Tuesday, 8 November 2016

#PlantPath PhDs Aplenty!

What's the collective noun for Plant Pathology PhD projects? Plethora? Pestilence?

Anyway, there have been lots of projects advertised on twitter recently so I thought I'd do a brief roundup for the UK:

James Hutton Institute, Dundee

The Consequences of Tree Diseases and Mitigation Options on Connectivity for Biodiversity

Deadline: 06.01.17

John Innes Centre, Norwich

There Is No Free Lunch: Trade-Offs in Plant Disease

Deadline: 28.11.16

Rothamsted Research, Hertfordshire

In planta RNAi for medium-to-high throughput identification of fungal (Fusarium spp.) genes essential for plant infection+

Deadline: 05.12.16

How to apply:

University of Bristol

RiPPing through wheat 
(Less mysterious but longer title - investigating the role of RiPP proteins in the virulence of the wheat pathogenic fungus Zymoseptoria tritici)

Deadline: 05.12.16

University of Cambridge

BBSRC DTP: Fatal attraction? Epidemiological consequences of vector preference for plant disease*

Deadline: 01.12.16

How to apply:

NERC DTP: Slowing the spread of well-established plant disease epidemics

Deadline: 04.01.17

NERC DTP: Modelling the epidemiology, ecology and evolutionary consequences of pollinator-transmitted plant disease 

Deadline: 04.01.17

University of Leeds

Functional characterisation of a novel effector gene family from a plant pathogen (parasitic nematodes)

Deadline: 05.01.17

Did I miss one? Let me know @nellyplants on twitter.

*Slightly appalled by the £50 application fee for Cambridge BBSRC DTPs. I certainly didn't have fifty quid to spare when applying for PhDs.

+ This project is jointly supervised by the Rothamsted Wheat Pathogenomics lab, where I did my PhD, and the Bristol Plant Pathology group, who've assimilated me for a postdoc. I can therefore say without any bias whatsoever that this is an awesome project.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Aliens land in Tetbury, and it's bad news for bees!

It sounds like the plot of a Simon Pegg movie; a sleepy Cotswold town suddenly finds itself facing an invasion of deadly aliens. They're winged, aggressive, breed rapidly and can be hard to tell apart from the natives, and they've got a thing for bees. It's not little green men or pod people though, it's Vespa veluntina, the asian hornet.

While posing no major threat to the human inhabitants of the UK, these guys are bad news for bees. They prey at hive entrances; snatching, gruesomely beheading and devouring bees or flying off with them and chopping them up to feed to their young. Nesting asian hornet queens can raise a 6,000 strong colony in 3 months, with each worker munching down 50 bees per day. Needless to say their establishment in the UK could be really bad news for our already struggling honeybees.

What Tetbury's invaders were lacking, however, was the element of surprise. They were first identified in France in 2004, and from there have spread rapidly across Europe. The UK's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has therefore been waiting for them, with detailed protocols in place for if and when they showed up. As soon as the alert was sounded DEFRA launched into action, complete with surveillance zones, infrared cameras and nest disposal experts. It's like something out of Torchwood, and as with any well-written alien invasion story, the key is killing the queen.

If this were a horror film, it would be fitting for Joe Public, rather than government officials, to find the nest, kill the queen and save the day. However,  hornet slaying is probably best left to the experts. Not only could disturbing a nest be very dangerous, but there's also a risk of killing the wrong guy. We already have a native hornet in the UK; the European hornet, and we wouldn't want to risk a mix up. However, monitoring is very much encouraged. You can report any sightings of a suspected alien invasion using this web form, or by emailing . There are ID sheets here to help you with your quest. Happy hornet hunting!

Key Asian Hornet ID features: from BeeBase ID sheet

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Pregnant, PhD

About 6 weeks after submitting my PhD thesis, I found out I was pregnant. The below is a somewhat higgledy-piggledy account of some of my thoughts and feelings related to a future academic career during the months that followed (and some that were already there). It is in no way meant to be a criticism, not of academia, or working mums, or nannies, and certainly not of my left ovary.

