The Power of Plants: OpenPlant visits Latitude Festival

A team of OpenPlant Scientists from the John Innes Centre, the University of Cambridge, and collaborators from Imperial College and University College London worked together to deliver an exciting range of activities for families visiting the Kids Area at Latitude Festival in July 2016. Latitude is a mixed arts festival that attracts over 10,000 visitors a year, who enjoy the rich mix of thought-provoking performances and interactive workshops. This was an excellent way to build key professional development skills whilst engaging in dialogue with a diverse cross-section of society. It was also a good opportunity to spend time with researchers from different institutes working as a team on a shared activity.

Our stand, entitled ‘The Power of Plants’, was an exhibit that led visitors on a journey looking at traditional uses of plants, how plant selective breeding has produced the food crops that we recognise today, tracking the evolution of our relationship with plants through science to introduce the synthetic biology approach, and some of the modern uses of plants and algae that bioengineering enables.

Activities included leaf printing to explore variation in the brassica family, a pairs game to match modern crop varieties to their ancient ancestors, pigment extraction and making bath bombs to explore traditional uses of plants and the chemicals they produce, infiltrating tobacco leaves (with water) to learn how scientists introduce new DNA into plants and to discover how vaccines can be made in plants. The second half of the display focussed on algae and visitors learnt about algae and it’s many uses (including the variety of algae-derived pigments used in food), seeing an algae printer in action (created by Marin Sawa), learning about bioreactors and measuring algal cell density using a mobile phone app (both bioreactor and app were developed as part of the OpenPlant Fund project: Big Algae Open Experiment), and learning about the difference between a lemon battery and electric currents produced by algae and plants. We exhibited both plants and algae that had been wired up so that the current could be measured with a volt meter.

We had a hugely positive response, both to the science exhibited and to the aesthetics of our stand which was covered in plants, algae bioreactors, science related graphics, and fronted by 5 beautiful giant willow flowers created by Mat Rant, and decorated by the OpenPlant team.

Our stand even smelt good, thanks to the 100s of lavender bath bombs that were being made. Though the smell at times became a little too much for our volunteers who had to step out of the tent for some fresh air and a coffee to counter the sleep-inducing effects of the lavender!

If you want to have a go yourself at pigment extraction and creating electricity from plants, Co-Lab and OpenPlant have teamed up to run a weekend workshop in September 2016 to bring together scientists, designers, and anyone else with an interest to develop new project ideas: http://openscienceschool.org/colabopenplant/

A Big Algae Open Experiment blog post can be found here.

Many thanks to all volunteers: Colette Matthewman (OpenPlant, John Innes Centre, Norwich), Jenni Rant (The SAW Trust, Norwich), Alys Barr (OpenPlant, John Innes Centre, Norwich), Michael Stephenson (OpenPlant, John Innes Centre, Norwich), Dorota Jakubczyk (O’Connor Lab, John Innes Centre, Norwich), Matt Heaton (John Innes Centre, Norwich), Daisy Rant (Norwich), Paolo Bombelli (Big Algae Open Experiment, University of Cambridge), Brenda Parker (Big Algae Open Experiment, University College London), Marc Jones (Big Algae Open Experiment, John Innes Centre, Norwich), Marin Sawa (Algal printer, Imperial College London), Katrin Geisler (Smith Lab, University of Cambridge).

Blog post written by: Colette Matthewman Photos by: Matt Heaton and Alys Barr