other members of the family are much restricted by its climate adaptation and remain in humid areas.

Juniperus communis berries +alcohol = gin

You might think Juniperus  trees have got it all and is the king specie of the Cupressaceae family. Not quite, its drought tolerant capability came with an expense. Juniperus  trees are less efficient in transporting and pumping water and as a result, it has a reduced photosynthetic yield. The price of being drought-resistant means it has to increase the carbon investment in the xylem tissue and therefore, reduce the efficiency of xylem transportation.  Also, it diminished the surface area of the leaves to reduce moisture lost through its pores ( stomata) . As a result, the leaves we see today have become short green spikes (see picture) . Another group of scientists believes the leaves have shrunk in sixfold from its original size. Both of these physical features have reduce its ability to photosynthesis, but it allows it to thrive in a new habitat. Over the evolutionary time, the trees have adjusted its leaf size to what we believe to be optimal, but the cost of survival is slow growth and short.

So, what does it all mean?  This is the global climate change projection for 2050 by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) under the worst scenario :

Intensity of precipitation events is projected to increase, particularly in tropical and high latitude areas that experience increases in mean precipitation. Even in areas where mean precipitation decreases (most subtropical and mid-latitude regions), precipitation intensity is projected to increase but there would be longer periods between rainfall events. There is a tendency for drying of the mid-continental areas during summer, indicating a greater risk of droughts in those regions. Precipitation extremes increase more than does the mean in most tropical and mid- and high-latitude areas.

Looks like Juniperus  trees are going to survive the extreme weather condition (if this projection is accurate – an ongoing debate in the  scientific community ). Not so lucky for other moisture sensitive plants like tomatoes , but at least we know gin and tonic is going to be around for the next few decades.

Welcome to the flight of the bonblebee!

Warm welcome to you all!

Thank you all for taking a minuet to read my blog.

This blog was set up with the intention to convince you all things related to  food and science. Writing is not really my forte but I’ll try to convince you plant biology is relevant to everyday life.

You may ask where  the name of my blog came from ; my name is boncica and bon-ble bee is named after my future yellow and black stripy mini cooper. Bumble bees are very important in plant science and of course, Flight of the bumble bee is one of my favourite piece (especially on cello).

Keep trillin’,