I finally pull up in the institute car park. It’s later than I’d like, having spent a good part of the morning sat on the bathroom floor disagreeing with my attempted breakfast. As I walk through the campus an acquaintance greets me.
“What are you still doing here?”, she asks in a well-meaning sort of way. She probably imagined that, having handed in my thesis a few months ago, I’d have left to start some fabulous postdoc by now.
“Just tying up a few loose ends” I reply vaguely. “Writing up papers, last few experiments, getting some sci comm experience, that sort of thing.”
Truth be told, I’d also imagined that I’d be off to some new fabulous post by now. Maybe a postdoc, maybe something in Knowledge Exchange. If I’d intended to stay here I would have started applying for jobs at the institute months ago, but that wasn’t my intention.
In theory I had no qualms about job hunting while pregnant, and indeed I tried for the first month or so, but I struggled in practice. I was exhausted, sick and completely overwhelmed by my new situation and it was all I could do to prepare for my viva, get my teeth into my new part time comms role, and get a review paper written, without adding job interviews to the mix. I also struggled with the prospect of uprooting myself and my husband to another part of the country (or another country) where we didn’t know anyone, all for the sake of a job I might only do for 6 months before taking a year or so off.  We also both wanted our next move to take us closer to our families rather than further away from them.
I tried searching for similar ‘case studies’ on student and postdoc forums, but became increasingly dismayed by the assumption of all these women that they’d be back at the bench once the baby was a few months old, and the way they planned their careers accordingly. Great if this is what you want, and perhaps I’d feel the same after 2 months at home with a squalling infant, but in my heart I didn’t feel this was for me, and in no way wanted to commit to returning to work in any rush. And that being the case, a little voice inside me whispered, why compete for a postdoc against people far more dedicated than you? Think how much more they will achieve with that short few years of funding than you will, when your heart is full of cloth nappies and slings?
Likewise, Ottoline Leyser’s ‘Mothers in Science, 64 Ways to Have it All’ – a collection of women’s journeys in science and motherhood – contained less diversity in life pathways than one might expect (I say this with the utmost admiration and respect for Ottoline; you can only collect what is there). The majority of these women had secured fellowships or lectureships before the birth of their first child, and statements such as ‘nanny moves in’ and ‘back to work after 4 months’ jumped out at me in stark contrast to how I want to experience parenthood (although like I said, I reserve the right to change my mind about that once I’m living it!!). Those women who had started families before postdocs or taken career breaks seemed very much in the minority. While my pregnancy can’t take sole blame for my feelings that I might not be cut out for academia – I’d had those for some time – it certainly wasn’t doing much to allay them.
In addition, shortly before I submitted my thesis I had an interview for a really exciting postdoc in a fantastic plant science department at a University close to many friends and family members. When asked where I wanted to be in 5 years’ time, I mentioned that if the project was successful I’d be interested in applying for a fellowship there, because I loved the city and the research area. The response? A derisive “Sounds like you want to settle down”. I felt like, despite my best efforts to convey my passion for the research project during the interview, ultimately I just came out with ‘wants to have a baby’ stamped across my forehead. While I was afterwards assured that this attitude wasn’t typical of many PIs, I couldn’t shake it off as further evidence that I didn’t fit the academic mould.
At 8 weeks pregnant I had my viva. I’ve never been so ill, or so worried about throwing up on someone’s shoes. However, determined to get through it on my own merit without making excuses, I didn’t mention anything to my examiners. Not only did I get through it; I loved it, and I nailed it. Two and a half hours later my examiner told me my going into Knowledge Exchange would be a waste of my research potential (but then duly admitted that critical thinkers were needed there too). The written feedback that came later would include the phrases ‘particularly impressive’, ‘very high quality’ and ‘highly informed’.  I think this might have been the first time that anyone other than my supervisor displayed confidence that I could be a successful research scientist. I was understandably buoyed with renewed confidence and pride, but at the same time couldn’t help wondering what they’d think about the new direction my life was heading in if they knew.
A few months on, while no longer sick, I’m still immensely fatigued and very grateful for my part time job with the institute communications group – I just can’t imagine embarking on a full-time research position and being able to give it the required energy and focus. And I’m reliably assured by those around me that the fatigue of pregnancy has nothing on that of parenthood itself. However, with the elasticated waistband of my maternity jeans rapidly expanding, I no longer have to give acquaintances vague responses about ‘what I’m doing with my life’. We’re buying a house nearer to family, having a baby, and perhaps a few months after that I will start pursuing other things that I want from life, if I can work out what they are. The success of my viva, some reflection and time spent writing a review has helped me to realise that yes, maybe I will be able to come back to academic research in the future.
But will I want to?

