Monday 23 May 2011

Genetically Modified Plants, Where are we now in the drought ridden UK?

The BBC Cambridgeshire's Andie Harper Show touched on the developing drought on this morning's progam and the topic of GMO crops and foods came up. It elicited a remarkable run of mainly positive comments, before resistance kicked in.

Until 2004, I worked as a researcher in the plant area and was responsible for biological safety, so I naturally turned to relevant online sources to see what the GMO release situation was in the UK and wider Europe at this moment in time.

Field trial application

A quick check on ACRE (The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment) which regulates ALL UK field trials and releases of GMOs showed that in 2010, there were only:

Two applications for trials

  1. Nematode resistance in potatoes – my old colleagues in Leeds continuing their great work
  2. Potatoes modified for resistance to potato late blight – Sainsbury Lab

One EU Notification to renew authorisation to market:

  1. Carnations with altered flower colour – Florigene

Two applications to market GM food and feed

  1. Maize with Herbicide tolerance – Monsanto
  2. Maize with insect resistance (specific Lepidoptera and Coleoptera species)

There were also a number of applications to cultivate or import and process varieties for feed, where further assessments were awaited or where these had already been considered in the past.

(Source: Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment: Annual Report Number 17: 2010

What was most striking about the numbers of applications for GMO releases to the environment was how these had plummeted throughout the EU, especially in the former leaders, France, UK and Germany.

The trend was countered in Spain, where there has been a steady increase in trials over the past decade. (Source GMO Compass

Is plant GM work dead in the UK?

Of course not! Whilst trialling in the UK may be at a low, this does not prevent the continuation of ground breaking work in plant genetics in the UK and worldwide. Old challenges, such as making nitrogen fixing crops are being revisited and there is also current talk about third generation biofuel production using algal cultures that have been modified. Hopefully the latter will take away the threat of more farmland or natural habitats being converted for fuel generation.

The hidden benefits of GM technologies

What is often not realised is that the 99% of work required understanding a particular plant gene or set of genes before even making a transgenic crop plant is in itself extremely useful. So called Marker Assisted Breeding, using information from cloned and characterised genes, can ensure that new desirable traits can be moved into many crop plants by conventional breeding.

It will probably take a couple of decades yet in the UK for GM crops to become acceptable. This is ironic, in that many people have already experienced the benefits of GM technology in the production of their medicines and even the cheese they eat (by using purified rennet from transformed bacterial cultures rather than the stomachs of calves).

Back to the UK Drought

Will GM be important for adapting our crops to the drought in the UK? Well, it is more likely that farmers will adapt to growing drought tolerant crops here that have already proved themselves in other growing areas. Breeding programs work best when there is a variety of methods available, GM is just one option amongst many.

My personal solution? I’m still waiting for my pineapple top to root before I commit to buying my Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts!

Monday 16 May 2011

How I created a First Story ebook for Children to work on Kindle

A first story ebook for children created as an exercise in learning about creating ebooks. The book is the picture story with a bit of text called "Monty Bear and the Chocolate Egg". The Amazon link is at the bottom of the page.

As part of the process of learning about the practicalities of creating an ebook for my Kindle, I practised on transferring the content of the digital book I had already created at, which you can read online, but not download. (the Amazon Kindle link is at the bottom of the article).

The work process for creating the Kindle ebook was as follows:
  • Convert and edit the images into greyscale, with a high contrast. This is important as the Kindle reader has a lower contrast range.
  • The images were resized to be 520 pixels wide, the optimum for the Kindle reader
  • I then used Sigil, a WYSIWYG ebook editor, to layout the book with the edited images and text. 
  • To force each image and its short text to be on a new page, I had to make each page a new chapter.
  • The ebook was then saved in epub format.
  • The ebook was then imported into Calibre and the meta information (about author, title, publication date and preferred book cover) was added.
  • Using Calibre, the ebook was exported into the .mobi format, which is accepted by Kindle.
I actually went through the cycle several times as minor coding features had to be corrected. For this simple 20 page book, the process took five or six hours before I was completely satisfied.

I could either import the book to my Kindle (best option) or use the free PC software to view Kindle ebooks available here:

By generating this very simple book, I learnt a considerable amount on the practicalities of producing an ebook for Kindle - and other - ebook readers.

Please feel free to sample or purchase the ebook, "Monty Bear and the Chocolate Egg" at only £0.70p for your Kindle from here:

I would really appreciate your comments after trialling this out on young children!

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Caldecote History Group's early book planning a good start

Today I joined the Caldecote History Group for a meeting. We talked about the best way forward to produce a book on the history of Caldecote; I was there in my capacity as a publisher.

I'm usually approached to help with a book when the author has already produced a first draft. I was therefore delighted when the Caldecote History Group asked me to give some professional advice at an earlier stage.

The reason is that whilst the production of a book has it's own difficulties, the real challenge is - how do I sell the book. Thinking about this right from the start can be of great help later.

