Thursday, October 17, 2013

Undergraduate introductory field trip 2013

The 2013 Plant Science undergraduates

Each year the incoming junior freshmen (third year students) have introductory field course to learn some basic techniques, as well as to get to know each other.  This year it was based in and around the Wicklow Mountains National Park  and was enjoyed by students and staff alike. The first few days were filled with bright sunshine and that made the excursion to, and work on, Liffey Head Bog (the source of the River Liffey) very pleasant indeed: in fact it was almost too hot. The field work was combined with two overnight stays in Glendalough allowing the woodlands nearby to be investigated as well as the local pubs! Later days were spent at Avoca exploring the mining area and on the coast at Bull Island looking at estuarine and sand dune vegetation and some of the management issues dealing with a nature reserve right in the centre of the City.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Bioenergy can work, if it is done right

Jesko Zimmerman
There isn’t much you can tell plant science researcher Jesko Zimmerman about the biomass crop Miscanthus or elephant grass.  It is widely grown throughout the EU as a commercial energy crop, which can be used for combined heat and power generation or converted into biofuel such as ethanol.  However, according to Jesko, bioenergy crops put us into somewhat of a dilemma, or a trilemma as David Tilman and colleagues put it in their noteworthy 2009  paper in the journal Science, ‘Beneficial biofuels -the food, energy, and environment trilemma’. The interesting conclusion of that paper being that bioenergy can work, if it is done right.

Miscanthus x giganteus (Image: Pat Smitz) 
Jesko’s research is exactly about that: how to do it right. His research focusses on Miscanthus x giganteus, a perennial grass originally from south-east Asia, but with the potential to produce high biomass yields even in our cooler European climates. The crop has been and still is heavily subsidised by the government and is becoming more prevalent in the Irish landscape. Although Miscanthus is highly adaptable to European climates, Ireland is at the geographical margin of where the is economically viable. Therefore it is important for farmers to produce the maximum possible yield per hectare. However, while surveying Miscanthus fields all over south-east Ireland he has  discovered lots of open patches within fields where the plants just do not grow.

This raised three questions that Jesko is very interested to finding answers to: (i) Why are they not growing in these areas, (ii) how much yield is being lost, and (iii) how is the economic feasibility of growing Miscanthus affected?

As no yield data was available for these fields, we had to measure the amount of cropped area (and therefore yield) lost due to patchiness using aerial photography, which showed an average reduction in biomass yield of 13.7%.  The economic loss was calculated using life-cycle assessment tools to compare the gross margin for each field if the full potential yield is realised and if yield loss due to patchiness is taken into account. The results showed that farmer’s gross margins were reduced by up to 35 %. The question what caused the patches has not been directly answered. However, the aerial images do give some indications. Miscanthus rhizomes are directly planted into the soil and parallel lines of linear patches indicate problems while planting the crop due to jamming in the mechanical planter, which has been confirmed by farmers. Single large patches indicate localised issues such as areas of water logging while widely spread small patches appear to  originate from planting rhizomes that did not survive storage. Generally it could be shown that patchiness may not be an immediate problem for farmers, but that addressing the issue could have significant economic benefits. While the cause of patchiness was not directly investigated, it can be said that taking more care when planting should reduce the crop patchiness. More details of this can be found in Jesko’s recent paper in Global Change Biology Bioenergy. ‘Assessing the impact of within crop heterogeneity (‘patchiness’) in young Miscanthus × giganteus fields on economic feasibility and soil carbon sequestration’.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Goodbye to the Botany Huts!

Image Trevor Hodkinson
Those of you making their way to the Science area of College will have walked past our temporary accommodation which we have been using for over 30 years. So these temporary buildings have become a permanent fixture for generations of plant scientists.

Plans to remove the botany huts, as they are universally known, and renovate the site is finally under way this week and the square outside the main Botany Building will be converted into a new grassed open space for staff and students to enjoy. Being next to the Botany Building the planting up of the borders will be very special.

Postgraduates have been moved into custom built offices and laboratories in the Biotechnology Building.

See previous blog on the huts here


Friday, October 4, 2013

TCD Botanical Society

Remember Freshers Week ?

Well you might not have had time to join all the societies that you wanted.  But there is still time to sign up to the TCD Botanical Society.  The society is all about increasing awareness and interest in plant science and promote environmental awareness among society members and the student population in an interesting and informative way. The Society  organises lectures, talks, discussions, walks, film showings, field trips and other events. The Botanical Society is a student society but is open to all undergrads, postgrads and staff alike. 

They can be contacted directly by email at