A word on family planning
Reading this, you might think my pregnancy was unplanned. This isn’t the case. However, I have PCOS; only one of my ovaries releases eggs and it’s rather lackadaisical about it, and I have been told repeatedly for the last decade that it could be very difficult to conceive. Parenthood is one of very few things that I am absolutely certain I want in life. Therefore to keep postponing trying for the sake of chasing career paths that I was uncertain about, especially when there was no way to guarantee I would conceive quickly at a ‘convenient’ time, seemed increasingly like madness. Even more like madness than getting pregnant while unemployed, a month after submitting your PhD thesis.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Bt maize and mouse immune responses - what's wrong with this picture?

I have to admit, I haven't been paying close attention to anti-GMO material lately. I've been very busy writing my PhD thesis* and so have largely left GM related myth detection and busting in other very capable hands, such as the guys at the Genetic Literacy Project and the Plant Science Panel at Sense about Science. I also don't get a whole lot of exposure to unscientific anti-GM arguments during my average work day, what with working in a plant science lab.

However, by night (and morning, and weekend), I'm a fancy rat owner and breeder, which exposes me to all sorts of different people and views, especially where rat nutrition is concerned. I've become quite used to discussing (dare I say debunking) concerns relating to the safety of Roundup Ready (RR) maize in rat feed that followed the widely refuted, retracted and then re-plublished Seralini study on long term exposure to glyphosate and RR maize. Less expected, however, were concerns regarding the below poster shared from the GMO Free USA facebook account, referencing a recently published study on mouse immune responses to the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) protein 'Cry1Ab' - a naturally occurring insecticidal protein which has been modified and inserted into maize and other crop species. This makes the crops more resistant to some insect pests, thus making growers less reliant on pesticide sprays.

Dare I say it? I smelled a rat. So I decided to review the evidence behind the poster. (I will confess, for the sake of my sanity I stuck to the referenced publication on inhalation of Bt proteins. I believe studies on gut responses have been reviewed elsewhere but if I fail to find the links I may do it myself.)

It has to be said, the creators of the poster have done a good job of evoking fear without saying anything too outlandish - note the use of the word 'may'. However, the implication was that the referenced study proved that inhalation of GM Bt maize induced an allergic reaction in mice. The creators also cherry-picked the data which could potentially support their cause, without acknowledging the data that didn't...

What the paper says

The researchers exposed the mice to a number of treatments by anaesthetising them and then dripping liquid solutions directly into their nostrils. The treatments were purified Cry1Ab from B. thuringiensis, the transgenic Cry1Ab found in maize, pollen and leaf preparations of GM Bt maize, and pollen and leaf preparations from non-Bt maize as controls. This was accompanied by a group which were just treated with liquid buffer. From what I can tell, no other purified protein was used as a control. They then measured the immune response of the mice (looking at variables such as IgE antbibody production, which is associated with allergic responses, and proliferation of different sorts of white blood cells and proteins important for immune responses).

The main piece of 'positive' data presented in this study, which the poster takes inspiration from, is the finding that the pure Bt protein treatments resulted in Cryp1Ab-specific antibody production. However, these antibodies were not detected from the mice treated with the Bt maize extracts, or the non-GM maize extracts. None of the other immune response variables (with the exception of one type of cytokine in one experiment) differed significantly between mice treated with the Bt protein containing extracts and those treated with extracts from non-Bt plants. However, this is somewhat obfuscated in the paper:

The authors repeatedly, and rather confusingly, refer to the mice treated with liquid buffer as the controls, rather than those treated with the non-GM maize extracts. This allows the authors to highlight the significant differences between the GM plant extract treatments and their 'control group'. However, as they quite rightly point out, there is no significant difference between the GM and non-GM plant treatments, indicating that the observed responses are not due to the Bt protein. Indeed, one type of white blood cell (eosinophils) were elevated in response to plant extracts, but not in response to the purified Bt protein, which rather suggests that this response was caused by another plant component. Indeed, the authors conceded in their discussion that many of the observed responses were likely a generalised response to plant extracts rather than to Bt protein.

So to summarise - purified Bt protein (Cry1Ab) treatment resulted in antibody production, but neither this nor the other investigated variables differed between mice treated with Bt maize extracts compared to non-Bt maize extracts.

