Level of study First Year
Credit value 20
Pre-requisite modules none
Other pre-requisites none
Plants are essential for human life. They are the basis of all ecosystems on the planet, providing the origin of the food we eat and the air we breathe. We rely on plants for not only for edible products, but also for fuel, medicines, building materials, clothing, paper, and things that enhance our quality of life such as parks, gardens and public spaces. Over recent decades there have been dramatic improvements in food supply. However, there are still important requirements for crop improvement. We need to satisfy demands from an increasingly ecologically-minded public for environment-friendly agriculture, and to ensure that crop plants continue to survive with changing climates and soils. We need to provide alternative uses (e.g. as biofuels) for existing crop plants, to eliminate surpluses of particular commodities, and to combat problems of disease in crops with an increasingly narrow genetic base (monoculture).
In order to manipulate plant characteristics to benefit human society, we need to fully understand the processes that naturally control the characteristics within the plant. Thus, a great deal of modern plant science research aims to fully understand fundamental plant biology: including development, cell biology, physiology and responses to the environment. A prime aim of this course is therefore to explain the molecular, physiological and structural processes that underlie the growth and development of plants and show how such information can be applied directly to benefit humans.
The ‘environment’ consists of both a biotic component (including plants and their parasites and predators) and an abiotic component (variables such as temperature, water/nutrient availability and associated stresses). Within an ecosystem, we have to understand how plants interact with their environment and this module addresses the biology associated with this. In addition, the ecosystems that sustain us are affected by humans. This course introduces the ways we can quantify these effects, and explores the various solutions to environmental problems. Diversity (at both genetic and habitat levels) is central to both natural ecosystems and agricultural systems and we introduce the definitions and methods needed to quantify diversity. The various human pressures on these environments will be examined, including habitat fragmentation, invasive species and pollution. There is particular emphasis on the effects of the increased levels of greenhouse gases that are driving climate change. A range of sustainable strategies will be considered that can facilitate conservation of the natural world and provide solutions for agricultural situations, including the use of GM crops.
We deliver the core of the module in a series of lectures delivered by research-active staff with wide expertise, ranging from plant molecular biology through to design of the conservation strategies necessary to convince the public and politicians that diversity is valuable. The lecture core is supported by a series of practicals that give hands-on experience of working with real biological material, both with plants and with environmental monitoring.