Much of last week was occupied by my attendance at an eponymous conference in Dundee that we helped sponsor on plant root biology, under the auspices of the International Society for Root Research. I co-chaired one of the sessions and gave a short talk based on a couple of review articles and calculations.

There were a huge number of highlights, not least in meeting so many of this community, but probably the outstanding talk was the opening keynote by Jonathan Lynch, whose wide-ranging review covered everything from molecular genetics and very high-tech measurements of root morphology at different scales (e.g. using laser ablation tomography as the best method for measuring aerenchyma) to the substantial yield improvements that these methods, and some careful thinking, plant breeding and agronomy, were having in a variety of African countries. Effective breeding increases both shallow (and spreading) roots for improved phosphorus uptake and deep roots for improved nitrogen use efficiency and drought tolerance. Roots should be ‘steep, deep and cheap’, said Lynch. I also much enjoyed keynote presentations by Malcom Bennett and Michelle Watt, both vertically integrating quite fundamental molecular knowledge with downstream physiological properties (with the latter showing improvements in water acquisition by deep roots, with 10cm of increased depth in no-till agriculture in Australia translating to 0.5 tonnes per ha increase in wheat grain yields). Overall I learnt a lot about the potential and research needs of this core element of Global Food Security.

A particular need in this (and almost any other) area is the requirement for rapid and non-invasive measurements, here of the extent and topology of plant roots, and a number of approaches were evident. Given my previous interests in this area (and I co-founded a company), I was especially interested to note the use of capacitance measurements here.

One evening conference delegates visited the ‘Verdant Works’, a working museum near the town centre devoted to the substantial local history of jute processing. Jute – a sustainable source of fibre – is making a minor comeback in the form of reusable shopping bags, albeit most of the manufacture is now in India. Nevertheless, the visit provided a fascinating piece of industrial history, with many working machines showing the rather complex process that eventually evolved (I use the word purposely) to turn a rather tough crop plant into a woven cloth with widespread uses.

Amid the latest revelations of the widespread and increasingly documented fraudulent behaviour by elements of the financial ‘services’ sector, accompanied by large fines, and a pointed analysis by the Secretary of State Dr Vince Cable, I read an analysis by the Financial  Times of the true costs of this drain on our economy. Paul Krugman’s blog also had a sharp piece on the general lack of admission of economists’ failure to predict the crash. In the blogosphere I also noted a useful piece on the development of provenance tracking for digital data or claims.

The presentations (of which I gave one) at the British Library’s Talkscience event on “Whose impact is it anyway?”, blogged last week, are now online (my presentation may be heard just after 6 minutes in).

Papers I enjoyed included a fascinating article on the materials science properties of a biological hammer, a helpful perspective on the engineering of influenza viruses and the public dissemination of such data, a useful review of some design tools for synthetic biology, and a fascinating paper (and Wikipedia entry) on evolutionary game theory. I also finally finished a very interesting book on the epistemological status of scientific simulations.

Finally, and with some other Olympics coming up later in the month, it is timely to wish our Biology Olympics team well as they set off to this year’s competition of the International Biology Olympiad, in Singapore.

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