200million years a grinding

Began the day with a macroeconomics lesson, at least I think that’s the term. It seems that like us, there are spenders and savers in the plant world. Karen describes two strategies employed by plants, the live fast die young types with thinner leaves and the shrewd long term investor thick leaved types. I immediately like the live fast ones. They just seem less boring. And then we get to the fossil bit, yay!. By taking leaf thickness and shape measurements, it’s possible to divide fossils into either group and link investment strategy to prevailing conditions. Cool. We learn about the rounded leaves plants develop to overcome sulphur dioxide levels and how despite employing this strategy most of them end up dead anyways. Live fast, live slow, die out regardless. Ah we’ll, at least they tried.


Exactly a week ago we got to see a preserved slice of our history. A 200 million year old fossil mudstone. We’re back again to learn some tricks to properly photograph fossils to show them to maximum advantage. These guys don’t need the red carpet treatment. They are profoundly impressive. Some of the plants on show have no living descendants. What we have preserved is the only evidence that they ever existed. It’s almost like looking at ghosts. I’m already excited but Karen, ever one for showmanship, brings out the big guns. She shows us a 205 million year old leaf. Not a fossil. Not minerals. An actual leaf. The remnants of a real living organism that lived and died 205 million years ago. I’m speechless. This leaf dropped to the ground long before us and here I am looking at it right now. It is as surreal as it gets. Nerd that I am, I get on the phone to ring some folks who might appreciate this type of thing.

In the afternoon we move from looking at 200 million year old fossils to activities that make you feel like a 200 million year old fossil. Leaf grinding. Doesn’t even have a good ring to it. There’s no way to dress this one up. It’s pretty boring. But just like splitting your bourbon cream is a necessary slow step to getting at the creamy goodness inside the biscuit, ground leaves tell you all sort of wonderful things about plants and the conditions they grew in. I imagine someone I really hate ( not too hard) and get to grinding. It seems I have a lot of unresolved anger as I have a bigger than average leaf and I manage to just about avoid de-atomising it. I’m pretty excited to find out what this leafs been up to but alas we are just part of a massive grinding experiment and it will be some time before we find out how our leaves coped with their carbon dioxide party.

Good songs to grind leaves to…Ashes to ashes, it’s just a little crush and you spin me right round baby right round

Chief Wiggum ” What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mysteries?”

Bennetites…the italian fashion fossil..

Actual 200 million year old leaf..really..not kidding..


A leaf by any other name

Friday begin well. The sun was shining. Seven am starts were a figment of my imagination. In fact all I presumed to know was that we would be taking a nice stroll around the grounds of UCD and doing some “leaf analysis”. So far….so lovely. I had a näive notion that we would do as instructed and Karen would divulge all the bits that we needed to know. As soon as we arrived to the lake, we were knocked off our complacent teacher pedestals. “What is a plant?” “Huh?”. Not panicking, my training kicked in. “It has chloroplasts and a cellulose cell wall and it’s green”. Eileen makes some similar, straight from textbook comments. Turns out we don’t really know what a plant is after all. Karen puts us straight, or crooked, depending on your viewpoint, by telling us about all the weirdo exceptions out there. She tells us about the slug with chloroplasts on its back. Now I want to meet this slug. My faith has been shaken. I start to wonder about other fundamentals. It’s scary to be on the other side of the metaphorical desk. I start to feel my student’s pain. But any notion that the test is over is quickly dispelled. Karen begins the drill again. ” What is a leaf?”. I point hopefully at a flat green thing hanging from a branch. We’ve been reduced to non-verbal prehistoric communication. And it only took two minutes. I sigh with relief when Karen tells us we can identify our leaves, now we know what such a thing is, back at the lab. I envisage google, Karen’s expertise and us the willing students, soaking up all the tree- type knowledge. I should be suspicious when Karen takes us for ice-cream. No normal ice-cream either, a 99 and..wait for it, a flake. We’re being thrown into the pit of hell after lunch and we sit there, poor fools, nibbling on our treats.

A recent study by the British Tree Council revealed that 8 out of 10 ( that annoying statistic) people couldn’t identify an ash tree by its leaves. I have to presume this study was predicated on the emergence of ash die-back disease and the need for public vigilance. I can’t say I drew much comfort for being amongst the ignorant. Beginner’s nerves to the fore, I empty out my leaves and seize on some easy ones. I have five maples in my garden so I’m reasonably confident. Karen gives us a tree-identification book and leaves us to it, but it takes us a half an hour to figure out there’s a leaf key in the first chapter. Epic fail. We identify five or so leaves using the book and a cool little app that Eileen has discovered, which can identify leaves from a photograph. Then we hit “the wall”. The remaining leaves look vaguely like other leaves and yet different. We’ve been given an hour and a half plus time for lunch to figure it out. I consider hiding the evidence, given the prospect of a hungry afternoon. What if a few leaves just disappeared..After some Internet plundering, we abandon hope and decide that eating is important too.