My hosts were Sheila, Robert, David and Christine, part of a wider group that has a good complement of different skills and and historical interests. They and others had already collected a wealth of information about the village of Caldecote, over a period from the Domesday Book to the present. We wanted to establish the best way forward for the Caldecote History Group.

The wide ranging discussions eventually crystalised to 5 key elements:

  • Adopt web based tools for even better team work
  • Tell the local and wider communities what we are doing
  • Generate interest in the final book
  • Design, edit and set the book
  • Publication (print and/or digital) of the book

Every group will have its own specific solutions when producing a book. What is important is to generate interest early on as this gives you a clearer idea on who will be interested in a copy of the final book.

Get in touch if you are a Cambridgeshire group interested in finding the best way forward for your book.

In the meantime keep a look out for more news from the Caldecote History Group!

Tuesday 10 May 2011

CHASE a popcode for augmented reality

From Wordle-images

Connell Gauld of Extra Reality Limited entertained an audience at this Monday's CHASE meeting on Mills & Reeve's Cambridge premises. The talk was on the linking of a printed code with a mobile phone app so that the camera on the phone could be overlayered with an augmented reality display.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” pronounced the farseeing Arthur C Clarke in 1961. It was an astute Connell Gauld who used the Hogwart's posters of Sirius Black in motion at the CHASE meeting, to demonstrate that the magic in a film is now indistinguishable from advanced technology. Take a static image with an embedded code and your mobile camera will display an augmented image that moves, reveals hidden detail or any other effect you desire. The particularly neat feature is that as you change the camera view by moving it around, the augmented image on the screen behaves in the same way.

That is, if you have a decent mobile phone (i.e. a more expensive model, like the i-phones and i-pad). My Nokia E63 was sadly not up to the task and currently, neither are Blackberrys.

To my simple mind, the principle was broken down into three elements:
1. A printed and snappily titled “Popcode”, that is code 128 based
2. A downloadable app that recognises the code via the mobile phone camera
3. Cloud based software that can be accessed by the app to perform the impressive visual “augmented reality” effects on the phone display

The popcode, whilst a great mnemonic and visually appealing, is not actually essential. The audience rapidly pointed out that QR codes or other barcodes could work equally well if the app can be made to recognise them.

It is the app and the software to create, then implement, the bespoke augmented reality animation that is key.

Connell Gauld and Extra Reality Limited currently have an edge in development time for this particular form of augmented reality and are currently seeking to employ this technological lead to their advantage.

This was an excellent and exciting presentation, especially as Connell Gauld seemed to relish the numerous interruptions and questions. CHASE are to be congratulated for organising the event.

Monday 9 May 2011

German quality goat’s cheeses on a mission to the UK

Andreas Ebert of Feinkaeserei Zimmermann visits the UK to check out the market for his “Altenburger”, a fine cheese that is a PDO (Product of Designated Origin). A commentary on our joint experience in business and in pleasure.

In the UK, the French are famous for their cheeses, we ourselves produce a wide variety of excellent British artisan cheeses – but Germany? Perhaps the politest comment that Andreas would encounter, when talking about his companies soft, medium hard and blue cheeses, was “I didn’t know the Germans made cheese!” The least complimentary phrase we heard was “German cheeses are imitations of the French”.

But the most positive comments we regularly heard from real cheese distributers in the UK was “We do not have any German cheeses and would like to extend our portfolio”.

Andreas is the fourth generation from Feinkaeserei Zimmermann to enter the family run business that recently ( in 2010) celebrated the centenary of continuous production of the regionally famous “Altenburger Ziegenkaese”, from the state of Saxony in Germany.

The cheese dairy survived two world wars and nationalisation in the communist East Germany, with the family present ever since Albert Zimmermann first worked for the founder, in 1910, Mr Kupfer and then took it over in 1930. Wrestling control back after reunification, The family and Feinkaeserei Zimmermann expanded the cheese dairy into making other goat’s cheeses with the glut of milk coming in as part of the “Altenburger” production.

Andreas’s visits to UK partners were scattered over three days. Arriving the day before the first, we met at Luton Airport and travelled into London. Once we had checked in his luggage in the reasonable and nicely located Park Grand Hotel at Devonshire Terrace near Paddington, it was off for some sight seeing.

Andreas had been a frequent visitor to London in the past, but had never toured HMS Belfast. We set off via the Underground to St Pauls. Walking around the Cathedral, we crossed the millennium bridge and made a short visit to the Weiwei Sunflower seed exhibition in the Tate Modern. From there, with a choral interlude at Southwark cathedral we finally arrived at HMS Belfast for a couple of hours delving through her decks.