Limitations of the study

Aside from the aforementioned lack of a non-allergenic protein control, this study has a few limitations that I've picked up on, many of which the authors themselves highlight in their discussion:

The premise for this research was to analyse the risks of allergic reactions to inhaled Bt protein, either from insecticide sprays (more on that later) on inhaling GM Bt pollen. However, it's not clear how well their experimental design of dripping liquid into the nostrils of unconscious mice placed on their backs reflects natural nasal exposure of humans to the investigated substances. Indeed, the authors state that "the model is optimised to induce allergy", indicating that it may not reflect normal exposure in humans. This contradicts the GMO Free USA statement accompanying the poster that "the protein may actually be MORE [sic] allergenic and immunotoxic than this study suggests"

Furthermore, again acknowledged by the study authors, "the clinical relevance of the detected specific IgE was not evaluated" meaning that no assessment was made of whether the IgE production led to a symptomatic allergic reaction in mice. Further work is therefore required to demonstrate whether, as the poster puts it, "mice that inhale Bt toxin insecticidal proteins from GM corn may develop immune and allergic reactions".

Bt isn't just a 'GM' thing

One major caveat of this study's use by anti-GMO campaigners is that the use of Bt proteins isn't unique to GM crop production. On the contrary, B. thuringiensis is a widely used 'biopesticide', and has been used in organic crop production for over 50 years. Opponents of GM have previously argued that the 'natural' Bt protein and the transgene product are not substantially equivalent, since the naturally occurring protein is activated in insect guts, while the transgenic protein is 'pre-activated', which could cause health issues in humans and animals. However, this particular study does not support that argument, since both forms of the protein resulted in antibody production when applied in purified form. The fact that this was not the case for Bt protein containing maize extracts again rather turns this argument on its head. The authors state in their conclusions that:

"Given the importance of Bt-transgenic maize as food and feed across the world, a considerable number of individuals may be exposed to Cry1Ab by inhalation, in the field as well as along the food/feed chain."

However, since antibody production was induced by purified Bt protein but not by plant extracts, the relevance of transgenic Bt-crops as opposed to Bt treatment of conventional and organic crops in terms of human exposure is arguably overstated.


The referenced study does provide evidence that purified Bt protein Cry1Ab can induce an immunogenic response in mice, when applied in liquid form directly to their nasal passages. However, this does not translate into evidence that Bt maize causes allergic reactions (in mice or humans), especially since no clear immunological response to Bt-maize extracts was observed compared to non-GM plants.

I for one will be leaving my face mask in the growth room, where it protects me from mycotoxin producing Fusarium species. Incidentally, there is evidence that cultivation of Bt-maize might help to lower contamination of maize cobs with fungal mycotoxins, since the fungi normally infect the plants through holes made by certain insects (which are killed by Bt protein). I personally would rather risk consuming Bt protein than deoxinivalenol (a.k.a vomitoxin), but perhaps that's just me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Cry1Ab isn't a potential human allergen. It might well be, but the findings from this study are a long way from demonstrating it. In addition, this study suggests that all forms of Bt protein might be equally allergenic, rather than just those produced by GM crops.

Finally, and only because I'm being very pedantic, that's a baby rat wearing a mask, not a mouse. Here's a picture of a baby rat without a mask, which is much cuter.

*As a side note, this blog post has taken me over a day to research and write. This included reading the paper a couple of times, brushing up on my knowledge of antigens, allergens and the human immune system (quite different to plants) and reading other relevant documents, and being accused of working for Monsanto when I tried to engage with other commenters on the original post. All this when I arguably should have been writing up papers from my PhD thesis in order to increase the likelihood of securing funding to carry on doing research into how to protect plants from diseases. This was without addressing other questions such as the credibility of the journal, the interests and funding source of the authors, and the validity of the statistical tests used. Small wonder, then, that many anti-GMO statements like this one go unrefuted by scientists. It's not that they're irrefutable, rather that doing all the research required to present a solid, evidence-based critique is likely far more laborious than generating the statements in the first place.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Plant Pathology PhD students - flex your presentation muscles at MBPP!

Once every year, scores of budding plant pathologists emerge from the confines of their greenhouses and laboratories and flock to a single location somewhere in the UK, where they share stories and alcohol….

This event is neither a natural mating phenomenon nor a ceremonial cult gathering. It is, rather, Molecular Biology of Plant Pathogens (MBPP) – an annual meeting held at a different venue in the UK each year. Its tried and tested formula – 1.5 days of student/postdoc oral presentations intermingled with keynotes from senior academics – is a brilliant way for PhD students (and postdocs) to flex their presentation muscles in front of a friendly, supportive audience of global plant pathology researchers. It also provides an excellent networking opportunity, all of which makes it a valuable exercise both in its own right but also in terms of preparing students for larger, international conferences (more on that in a follow-up post).