After lunch, Karen swoops in to the rescue and then tells us identification isn’t all that important for what we’re doing. What the?. After getting over that shock, we start into CLAMP analysis. Which basically involves determining shape characteristics of leaves. We’re given some training and handed a laptop with a CLAMP spreadsheet. We spend an hour or so examining leaves and pressing one on the keypad. After a while, I realise I’ve hit the number two, even my brain wants me to move on. Karen comes back and crunches our figures in a statistical programme. The mean annual temperature of Dublin was …the precipitation was…Wow, you can tell this stuff from a leaf?.

I am suddenly very impressed and forgive Karen for the last four hours of tedium. Now I really want to have a crack at the fossil leaves.



This weekend, serious tree guilt persisting, I visit Donadea forest park in Co. Kildare and get to know my tree friends a little better.



Dr. Caroline Elliott-Kingston and Dr. Karen Bacon identifying leaves

Lonely Hearts Pollen

You’ve got to hand it to plants, when it comes to reproduction, they’ve exploited all manner of means to overcome the problem of being stuck in one spot. We often think of ourselves as exploiters of plants, when it’s often the other way around. Up until Thomas Crapper’s most famous invention (the flushing toilet), our ancestors picked, plucked and munched their way through many a plant ovary (fruit to the layman), and dutifully provided the plant with the means to spread its seeds on farther shores (or behind a handy bush!). Of course this is all a bit of a segue into today’s fun. Under the careful eye of the eminently wise horticulturist and postdoc, Caroline Elliott-Kingston, we cajoled some shy pollen grains into achieving their life destiny. What pollen lack in choice of mate, they sure make up for in speed. Within a half an hour of depositing our hopeful chaps (a.k.a pollen grains) onto the petri dishes they were speeding forth, growing out their tubes and seeking out the waiting ovule, which in this case unfortunately, did not exist. And here in lies one of the big problems of the plant kingdom. How do you get the right sperm and eggs to meet to ensure the continuation of your species? Most people would be familiar with the means by which pollen is dispersed, wind and insects. But possibly less familiar is the mechanisms plant uses to make sure that the right pollen is attracted to the right stigma. The truth is that pollination is a haphazard, somewhat random process whereby plants will catch pollen from many species and with some luck and genetic selection some or all of the ovules will be fertilised. 


Looking after the boys in the laminar air-flow hood!

Just for kicks we drop our pollen into a number of nice and not so nice solutions, metaphorically speaking. We wanted to discover the magic cocktail to get the best growth from the pollen grain. As it happens, a buffered calcium solution came out tops among some serious bad guys i.e. aluminium and lanthanum. Calcium has a well-documented effect in ion-gated channels in animals and it seems its power to control membrane activity extends to plants as well. Our calcium-soaked grains were very obliging in producing beautiful, directional tube growth. Success!

A short you tube video on pollen tube growth


An article on some possible mechanisms of pollen selection

Botany 101

Driving in this morning, through some spectacularly bad traffic and hot sunshine, I switch on my precision European-engineered air cooling system, getting a nice blast of diesel from the bus in front. Realising that this won’t cut it, I duck down an avenue lined with sycamores. I get to thinking, as I bask in the shade of the broad leaves, that maybe engineers should start their training in a botany department. I would defy the sharpest design whizz to beat the cooling system of trees. And so it begins, I’m starting to eat, sleep and dream botany and its only been three days!
Today is back to basics. I’ve gotten through four papers when I realise I need papers to explain the papers and possibly some more papers to explain those papers!. I get straight to the point ” Karen, I need books!” After a pleasant coffee break, punctuated by much discussion on what’s wrong with the education system ( a lot, we conclude), Karen struggles up the stairs carrying two monolithic tomes. As an undergrad, this is the very thing that would have sent me running. However, free from the shackles of exams, it’s like getting a new toy. I seize on the second title, the precisely named “Botany”. Yep, that should cover it.


After lunch, we have our safety induction with Eugene Sherry. As teachers, we’re used to the aftermath of students sometimes kamikaze take on experiments, so we have no qualms about hanging on his every word. Just as he begins to explain how to write up a hazardous incident, a pigeon, with an uncanny sense of the dramatic flies full force into the window. If I ever wondered whether pigeons understand comic timing, I have my answer!. I suggest to Eugene that a standard operating procedure be drawn up for future pigeon-related calamities. Eugene shows us first and second year lab manuals. It’s pleasing to see the fundamentals haven’t changed. Worms are still getting the Damien Hirst treatment and locusts are still being deprived of their mouthparts. I’m glad the classics of biology are being given the respect they deserve.
A hot afternoon is spent pouring over the textbooks. Not an unpleasant task by any means, but when Karen arrives for a chat, I seize the break gladly. We talk about sources, websites, where we get our info. In a world where Wikipedia and Google have become verbs, it’s nice to know journals are still consulted by some!. Back in my postgrad days the mantra was “Publish or perish”. It seems things have moved on a bit since then. Now it’s publish, get cited and shared on social media. No pressure then. The temptation to slip “cure for cancer” into a title must be huge.

