A model tree?

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Published on: April 30, 2013

Just how many things can we really use Arabidopsis thaliana as a ‘model’ for? Certainly our favourite weed has an historic advantage for genomic research. As the first plant genome to be fully sequenced, it has had a long head start for all sorts of ‘omics databases and projects. The A. thaliana databases have proved useful for researchers working on other plant species too; even today Arabidopsis genomic sequences are used to fish un-annotated genomes for genes and motifs. A recent paper questions how appropriate it is to transfer in vivo Arabidopsis research on xylem and water flow to woody plant species. Yes, how useful is weedy (in all senses of the word), tiny A. thaliana to understand massive woody trees? The answer? It’s not perfect, but it’s OK.

Tixier et al. (JXB, doi:10.1093/jxb/ert087, Open Access) carried out a series of experiments to test A. thaliana’s value as a model for wood development. It turns out wildtype Arabidopsis is a good xylem hydraulic model, with tissue structure and vessel dimensions that are reliably representative of larger woody plants. To quote Tixier et al., “A. thaliana can be used to measure specific conductivity and cavitation resistance in an accurate and reliable approach,” and far more conveniently than trying to use an 8 metre tall tree to do it. However, the model plant is not appropriate for some xylem parameters, such as end-wall sensitivity. A. thaliana xylem also responded differently to abnormal environmental conditions and cell wall structure manipulation.

As an aside, Wendrich and Weijers present another system for which A. thaliana is an appropriate model in this month’s Tansley review in New Phytologist (doi: 10.1111/nph.12267). They describe current understanding of morphogenesis in the early A. thaliana embryo, and identify five key questions that still remain to be answered.

Image credit: Climbing plant by Heriberto Herrera, via stock.xchng.

CellSet confocal image analysis

Categories: guest blogger, resource
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Published on: April 25, 2013

Michael Pound is an image analyst at CPIB. He kindly agreed to write a guest post for GARNet on his recent project, confocal image analysis software CellSeT

CellSeT, which was recently published in Plant Cell (24:1353), is open source software which analyses confocal images of plant cells. CellSeT can extract information including fluorescence and membrane polarity objectively and quickly. A simple workflow begins with the program filtering noise out of the image, and then it segments the image into individual cells. Confocal images can produce excellent slices through root meristems, however some incorrect segmentation is inevitable deeper into the root tissue. CellSeT was designed with this in mind, and the user can then manually refine the cell segments. This optional manual step is followed by an automatic refinement using active contours, aimed at improving accuracy and reducing subjectivity. Finally the cells can be manually assigned semantic tags and measured. Plugins, which are also open source, allow users to carry out more specialised functions, or cell geometries can be exported into modelling packages such as OpenAlea.

CellSeT will be useful to researchers who produce confocal images at a cell scale, usually of root tissue, although CellSeT has been shown to work on other regions such as the plant leaf. The plugin architecture allows anyone with a basic programming knowledge to perform additional image analysis within each cell. For example, an existing plugin is used to detect and quantify nuclear fluorescence in a separate colour channel to the cell walls.

You can download CellSeT from Sourceforge. Due to its use of Windows graphics libraries, CellSeT only runs in Windows. If you don’t use Windows, you will have to run a virtual windows environment to use it. CellSeT works successfully on software such as parallels if this is necessary.

Image credits: CPIB 

Dundee’s week of plant science conferences

Categories: conferences, UKPSF
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Published on: April 23, 2013

Well, what felt like the biggest week of the year for UK plant science is now over. Last week, the UK Plant Phenomics Network meetingUK PlantSci 2013, and Monogram all happened at the University of Dundee. It was a whirlwind week of inspirational talks, updates, people, and a drop or two of Scottish whiskey.

PlantSci 2013 was the second annual conference organised by the UK Plant Sciences Federation. Representatives from fields as wide-ranging as basic and applied research, industry, molecular biology, ecology, and science communication spoke to an auditorium packed with people from all stages of their careers.

I have committed myself to no less than 3 write-ups of PlantSci 2013, so I won’t blog about it here, but I will do my best to write up David Baulcombe’s keynote talk as soon as I can. As far as I know, it hasn’t had a write-up yet and was very inspirational. However, until I can share my reports, there are plenty of PlantSci-related media to immerse yourself in.

The extraordinarily talented Rebecca Nesbit of the Society of Biology managed to write-up two sessions of PlantSci 2013 while live-tweeting. Her post on the first keynote talk, ‘Feeding 10 Billion People on a Finite Planet’ is here and her second post, on the Inspiring Future Generations session, is here.

At one point the conference hashtag #plantsci2013 was one of the most used phrases on Twitter! Twitter coverage of the conference extended well beyond the lecture theatre in Dundee as people all over the world followed the conference by the live-tweets and interacted with delegates who were present. For a fairly comprehensive overview of all the talks and the conference in general, take a look at the Storify I made of the Twitter feed. The shortlinks in the tweets will take you to papers or resources the speakers mentioned in their talks.

Monogram is the annual conference on UK small grain cereal and grass research, again attended by breeders and other stakeholders as well as basic and applied researchers. The Monogram blog will soon have a post about the conference, but in the mean time the Storify of tweets from the meeting is here.

