Dr Alex Burgess

Leverhulme Research Fellow, University of Nottingham

Research and Poetry

Prize winning Nottingham poet, Gail Webb, was inspired by my research described in my blog article for COP 26. is This poem, “ Harvesting The Light” came out of a collaborative project designed to start conversations between poets and scientists to combat or change the effects of climate change.

To find out more visit the Hot Poets.

Harvesting The Light

Plants. I know about these.
They grow in my garden,
in planters on city streets,
sneak into verges,
never discreet. They thrust and sow
through cracks in pavements, or
around the front door,
wherever we go, they grow.

Remember school? We plant seeds,
one each in a paper cup,
press in with a finger,
into damp earth where nature
lingers. Watch it reach for the bright
touch of sun’s honey drips.
Some water, some time,
shoots peek out, thirsty for light.

We cultivate tomatoes, herbs,
on a windowsill. We try
to connect to food sources,
see magic before our eyes.
Nature’s forces form leaves, buds glow,
flourish into the next Spring;
we wait for a taste of summer,
crops sing as they grow, they grow.

In patterns plants reveal mysteries,
capillaries pump in life,
sinews stretch towards sun
blackberries ripen on vines,
ducking heads in broad-leafed shade;
apple trees live side by side
with wheat crops nodding in fields
ready to feed us. The future is made.

We dash from work to home,
want new growth, new ways,
aware of struggles to feed families.
Earth still warms up by degrees
heats farms, factories. Food in forests
is what we need. Almonds, apricots,
cherries let’s get them on our plates.
Farmers, governments unite with scientists.

Plants. They turn to us now.
Will we allow them room
to spread, to photosynthesise,
to arch upwards,
to rise like a cathedral roof
towards skies? Is there a plan
mapped out in their veins,
to reverse effects of climate change?

Something clever, seasonal, waterproof.
Plants are their own design, formed
in wind, by wavelengths red, blue, green,
into curly, upright, varied shapes
between canopies which absorb pollution.
They coexist with trees, multiply fruit,
cereals, vegetables, all we need.
At last, a peaceful revolution.

What do plants need to grow well?

In our recently accepted article, we discuss the stressors that limit plant growth in Earth and Space. With future space missions to Mars predicted to last 3+ years, how do we ensure that astronauts are able to fulfill their dietary needs?

Conditions in Space are highly variable compared to that on Earth. Extremes in temperature, dangerous radiation and lack of easily accessible or transportable resources means that engineering solutions are critical to support planetary exploration. But what does this mean for our plants? In comparison to conditions in Space, Earth is relatively sheltered, and as such, plants have adapted to almost all conditions and environments. But life on Earth also comes with some restrictions and there is little evidence to understand the response to plants once these restrictions are removed.

Our review, ‘Eustress in Space: Opportunities for Plant Stressors beyond the Earth Ecosystem’, provides an overview of the different stressors imposed on plants on Earth and in Space. But this also raises an intriguing question; can Space conditions be exploited to improve plant growth?

The interview experience

I recently attended an interview for the Rank Prize Nutrition New Lecturer Award in London. I have to admit that I have been relatively lucky so far in that I have not had to attend many interviews, but that makes the process even more nerve wracking! As one who suffers from nerves, I was surprised at how much the whole process effected me- both before and after with the wait to hear the result [I won!]!

Public speaking is one of those things that I expect to bother me greatly but then you do grow accustomed to. My first conference presentation as a PhD student was scary, but the more you do them the easier it is. Sometimes you just need to remember that this is your area of research and therefore you are the expert. However, that same kind of logic does not seem to carry over to interviews. In these the panel are expected to challenge you, to push you beyond your comfort zone and see how you cope. In my limited interview experience I have always thought that my responses have been poor and I have not expressed myself well. But what is the measure of success? and what are panel members really looking for? maybe one day I will find out!

COP-26: why we should worry about climate change

With COP-26 happening this week in Glasgow, it is a key time to think about the effect of climate change on our planet and what we can do about it. Extensive use of fossil fuels, land use change and deforestation combined with a rising population are all putting pressures on the delicate balance on Earth and we must act now to limit and reverse any damage.

Agriculture is intimately linked with the health of our environment. 50% of all habitable land on Earth is used for agriculture with 26% of greenhouse gases emitted through agricultural production. Yet risks associated with poor diets are the leading cause of death worldwide. With global populations due to excerd 9 billion by 2050, how can we provide enough food whilst also limiting and reversing the impact on the environment?

