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Flower power: how floral research is seeding impact

When the first flowers appeared around 130 million years ago, it marked a revolution in plant reproduction. But it’s sometimes easy to forget how sophisticated they are, and how important they are to our everyday lives.

Scientists are discovering more about flowers all the time – in fact, BBSRC-funded research on flowers is having an impact on the economy, human health and food security around the UK.

What’s your favourite UK flower? Vote in the Biology Week poll at Royal Society of Biology: Vote for the UK's favourite flower

Flowers vs Alzheimer’s

Copyright: Mariecia Fraser

Daffodils have a secret power: they can be used to defend against Alzheimer’s disease!

Galantamine is a drug that helps slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and reduce the severity of its symptoms. It is expensive to make synthetically, and demand currently outstrips supply by ten to one. Gal/ant/amine can also be made from gal/anth/amine, a compound produced by several popular bulb plants including snowdrops and daffodils.

Daffodils for the cut flower market are normally grown in lowland coastal areas, where the weather is warm and mild. However, research has suggested that growing daffodils in upland areas may increase their production of galanthamine. This is because daffodils make galanthamine to help them cope with stressful conditions – which could include cold, windy conditions found on mountainsides. An Innovate UK-funded collaboration between Aberystwyth University’s Pwllpeiran Upland Research Centre, Harper Adams University and Agroceutical Products Ltd is now looking at ways to grow daffodils on upland pastures. The project will produce management guidelines for raising sheep and daffodils on the same land, and assess the economic impact. The aim is to help impoverished rural communities generate income in a sustainable, low impact way.

Copyright: John Innes Centre

Flowers vs climate change

Did you know one of the UK’s favourite vegetables is actually a big cluster of flower buds? The UK market for broccoli is worth £180 million, but it could become harder to grow in future because of climate change. Some broccoli plants need to experience a period of cold weather to trigger the production of their delicious flower buds. This response is written into their genetic code, and with winters becoming warmer and wetter, broccoli crops aren’t always predictable, leading to shortages and economic losses. Scientists at the John Innes Centre are working to unravel the genes that control flowering time in broccoli and related plants such as oilseed rape and Brussels sprouts, in order to make them more resilient to climate change. They have developed a new fast-growing strain of sprouting broccoli which doesn’t require a cold snap before it can flower, meaning it can go from seed to harvest in just 8-10 weeks and produce more crops per year.

Flowers vs pollution (and flooding!)

Plants need nitrogen to make protein, but most nitrogen exists in the atmosphere in a form that plants cannot use. In modern agriculture, farmers add accessible forms of nitrogen to the soil through artificial fertilisers or manure, but if this washes off it can cause water pollution and other environmental damage. The manufacture of artificial fertilisers is also very demanding in terms of energy, which is supplied by fossil fuels and is therefore not environmentally sustainable.

Clover is a type of legume, a family of plants that includes peas and beans. Legumes have a special relationship with soil bacteria that can convert nitrogen from inaccessible to accessible forms. The plant grows a ‘home’ for the bacteria in their roots, and in return, the bacteria give away their excess nitrogen for the plant to use. When the plant dies and rots away, the accessible nitrogen is released into the soil and enriches it for other plants. Clover is having a resurgence as a nutritious and protein-rich feed for livestock, and as an environmentally-friendly “cover crop” that can be grown to enrich the soil in between crop rotations. In addition, the flowers are a favourite with pollinators.

To encourage farmers to take up these environmentally-friendly practices, researchers at IBERS are breeding new high-performance varieties of red and white clovers. Using genomics, field trials and experiments in the National Plant Phenomics Centre they are producing high-yielding clovers that can withstand environmental stresses such as drought and cold, disease and livestock trampling. IBERS and Rothamsted Research are also producing varieties with root systems that make soil more porous, preventing erosion of valuable topsoil and slowing water runoff to prevent flooding downstream.

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Tags: feature plants food security