Extended project ideas: biology and biochemistry

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When you’re thinking about possible ideas for your extended project, the choice can seem overwhelming. We’ve put together a selection of ideas for topics to get you thinking, based on a research paper by a group of biologists and biochemists which identified a hundred important questions for research.

View the website ‘100 Most Important Questions Facing Plant Science Research’

View the article ‘One hundred important questions facing plant science research’, New Phytologist (2011), 192: 6-12

 How do we feed our children’s children?

“By 2050 the world population will have reached c. 9 billion people. This will represent a tripling of the world population within the average lifetime of a single human being. The population is not only expanding, but also becoming more discerning, with greater demands for energy-intensive foods such as meat and dairy. Meeting these increasing food demands over the years to come requires a doubling of food production from existing levels. How are we going to achieve this? Through the cultivation of land currently covered in rainforests, through enhanced production from existing arable land or by changing people’s habits to change food consumption patterns and reduce food waste?” (From ‘One hundred important questions’)

“We may be forced to choose between production of staple food crops to feed the world population and the production of luxury crops, such as tea, coffee and cocoa”

“The majority of agricultural land is used to cultivate the staple food crops wheat (Triticum aestivum), maize (Zea mays) and rice (Oryza sativa), the oil-rich crops soy (Glycine max), canola (Brassica napus), sunflower (Helianthus spp.) and oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) and commodity crops such as cotton (Gossypium spp.), tea (Camellia sinensis) and coffee (Coffea spp.). As the world population expands and meat consumption increases, there is a growing demand for staples and oil-rich crops for both human needs and animal feed. Without significant improvements in yields of these basic crop plants, we will experience a squeeze on agricultural land. It is therefore essential that we address the yield gap; the difference between future yield requirements and yields available with current technologies, management and gene pools. Otherwise we may be forced to choose between production of staple food crops to feed the world population and the production of luxury crops, such as tea, coffee, cocoa (Theobroma cacao), cotton, fruits and vegetables.” (From ‘One hundred important questions’)

Possible extended project ideas on this topic might include

  • How can we meet increasing food demands in the 21st century?
  • What factors contribute to food waste in the UK, and how can they be addressed?
  • Are transgenic crops needed to feed a rapidly increasing world population?
  • What were the global effects of the ‘green revolution’ in biology?
  • Can the world afford to keep eating chocolate?

How can plants contribute to solving the energy crisis and ameliorating global warming?

“Plants use solar energy to power the conversion of CO2 into plant materials such as starch and cell walls. Plant material can be burnt or fermented to release heat energy or make fuels such as ethanol or diesel. There is interest in using algae (unicellular aquatic plants) to capture CO2 emissions from power stations at source. Biomass cellulose crops such as Miscanthus giganteus (Poaceae) are already being burnt with coal at power stations. There is understandable distaste for using food crops such as wheat and maize for fuel, but currently 30% of the US maize crop is used for ethanol production, and sustainable solutions are being found. Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) significantly reduces Brazil’s imports of fossil fuels. Agave (Agavea fourcroydes) in hot arid regions can provide very high yields (> 30 T ha)1) of dry matter with low water inputs compared with other crops. To ameliorate global warming, CO2 must be taken out of the air and not put back. There is considerable interest in ‘biochar’ in which plant material is heated without air to convert the carbon into charcoal. In this form, carbon cannot readily re-enter the air, and, if added to the soil, can increase fertility. Carbon markets do not currently provide sufficient incentive for farmers to grow crops simply to take CO2 out of the air.” (From ‘One hundred important questions’)

Possible extended project ideas on this topic might include

  • What are the potential benefits and disadvantages of using algae for biofuels?
  • What are the economic and social implications of using food crops for fuels?
  • What is the potential for ‘next generation’ biofuels?
  • Does biochar offer a sustainable solution to global warming?
  • Can crop production move away from being dependent on oil-based technologies?
  • Which plants have the greatest potential for use as biofuels with the least effects on biodiversity, carbon footprints and food security?

Understanding and utilising plant cells

Plant structure and function depend on the composition and behaviour of plant cells. A lot of progress has been made towards identifying cellular components (including DNA, RNA, proteins, cell wall components and membranes) and understanding how they contribute to specific processes (such as development, metabolism, and pathogen resistance).

Some important questions identified by the research team on this topic include

  • How do plant cells maintain totipotency and how can we use this knowledge to improve tissue culture and regeneration?
  • How do plants store information on past environmental and developmental events?
  • Can we usefully implant new synthetic biological modules in plants?
  • How can we use our knowledge about photosynthesis and its optimization to better harness the energy of the sun?
  • Can we improve algae to better capture CO2 and produce higher yields of oil or hydrogen for fuel?
  • How can we use our knowledge of carbon fixation at the biochemical, physiological and ecological levels to address the rising concentrations of
    atmospheric CO2?

Diversity

It is currently estimated that there are at least a quarter of a million species of flowering plant in the world, the vast majority of which have not been tested for useful properties. How can we identify plants with potential for human benefit that have yet to be recognized, while acting in a sustainable and responsible manner? The resulting knowledge and natural resources could then be used to tackle new challenges as they arise. One of the major international research projects of recent years has been sequencing the genomes of key species, including crops such as rice, grapes, wheat and potatoes. Similarly, Wales has become the first nation to DNA barcode all its native plants, allowing even the tiniest fragment of a plant to be accurately identified. How can these developments answer key scientific questions, or tackle forensic challenges?

Some important questions identified by the research team on this topic include

  • Can we increase crop productivity without harming biodiversity?
  • Can we define objective criteria to determine when and where intensive or extensive farming practices are appropriate?
  • How do plants contribute to ecosystem services?
  • How can we ensure the long-term availability of genetic diversity within socio-economically valuable gene pools?
  • How do specific genetic differences result in the diverse phenotypes of different plant species? That is, why is an oak tree an oak tree and a wheat plant a wheat plant?
  • Which genomes should we sequence and how can we best extract meaning from the sequences?
  • What is the significance of variation in genome size?
  • Why is the range of life spans in the plant kingdom so much greater than in animals?