When I get home, I immediately have to justify my day to the kids. My daughter wants a blow by blow account of what plants can do. I explain as simply as I can how they can change colour, turn sunlight into food, talk to each other in a special plant way. Things a five year old might appreciate. Curiosity unquenched, she wants to know “the rest”. I’m in for a long night…..

You’ve got to pick a plant or two..

Blinking in the early morning sunshine, I make my way to the front of The Science block to be greeted by Aidan, a very jovial, despite the hour, Ph.D. Candidate. Intros sorted we get to talking about our first proper research day. We know we’re collecting leaves but happily defer to Aidan’s more detailed explanation of his work. On day one, we were told it was all about stomata. Even those who didn’t appear to be working on stomata were working on stomata. My brief intro to stomata way back in undergraduate years had clearly left just a little bit of the backstory out.



Aidan fills in the gaps, dazzling us with technical terms like ‘conductance’ and ‘boundary layer effects’. We’re not sure if we’re discussing plants or time-travelling spacecraft!
Arriving at Johnstown castle, we are handed a colour coded map and after initial confusion, we scope out our specimens of choice. The biggest debacle surprisingly is not the issue of finding leaves of good quality but distinguishing red and white clover. You’d think colour alone should do it, but you’d be wrong!
We store away our leaves, and move on to the next lesson. Aidan hooks up a machine, the name of which I can’t recall. However it is weirdly reminiscent of tubes of popping candy. This little piece of Frankenstein technology alters the Carbon dioxide level in plants,(just for kicks)to see How they respond. A few expletives later, Aidan asks us to watch out for a baseline normal reading, something to compare to. He doesn’t tell us for a while that this can take up to an hour. Still, all very new to us, we watch the graph descend. We have an ‘interesting’ discussion on how we might scale down the experiment for school labs. Eamon, another Ph.D. Student pipes in with a suggestion of adding soda stream to our plants. Looking at his homemade glass house rain shelter, I’m struck by two thoughts. Firstly, he’s probably serious! And secondly, scientists must be the most resourceful people on the planet. The mercury reading 39 degrees, Aidan decides we’ve been physically and mentally cooked enough for one day. We head back to UCD, a quick ice pop break dividing up the journey and mentally prepare ourselves for the next days adventure.

Finally started!

After a seemingly endless wait I arrived in UCD Science campus with the sun blazing on my back. I’m taking this as a sign of good things to come. I am re-united with Karen Bacon, the co-ordination of the project and no doubt the person who I will be hassling on a daily basis with my incessant questions. I get an introduction to Eileen, the second teacher collaborating on the project. With no time wasted we get down to brass tacks. Schedule delivered we learn that we have a 7am start the following morning. At first I think Karen is joking, a nice little wind-up for the newbies. Then I remember Science isn’t a nine to five proposition. Results have to be grabbed when and where you can. I remember that this is one of the nice things about research, no two days are alike.


After running through safety procedures, we get the grand tour. In many ways things haven’t changed since my last stint in UCD ten years ago. There’s a considerable amount of organised chaos. Post docs and undergrads, phDs and technicians deftly work around each other, space being at a premium. The corridors and labs are full to brimming of freezers and fridges and box after box of leaves, fossils and samples of all sorts of weird and wonderful things.
With obvious excitement, undimmed by experience, Karen slides out a suitably aged wooden drawer with a hotchpotch of rocks that I can’t Identify. She selects one particularly dusty grey specimen, unremarkable from the others, and breathes gently onto the rock. At once the shape of what looks to me like a species of grass comes into view. We are told the sample is 200 million years old.
Two hundred million years. I’m having what Homer Simpson would describe as a ‘cosmic’ moment. It’s difficult to conceptualise that the fossil I’m looking at was around a long, long time before humans. I suddenly feel very insignificant.
After lunch we stroll along the pitches, cross a long orchard ( which I’m told is an apple museum!), to arrive at the péac facility.

At the péac, we get an opportunity to view the ‘chambers’. Each of these mini-worlds is essentially a door into the past, re-creating the atmospheric conditions that existed across the millennia. As I look through the doorway of one chamber, I can’t help but imagine the giant beasts that must have roamed through plants just like these, unaware of their impending demise!
As the day draws to a close, I cast my eye over papers describing the many ways in which plants adapt and change to cope with varying environments. I feel a little over-awed. There is something heroic about plants. They have been around long enough to face innumerable environmental challenges and they are still going strong. Changing, adapting, surviving. We could learn a lot from this motto.

Day one-the tour

Got to walk around the peac facility. Choose a room, any room…in one you might have to wear respiration gear to cope with sub-ambient oxygen levels…Next door? Well let’s just say things might get a bit heady….what a rush!