Five good reasons to reopen the debate on genetic modification

By Lindsay Williams

A new University of Edinburgh (UoE) –funded study is set to reopen the debate about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).   The interactive project will ask members of the public and researchers to rank the acceptability of a variety of GMOs, ranging from basic foodstuffs to medicines.  The UoE PhD students behind the project hope that, in the process, participants will explore their own decision-making and assumptions about GMOs.  Here are five good reasons why we should be taking part in the GMO debate today:

1) The public feels uninformed.

According to a 2011 IPSOS Mori survey over half of those surveyed felt uninformed about GM crops and food security in the UK.  There are many GM detractors, such as the Prince of Wales, who said GM crops would ‘cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time’; but there are few vocal exponents, or seemingly impartial commentators.  Edinburgh Plant Science (EPS) is committed to public engagement and science education.  It is the responsibility of the scientific community to present the facts, both for and against; this new interactive study will do just that at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE) and the Midlothian Science Festival between September and December 2014.

2) The public does not trust GM.

The same IPSOS Mori survey showed that the public considered GM crops to be the riskiest technology: riskier even than nuclear power.   As this new project will emphasise, GMOs are much more than GM crops: they can used in human medicines, animal vaccines and as tools in scientific research.  It will be interesting to see whether participating in the study moderates or further polarises views on GMOs.

3) EPS is part of the GMO debate.

EPS members likely reflect the broad spectrum of public opinions about GMOs, and yet it would be difficult to escape GMO technology or policy in our work.  EPS partners have already contributed to the GM crop debate from a number of angles: Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) has reported the divided views of Scottish farmers; and Innogen has advised a regional government on policy relating to a GM-free zone.  Many plant scientists also use GMOs as tools of the trade: mutant plant stocks, transformed bacteria, DNA libraries in single-celled organisms, to name but a few. 

4) The European Union (EU) GMO rules are changing.

The EU looks set to change its policy on GMOs: from 2015, EU member states will be able to dictate which GMOs are cultivated within their borders. Currently, individual farmers can plant any GM crop approved by the EU, whether or not their national government disapproves.  This change will in turn will impact on …

5)…how the Scottish referendum could affect GMOs.

Our national and devolved government do not agree on GMOs. The UK government in Westminster is cautiously in favour of GMO development as ‘one of a range of tools to address the longer term challenges of global food security, climate change, and the need for more sustainable agricultural production.’  The Scottish government in Holyrood is firmly against GM crops, which they believe ‘could damage Scotland's rich environment and would threaten our reputation for producing high quality and natural foods.’ (according to their respective official websites). This may not be top of the Yes and No talking points, but the outcome of September’s Referendum may have an impact on science and agriculture in Scotland.

The study has been funded by the UoE Researcher-led Initiative Fund, and will be carried out by UoE PhD students from the Halliday lab: Harriet Jones, Douglas Pyott, Deyue Yang and Monika Lenty.

EPS Launch Day- The first step towards the future of plant science in Edinburgh

By Sarah Heath

The launch of Edinburgh Plant Science held at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh was a fantastic afternoon of talks from a wide variety of collaborators. The event served as a real eye-opener into the diverse range of plant research that is being carried out here in Edinburgh, from molecular biology research to future agricultural security. I caught up with some of the speakers at the drinks reception to find out their thoughts on the launch.  

Karen Halliday, EPS Director, described the launch as “very successful!” She was pleased that everything went to plan, and remarked that the student session was a particularly big hit and really great fun. The launch received very positive feedback by all who attended and those who were unable to attend were sorry to have missed it. I asked Karen what the future holds for EPS, now that we have officially been launched. There are already lots of plans in place for EPS, including setting up an advisory board to bring all of the partners together and facilitate decision making, a monthly debating series to discuss the impact of plant science on society, hot house meetings to create a new funding initiative and the introduction of EPS Global studentships to enable students from developing countries to study here in Edinburgh. Additionally, a major focus of EPS will be on outreach and public engagement. The RBGE will play a key role in this and all student members of the network will now have access to engagement through the gardens.

Dave Hughes is the Global Head of Technology Scouting from Syngenta, a company whose primary goal is to grow more crops from fewer resources. His talk at the launch focused on the importance of plant science to for global food security. Dave explained that due to the increased popularity of networks in recent years for linking disciplines he believes that EPS will play a vital role in getting people talking who wouldn’t normally meet. “Inspiration and innovation get sparked and I was very happy to be invited to give a talk,” he told me. An important point that was picked up on by many speakers and attendees on the day was the importance of public perception towards new technologies for increasing crop yields.

Often, the media and public feel concerned to hear about genetically modified organisms and the use of chemical pesticides. When asked where he thinks this negative propaganda comes from, Dave suggested that often technology doesn’t fit with people’s opinions of how the world “should” be. The public doesn’t like the influence of big businesses such as Syngenta in their lives “taking control of agriculture”. The problem is that the degree of regulation means that smaller companies aren’t able to engage, and thereby get pushed out, leaving only the larger companies. So what does Dave think we can do to encourage the public to be more tolerant? “We need people to realise the benefits”. These benefits are usually only seen by farmers and not the general public. For example, if there is a 10% increase in crop yields, the farmers will directly feel the advantages of this increase; however they will not be felt by the customers when they are buying food in the supermarket. Dave’s conclusion is, “There is an inappropriate fear of technologies that are safer than crossing the road”.

