Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Whispers in the dark - do earthworms talk to plants

Academics spend a lot of their time trying to obtain the money to do the science that they are interested in. One good source of money in the UK are the UK research councils. For most of my research the Natural Environment Research Council is a possible funder.

However, the research councils aren't flush with cash and funding is highly competitive. At present the success rate of NERC research proposals is 14% or, to flip that around 86% of the ideas submitted to the NERC for science projects aren't funded. There's a debate to be had about how productive it is for UK environmental scientists to spend a lot of time writing proposals that don't get funded but the level of competition does keep us on our toes and the quality of UK environmental science really does punch above its weight, quite possibly as a consequence of this intense competition.

Having written how hard it is to get funding, I'm happy to say that last week I heard that myself and a colleague, Professor Jane Thomas Oates in our chemistry department here at York, have just been awarded a grant by the NERC for our project "Whispers in the dark - do earthworms talk to plants". I really love the title! Contrary to what you might imagine in this project we won't be pressing our ears to the ground and listening intently!; rather we'll be using state of the art chemical mass spectrometry (Jane's specialism) to find out whether earthworms produce chemicals that promote plant growth. It's in their interests to do this since plant growth results in more food for the earthworms - more decaying plant material and more soil micro-organisms feeding on the chemicals secreted by the plant roots. The project starts in October and lasts for 18 months in the first instance - keep listening!

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