Image credit: left image, Anne Osterrieder, right image, Charis Cook


Mathematics in the Plant Sciences

Categories: bioinformatics, Workshops
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Published on: April 17, 2013

After the ELIXIR/GOBLET workshop before Easter, I headed to Nottingham for another workshop, this time as an onlooker. In a brilliantly eccentric set-up there were actually two parallel workshops, and the participants hopped between the two and had lunch, dinner, and tea breaks in the same rooms. The event I was officially attending was the final meeting of the ‘Systems approaches to study hormone regulated root growth’ US Partnering Award (USPA). The Sixth Mathematics in the Plant Sciences Study Group was in its final two days during the USPA workshop, and some of its attendees presented their research at the USPA meeting or sat in on a session they were particularly interested in.

The Study Groups are hackathon-style workshops at which mathematicians and computer scientists take on problems set by plant scientists. This year’s problems included analysing 300 standing-electron microscopy images of cell walls, and modelling nitrogen release from the symbiosome. As someone with a traditional science background, of course the solutions the teams came up with were a bit beyond me – which is, after all, the whole point of the Study Group. I was impressed by the solutions that had appeared after just four days of work, which ranged from programmes to quantify subtle differences in images, to a model which predicted the optimum light input for photosynthesis and explained plant acclimatisation to variable light sources.

There will be another Study Group and when it is announced, we’ll keep you informed. If you know any mathematicians or computer scientists with a liking for academic science problems and who likes hackathon events, let them know about Study Groups and encourage them to send their details to Susie Lydon, who organises the events. Similarly if your plant research has thrown up a thorny problem which needs specialist expertise, think about submitting it for the next Study Group.

Ready for UK PlantSci 2013

Categories: Friday Film, UKPSF
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Published on: April 12, 2013

To whet your appetite for next week’s UK PlantSci 2013 conference in Dundee, here are clips of the keynote speakers Charles Godfray (University of Oxford) and David Baulcombe (University of Cambridge). I think that the Godfray clip can be considered a very unofficial ‘preview’ of his keynote lecture Feeding 10 Billion People on a Finite Planet, which will be on Tuesday morning. David Baulcombe’s interview probably isn’t linked to his Of maize and men or peas and people lecture on Wednesday morning, but it is still a good watch – an interesting and balanced discussion about GM.

If you’re not coming up to Dundee, you can still keep up with these talks and all the others live on the Twitter hashtag #PlantSci2013. I’ll post the blog posts and reports about the conference here once they’ve trickled out, too.


Video credits: The Oxford Martin School and LEAF

Bioinformatics and Data Analysis Training for Plant Scientists

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Published on: April 11, 2013

Large datasets are now the norm in modern biology. Modelling is progressing from the protein and molecular interaction level to tissue, organ, and whole-plant scales; while everything from genomics through to phenomics and, increasingly, field-level and multi-scale biology involves high throughput experiments. All of these necessitate ever greater computing power and use of complex analysis tools and software. We need you to tell us (click for extremely short survey) which areas of bioinformatics and data analysis you would benefit from training in, ahead of an upcoming GARNet workshop (in association with iPlant and the Hartree Centre).

The iPlant Collaborative is a community of researchers, educators, and students working to deliver a useful and usable cyberinfrastructure for plant science. Users are able to store and analyse their data online, and use iPlant tools for genome assembly, comparative genomics, CHiP and RNA Seq analysis, and much more. A working group is developing modelling tools at the moment, which will take advantage of the high performance computing power iPlant provides, and will support the construction, parameter estimation, sensitivity analysis, and utilization of models. All the resources are free for users worldwide and all are web based, requiring no specialist hardware at the user’s location. (more…)

Bioinformatics: Training the Trainers

Categories: bioinformatics, Workshops
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Published on: April 9, 2013

My apologies for the GARNet radio silence over the last couple of weeks – we’ve been busy helping with PlantSci 2013 preparations as well as working on our own 2013 meetings (announcement of our September workshop coming soon!), going to a few external meetings, and enjoying that arctic Easter break too.

The week before Easter I went to an ELIXIR/GOBLET Training the Trainers workshop at TGAC (The Genome Analysis Centre). If you don’t know what ELIXIR or GOBLET are … don’t worry. They’re fairly new bodies and at the moment have quite a niche target market/audience, but they will be influencing bioinformatics and computational biology use and training over the next few years.

The ELIXIR project was FP7-funded in 2007 and aims to establish a sustainable European infrastructure for biological information. The infrastructure should eventually be a place for data storage, access, and analysis – for anyone who wants to use it in one of the member countries. Sixteen countries are participating, and each has a ‘node’ responsible for a different aspect of the project. ELIXIR-UK is based at the EBI in Cambridge, and is both the co-ordinating hub of the entire project and the training node.

GOBLET is the unusually straightforward acronym for Global Organisation for Bioinformatics Learning, Education and Training. Its mission is essentially to support trainers and educators in bioinformatics and computational biology. ‘Training’ can be either a full-time job, or incorporated into another job. Their aims include establishing guidelines and standards for training, gather funding, and forming a networking and support hub where resources can be shared internationally.


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