The next three days were busy visiting the potential UK contacts that my collaborators at Europartnerships had found him. The key lesson that we learnt early on was the fascination with the century old history of the “Altenburger Ziegenkaese”. This was especially helped by the centenary, traditional round wooden box design which had been retained. This was the key for opening people’s willingness to look at the other soft and semi hard cheeses. There was certainly interest generated, with the caveat that the quality and taste had to match.

Fortunately, we had cheese samples. They had been sent to my colleague Audra Green , who had then driven them to me. I took them to London where Andreas had them safely stored in the Hotel’s fridge until required.

Perhaps the best memory was of the friendly reception “Up North”, where our hosts cracked open some artisan fruit juices and we had an end-of-trip tasting session of selected English and Zimmermann cheeses, with complimentary comments all round.

Devonshire Terrace was not far from three excellent pubs, The Victoria, The Swan and The Mitre, where Andreas became an honorary Englishman, at least in his appreciation of good quality pub food.

It was an intense, positive and entertaining visit with business opportunities to be chased. Hopefully we can soon find the “Altenburger Ziegenkaese” and its relatives gaining acceptance distribution in the UK.

Andreas Ebert, of Feinkaeserei Zimmermann’s visit to the UK, was part of:
The VHP Lebensmittelwirtschaft 2010
Supported by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology
Project Management by Europartnerships Ltd
in cooperation with Milton Contact Ltd (UK)
And Come Across (DE)

Tuesday 3 May 2011

High Spirits at the Natural History Museum

Next time you visit the Natural History Museum in London, turn left at the dinosaur's tail and wander through to the Darwin Centre and The Cocoon. Last Thursday, I took part on the Spirit Collection Tour there. Spirit does not refer to ghosts or whisky, but rather to the samples that are preserved in a mixture of ethanol and methanol, IMS. Though, to be fair, when early collectors ran out of pure alcohol, brandy or rum provided a simple solution until the specimens were returned home.

The visitors area of the Darwin Centre displays several hundred animals and plants in their tastefully lit jars. The rest of the building, from it's basement to the floors above, houses 22 million of the 70 million or more specimens of the worlds flora and fauna for the future. Yet this is not simply a giant pickle collection to be sniffed at (especially as the IMS is harmful if inhaled in quantity). The building also has laboratories and scientists. They continue to gain real results in our understanding of life on earth from this valuable resource.

The Spirit Collection Tour takes a small group of eight visitors behind the scenes. Our guide, Jessica, was a working scientist who specialised in mammals. Luckily for us, she was also trained in communicating with the lay audience.

We went down into the basement; first stop, the flesh eating beetles. Not a nightmare, but insects put to practical use. These are nature's waste removal system, getting rid of carrion. Safely kept in the laboratory, they strip flesh from samples, leaving the skeleton. This avoids the use of hazardous chemicals and an otherwise messy, smelly, dangerous job for the scientist. The beetles were cleaning a killer whale tooth. You can see them working for yourself on the flesh-eating beetle cam. Let's hope someone cleans the lens and sorts out the focus in the meantime.

Then we came to the chilled rooms housing rows upon rows of cabinets with samples under lock and key. So valuable to science that they were evacuated to caves outside of London during WWII. Further on we entered to the room containing the large specimens. I had remembered Archie, the giant squid from a previous visit. As long as a London bus, the tentacles were covered in suckers. This time I saw that each sucker had a wicked circle of teeth, to maximise grip when tackling prey or battling with their predator, the sperm whale.

Amongst the many specimens stored there were a few in a special cabinet. These were samples originally collected by Darwin on the Voyage of the Beagle. Amonstthem was the shell of his pet tortoise from the Galapagos Isles, lost for over a century until found again in the 1980s.

But why are these collections so important?

First, Whenever a new species was or is discovered, a physical record of a typical type specimen is made. This type specimen can be compared with later finds of the same or similar organisms as an important guide for accurate identification. Some of these samples are so important, that they will travel across the world on loan, to help naturalists with their work there.

Second, of the tens of millions of animals and plants stored, many were preserved, catalogued and simply put into storage for later. Work still needs to be done to understand them further.

Third, preservation in IMS has kept the DNA intact so that modern DNA technologies can be used to gain even more knowledge.

Is this really relevant to you or me? Yes! There are some really practical applications, as well as increasing our general understanding of life on earth. For example, later when I walked through the through the Cocoon, which houses the insect collections, I stopped at the window to the working lab. A scientist was studying New Forest blow flies, talking to us as she worked and also answering questions. We could actually see the work being done under the microscope. I learnt that blow flies can apparently be important in murder cases; in terms of giving the police and courts an estimate of how long a body has lain since death. Local blow fly species might also help by giving geographical information; was the body moved after the murder, for example.

So when you next walk up the steps and into the glorious Victorian main hall of the Natural History Museum, do not just come to look at the exhibits. Take one the many opportunities to talk to and interact with real scientists who work there on our behalf. The museum is not just a collection of static displays, it is also a major centre for increasing our knowledge – and willing to tell you about it in terms that you and I can understand.