As part of my research at the University of Nottingham, some of the work I undertake has direct implications for a future under climate change. I am particularly interested in the sustainability and resilience of our agricultural systems to climate change and how we can adapt to reduce their susceptibility. This includes the selection of crop varieties that are better adapted to the environment in which they are grown or the conversion from industrial agriculture dominated by large-scale cultivation of a single crop (known as monocropping) to alternative systems incorporating multiple crops or trees such as intercropping or agroforestry.

You can read more about my research in this blog.

Hidden Hunger: the importance on nutritional quality

An expanding population requires both an increase in the amount of food that we produce from our agricultural systems but also improvements to the quality of that food. Such advances will be integral to preventing nutrient deficiencies, also known as ‘hidden hunger’. As part of a European consortium of researchers under the Horizon 2020 funded CropBooster-P programme, we have identified how the nutritional quality of crops and the bioavailability of individual nutrients can be optimised, including the genetic control behind such improvements. This highlight possibilities for the future improvement of or plant products whilst highlighting how a more diverse crop range with improved nutritional profile could help to shift to healthier and more sustainable plant-based diets.

Read the full paper here.

To be tall or short: how plant structure influences light

Application of a new method to measure rapid light changes in crop canopies has shown how architectural traits of wheat can influence the duration and magnitude of changes in light intensity throughout the canopy. In our recently published work, we compared the windfleck characteristics of two wheat varieties with contrasting structural traits. Light intensity can differ up to 40% during a windfleck, with changes occurring on a sub-second scale compared to ~5 min in canopies not subject to wind. Features such as a shorter height, more erect leaf stature and having an open structure led to an increased frequency and reduced time interval of light flecks. This finding illustrates the potential for architectural traits to be selected to improve the canopy light environment with consequences for crop domestication and the indirect selection on the canopy light environment.

You can read the full paper here.

Present your rice research at the UKRRC early career meeting

Do you conduct research on rice in the UK?

Do you want to showcase your findings to other early career researchers?

Join us at the University of Nottingham Jubilee Campus on the 16th and 17th September for the second UKRRC early career researchers meeting. With plenary lectures from world-leading rice researchers including Professor Andy Jones (University of Liverpool), Dr Sigrid Heuer (Rothamstead Research), Ajay Kohli (Director for Research at the International Rice Research Institute) plus many more, this promises to be an exciting and informative mini-conference.

For more details please follow this link.

How do we measure light in canopies?

In recently published work, joint with Maxime Durand, Matthew Robson and Baiba Matule at the University of Helsinki, we present a new method for measuring changes in light intensity and spectral quality in field environments. Using a high-resolution spectroradiometer, it is possible to record a time-series of light and use a mathematical framework to pull out information about the changes experienced. This indicates that shorter, rather than longer, periods of light known as ‘sunflecks’ contribute the most to irradiance experienced by plants. We also show how different species and canopy positions alter the characteristics of this light.

How do we feed our astronauts on space missions?

As part of a new project, we will be looking at ways in which we can feed our astronauts on long-term space missions. A mission to Mars is expected to take 3 years, with 1-tonne of food required per year, per astronaut! With an 8 month trip required to send further provisions, space missions of the future will need to be self-sufficient. With many of the constraints of Earth-bound agricultural systems lacking is this our chance to rethink how we can grow our plants?

Joint with researchers including Professor Volker Hessel and Dr Matthew Knowling at the University of Adelaide and Professor Dov Stekel at the University of Nottingham we will be supervising a new PhD student starting in July 2021 to model closed-loop agricultural systems to simulate potential growing conditions in space.

Publish your work on sustainable production of crops in this special issue!

With an expanding population and unknown consequence of climate change, improving the sustainability of our cropping systems is integral to optimising yields and limiting any further negative impacts of agriculture on the environment.

This special issue in the journal Sustainability, deadline November 1st 2021, aims to publish high-quality research papers on methods to increase the sustainability of our agricultural systems, whether by alternative cropping practices (i.e. intercropping, agroforestry, vertical farming), urban systems, new improved crop varieties, innovative technologies to reduce inputs or through the development of new methods to assess the productivity and sustainability of our cropping systems. As a large proportion of the population are in developing countries with differing constraints to agricultural production (i.e. poor quality soils, low input agriculture, subsidence farming) papers are desired that cover a wide range of different environments and locations with differing amounts of resources or technology required.

For more information click here.

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