There is also the (in)famous ‘Pathology and Alcohol’ talk to attend, this year given by Dr. Chris Ridout on improving Barley for craft beer brewing. I can’t make any promises, but I rather envisage that this might involve some form of taste-based ‘sampling’, for scientific purposes of course, which is in itself a wonderful bonding exercise for plant pathologists. This is followed by a poster session and wine reception, and then of course the conference dinner, which provides further opportunities to network and perhaps scope out future collaborators or employers.

While accommodation is not included, the registration fee for MBPP also makes it an attractive and accessible meeting for students, at just £50 for both days, including lunches and the conference dinner. You may even be able to claim this back from your studentship grant. This year MBPP is taking place on 8th-9th April at the University of the West of England (UWE, Bristol), so there’s still plenty of time to plan your experiments around it!

Meeting and registration details:

From the organisers:

MBPP provides an excellent forum for networking between junior and senior scientists. The primary focus is on providing PhD students and post-doctoral scientists the opportunity to give oral presentations in front of a wide range of national and international researchers.”

Thursday, 8 January 2015

'Irresistable' antibiotic isolated from caged soil microbe

I often find myself terrified by the development of antimicrobial resistance (resistance to antibiotics, fungicides, etc.) in harmful bugs. I'm terrified as a plant pathologist, because I understand all too well the threat that plant pathogens and pests pose to global food security, and just how reliant we are on biocides to control them. I'm terrified as a pet owner and breeder, observing the staggering frequency with which companion animals present with antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. And, of course, I'm terrified as a human being, envisaging a future where death due to bacterial infections becomes the norm, rather than the stuff of nightmares, or indeed where infection risks from surgery are deemed too high for currently treatable conditions to be treated.

Sometimes though, I take time out from being terrified to get on with my own research on making plants more resistant to infectious disease (thus reducing the need for antimicrobials in the first place) or to eavesdrop on my colleagues and find out what they're up to. That's how I know that soil is absolutely chock full of unculturable bacteria, which are hard to study in the lab since they just won't grow on a dish or in a test tube. These bacteria are involved in all sorts of processes and ecosystem functions, such as nitrogen and carbon cycling, degradation of agricultural chemicals, and plant growth promotion. As research published yesterday in Nature shows, they might also be an invaluable source of novel antimicrobials.

The researchers in this study were trying to isolate novel antimicrobials from unculturable soil bacteria. The problem, of course, is how to cultivate and study bacteria that won't grow on in the lab. To get around this, the researchers used an Ichip. A what? Quite. In my mind's eye, the Ichip ('I' for isolation) is like a series of tiny cages. A single bacterial cell is captured in each cage, and the Ichip is then placed back in the soil. The gaps between the 'bars' of the cages are too narrow to let bacteria in or out, but big enough to allow fluid and nutrients to move across. It's a bit like the cages divers use around sharks. The diver can't get out and the shark can't get in, but they're both submerged in the same water. This allowed a single 'unculturable' bacterial cell to multiply in each cage - i.e. be cultured.

'Artist's' interpretation of an Ichip

Using Ichips, the researchers managed to culture about 50% of the 'captured' cells, which is a big step up from the 1% that will grow on a petri dish. They did this for 10,000 bacterial cells, and then took extracts from each culture, and tested whether they were any good at killing Staphylococcus aureus - a bug that can cause all sorts of serious infections in humans and animals. Antibiotic resistant strains of S. aureus already pose a major health threat, so finding new ways to kill it are a top priority.
One extract, taken from the culture of a new bacteria called Eleftheria terrae, seemed particularly good at killing S. aureus. The researchers isolated the 'killer' molecule in this extract, which doesn't seem to have been isolated ever before, which meant they got to name it.

They went with teixobactin, which is probably a more modest name than I might have come up with if I discovered a new bug busting molecule. Especially since it wasn't just really good at killing S. aureus, but also a whole load of other disease causing bacteria including Mycobacterium tuberculosis (which causes TB), Clostridium difficile, and Bacillus anthracis. There were other bacterial types that it wasn't so good at killing, but since antibiotic resistant 'staph' and TB are already a major problem it wasn't off to a bad start.