Karina Banda, a PhD student at the RBGE, won third prize in the 2 Minute Thesis competition. Karina said that she found the launch day really interesting. “It was useful to hear other people’s points of view,” she told me. “You can often get stuck in your own work”. She explained that it can be quite shocking to hear of the vast range of plant research, but also extremely useful and eye-opening. Karina described the launch as challenging, but that EPS is a way to communicate. “A way to build bridges and land ideas. Amazing!”

A huge thank you to the speakers interviewed for sharing your views with me on the future of EPS and well done to students who took part in the 2 minute thesis competition!


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What is a plant? A short journey in multidisciplinary science.

By Uriel Urquiza
Uriel is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. He uses Systems and Synthetic Biology approaches to understand circadian regulation in Plants.

Last year during the summer I was going for a walk on Arthur’s Seat with a friend from the MSc in the Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plant Biodiversity, which is taught in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. During our conversation we randomly started to talk about plant evolution. On one hand my friend loves fieldwork, and is interested in macroscopic traits. She finds that the traits are visually attractive and enjoys to classify species when doing fieldwork. On the other hand, I have a degree in Genomics and as a consequence I am biased towards molecular phylogenetics.  

Cuscuta europaea © Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0

We ended up discussing a very fundamental question: What is a plant? For me it seemed very clear that photosynthesis was a necessary condition to classify an organism as a plant. But, she halted for a second and searched her memory. Suddenly, she pointed towards some of the trees. -”That orange plant you see there, the parasitic one, growing on the tree. That one does not photosynthesise!”.  She had pointed out Cuscuta europaea right there on Arthur’s seat.

For me this was a very interesting fact. First, because it reminded me that in biology there are always unexpected behaviours. Second, it reminded me why I jumped into plant biology after years of very molecularly oriented biology; basically I wanted to be able to see my object of study with the naked eye. Third, because it showed me that when we connect with researchers in other fields of biology we can detail and refine our understanding biological systems, which is why we all became scientist in the first place.

What I learned that afternoon is that some plants survive on extracting nutrients from other plants or fungi and thus, they do not need to photosynthesise. This makes them obligate holoparasites meaning they cannot exist without a host. Several examples come from the Monotropaceae genus, which are perennial root masses that are strictly dependent upon mycorrhizal fungi in mixed and coniferous forest (Olson A. R. 1990). Another striking example are the floral giants from the Rafflesiaceae family. Furthermore, specimens from this family can measure one meter in diameter and weigh up to 7kg. Some of them are holoparasitic, meaning that depend completely on the host and they do not present leaves, stems or roots and live embedded in the host plant.

One question that emerges is Why did these plants lost their photosynthetic capacity? We can bring up several conjectures. We can use energetic arguments to explain the loss of genes involved in photosynthesis. It might have been profitable to lose mechanisms for shade avoidance and competition for light when gaining access to an alternative energy source. A comparative study between the Epifagus virginiana (yet another plant that does not photosynthesise) and the Tobacco chloroplast genome shows that in E. virginiana all the genes involved in photosynthesis are pseudogenes (genes that are no longer expressed). A multi-subunit enzyme called RuBisCO is fundamental in the photosynthetic process and the genes encoding the enzyme had lost its function. The loss of the photosynthetic machinery might support the energetic hypothesis if RuBisCO turns out to be a very important energetic sink. Therefore, inactivation of the genes would be an advantage if a less expensive way for obtaining energy was available to them. This is still an open question and some labs are trying to give a quantitative answer on how much energy is spent on protein synthesis every day (Mark Sttit Lab at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology).

What started out as a simple conversation about the plants on Arthur’s Seat turned out to be a mine of interesting questions. This is why I enjoy interacting with scientists from other disciplines as it bring a jolt of inspiration to my own work. I hope that we can build a strong community of PhD students that has an impact on our local communities. I hope this blog serves us as a provocative space, where new and exciting ideas can emerge.


Davis C. C. et al, “Floral Gigantism in Rafflesiaceae”, Science 315, 1812, (2007)

Olson A. R., “Observation on the floral shoots of Monotropa hypopitys (Monotrepaceae)”, Rhodora, Vol. 92, No. 870, pp 54-56 (1990)

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Welcome to the EPS Blog

Welcome to the Edinburgh Plant Science Blog!

We are very excited to be launching our new blog to keep all members of EPS up to date with the latest plant news from Edinburgh. We’ll be posting about the people involved in EPS and the work that they are doing, as well as activities, events and competitions that you can get involved in. Additionally, we’ll have regular posts about plant-related topics that we find really fascinating or unusual, such as our latest “What is a plant?” series.

The EPS blog also welcomes guest writers. We meet every month, so if you have articles or ideas that you want to share please get in touch.

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