Science

Here we look at some of the science behind the Living Field, starting with projects that contribute to the International Year of Biodiversity 2010.

 

Energy and light - no life without the sun

When trying to predict our shifting climate, or if  there'll be enough food, or if an outbreak of disease will rise to a pandemic, the constant and essential role of the sun tends to be overlooked. Our research at The James Hutton Institute treats sunlight both as a driver of plant growth and as a source of energy for the cycles of water and elements in the biosphere; but local expertise in matters of the sun has recently been extended through links with Dundee Astronomical Society, whose members have first-hand knowledge of solar storms, sunspot cycles and their association with natural phenomena such as the aurora. The photograph to the right, provided by the Society, shows a partial solar eclipse. Imagine a world with no sun: most humans would last a few weeks.

The annual cycle of cropping in our north temperate latitudes always has been tied to the annual cycle of the sun. As background to 5000 years (see below), we explore how the sun's light and energy change with the time of day and year, with distance north from the equator; and with the highly variable cloud cover of the maritime north Atlantic. We'll then look at how all these things have limited yield and food production from the time of the first settlers up to the present and will do on into the future. A set of pictorial articles on solar energy and its effects on plants and food production begins with Energy and light - no life without the sun. The photograph to the right, from the Living Field collection, was taken across the Tay estuary towards the south-west at sunset near the winter solstice, the shortest day.

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5000 years of crops and weeds

From spring 2010 to summer 2011, the Living Field presents 5000 years of crops and weeds - a contribution  to the International Year of Biodiversity 2010 and to the wider debate on sustainable life-systems. We look at how the land has provided food and other natural materials for thousands of years. We explore the intimate relations between crops and weeds. We predict what needs to be done to keep cropland in shape.

The Living Field will host demonstrations and exhibits based in the garden and study centre at The James Hutton Institute in Tayside Scotland.  For data, photographs, discussion and suggestions on what you can see and do at sites throughout Scotland, skip to the web page at 5000 years of crops and weeds. Visit us. Please feel free to get involved. The contact for 5000 years is Geoff Squire.

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Farmland plants

The plants that live in the cropped landscapes of the lowland and maritime areas of Scotland have been given detailed study in the past five years through research funded by the Scottish Government. Though often classed together as 'weeds', these arable plants, which number several hundred species in some regions, have a range of ecological functions and offer great biological interest. They have proven or potential uses in medicine and human nutrition. They add colour and form to the farmed landscape and provide food and shelter for insects, birds and mammals. Recent, intense, cultivation has not succeeded in removing the most damaging weeds, but has made rarities of many of the useful and attractive species. They are now among the most threatened plant species in Britain.

This research on Farmland Plants is being done by scientists, agronomists, wildlife experts and farmers. It examines the status of these plants, their various uses as dyes, oils, medicines and poisons and their roles as hosts of  pathogens. It considers the farming methods that could be used to ensure their continued coexistence with crops without reducing yield. The conclusions will be produced in several formats for scientific and general readers. The Living Field web site will provide a summary of the findings and illustrate many of the species together with their uses and roles in the ecosystem. You will be able to see a broad selection of the plants growing at the Living Field garden and on the farm at The James Hutton Institute. Research papers and book chapters for the scientific community will be collated as the Arable Plants Document on Crop-weed Coexistence. Updates and links will appear on this page. The editor and contact for the Farmland Plants is Pete Iannetta.

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Scotland's wild legumes

Nitrogen is an element essential for plants and for people and other animals that eat plants. Most plants need to take their nitrogen from the soil, but a group of plants, called legumes, are able to take in nitrogen directly from the air - they are said to fix atmospheric nitrogen. They do this with the aid of bacteria that live in nodules attached to the plants' roots. Neither the plant nor the bacteria can fix the nitrogen alone: they can only do it  when living together. This living-together is called  symbiosis. The symbiosis allows legumes to grow well in soils that are poor in nitrogen; but humans have taken advantage of  the symbiosis by growing legumes as crops (peas, beans, clover) that save them having to put so much nitrogen fertiliser on the soil.

Wild legumes are important in ecosystems throughout the world because of their ability to add nitrogen to poor soils. However, many legume species seem to have declined in Scotland and also in much of northern Europe. Little is known of what these wild legumes do in Scotland's ecosytems - do they still fix nitrogen or are they suffering because the bacteria they form the symbiosis with no longer live in the soil, or because the plant and bacteria are unable to form the symbiosis? To answer these questions, a survey of wild legumes and their symbiotic bacteria began in 2009. The photographs above right show root nodules (each about 2 mm long) of two of Scotland's wild legumes.The bacterial cells are stained blue. As background to the survey, the Living Field  presents a scientific article - biological nitrogen fixation by legumes - which covers the process of fixation and the infection of root cells by bacteria. People working on Scotland's wild legumes are Euan James, Janet Sprent, Pete Iannetta and Geoff Squire.

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Contact for this page: Geoff Squire

[Page began March 2010. Last updated 9 September 2010]