Of course, finding a new class of antibiotic is only part of the battle. The reason why we need new ones is due to the development of resistance to the existing ones. The likelihood of resistance development can be tested in the laboratory by repeatedly exposing a bacterial colony to a sub-lethal dose of an antibiotic, and monitoring whether this alters the minimum dose needed to kill the bacteria. Encouragingly, the researchers didn't find any change in the dose needed to kill S. aureus when doing this, and didn't manage to isolate resistant strains of S. aureus or M. tuberculosis when using lethal doses. The reason for this 'resistance to resistance' is thought to be that teixobactin (I forgot the name of it then, I said I'd have thought of something more snazzy) prevents cell wall formation by binding to the fatty building blocks. Changes in these building blocks, which could create resistance to the teixobactin, are less likely than changes in the protein building blocks, which are targeted by other antibiotics.

However, many promising antimicrobials get this far and then fall down, either because they prove to be toxic to mammals, or because they don't manage to kill bacterial cells inside a living animal. Sometimes because they can't get to the infection site, or because the animal's own cells break down the antimicrobial compound before it can kill the bacterial cells. However, teixobactin jumped all of these hurdles too. At the petri dish stage, it was found to be non-toxic to human cells. Then it was found to be non-toxic to living mice, and persist inside them at bacteria-killing levels for at least 4 hours. It was also completely successful in treating septicaemia (blood poisoning) in mice, after a single dose, and pretty good at treating lung infection too.

So there we have it. A new compound from a mysterious caged microbe, which kills a number of dangerous disease-causing bacteria on plates and in mice and evades resistance by targeting fatty building blocks. Of course, teixobactin hasn't reached its last hurdles. Just because no resistance occurred under laboratory conditions doesn't mean that resistance to teixobactin will never emerge. Also, it has yet to prove safe and effective for human use, but the researchers are optimistic that human trials could start within the next few years. So it might still be one less reason to be quite so terrified.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

If you go down to the woods today...'re sure of a big surprise. And no, it's not teddy bears.

There has been a great deal of news coverage in the last six months or so about the invasive Ash Dieback disease, which threatens to decimate our Ash populations if we do not find a way to control it or prevent its spread.
You may be forgiven for thinking that Ash Dieback was the only threat to our woodlands, such has been the media coverage, but other forest pathogens are also on the rampage, and they are set to change the landscape of my beautiful birthplace, the Forest of Dean.

PhD studies, a new husband, and living on the other side of the country were among the reasons I hadn't been back for a while, but just after Easter the call home became too strong, and I decided to go back and visit my old haunts for a day.

The Sculpture Trail was high on my list - 3.5 miles of woodland paths dotted with incredible sculptures inspired by local history and nature. As I started my ascent up the hill to 'Place', commonly known as the Giant's Chair, I looked forward to the view out across the forest that would greet me. I was saddened then, to see that the larch that had previously sloped down from the top of the hill had been felled, leaving barren space at the forefront of one of the Forest's best known viewpoints.

'Place' [source]

The trees had been felled in an attempt to stop the spread of oomycete pathogen Phytophthora ramorum which infects larch, oak, birch and sweet chestnut trees. News of this pathogen has been scarce of late, but in early 2013 its reach extended in Scotland. Cases are still being reported in the Forest of Dean and South Wales, despite attempts made to halt the spread of disease. It is suspected that the pathogen may be spreading via ornamental plants such as rhododendrons, impeding its containment.

As if that's not enough blight for my beloved Forest, I was recently made aware that yet another tree disease is making it's way through the woods. The iconic copse of evergreens on top of May Hill, which can be seen throughout Gloucestershire, may be destined for the chop, having fallen victim to Red Band Needle Blight - the Citizen newspaper reported last week. It particularly affects Corsican pines, which were planted in 1887 to mark Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. The Citizen have today reported that the older trees among the 99 that crown the hill may be spared, but younger trees are more susceptible to the disease.

May Hill - © Copyright Philip Halling
May Dawn [source]

This cluster of trees is where I brought in the new Millenium, and greeted the May Day dawn most years throughout my childhood to the sound of morris bells. The woods have a value to humanity far greater than that of timber or even ecosystem services. These diseases touch me not just as a plant pathologist, but because I feel a sense of belonging among the trees through which they spread.

I am frequently warned that forest pathology is not for the faint hearted and that crop pests are far easier to work with, but I am not sure you can take the Forest out of the girl, though she may be a long way from the Forest.