Monthly Archives: January 2016

Plants also have immune system

When biologists learn about immune systems, we usually hear only about humans. Recently I have been studying about plant immune system for one of my courses, and have found it very interesting.  In wilderness plants are constantly exposed to all kinds of microbes and diseases, but they rarely get sick, because their immune system has evolved to literally fight the pathogens that may infect them.

As in mammals, plants possess physical barriers that protect them from the entry of pathogens. In fact, plants have been smarter than us in this manner: each cell has a complex layer of polymers, strategically located surrounding it:  the cell wall (which animal cells lack). One important component of the innermost layer of cell walls is lignin, because it is made of monomers hard to degrade that bond to each other randomly. Because of the random bonding, pathogens will be facing different polymeric structures every time, hence it is going to be difficult for them find a mechanisms to brake all the many random bonds between monomers and therefore infect the plant.

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Lignin molecules are different from each other because of the random bonding, then most pathogens will get confused. Drawing by Hernán Capador

If pathogens can overcome the cell wall, plants will recognize them using specialized proteins- similar to antibodies in humans. Once plants recognize pathogens, they will trigger a signal cascade to activate what is called inducible immune system or basal response that is based on the release of molecules that will fight the pathogen and prevent infection. Nonetheless, pathogens always fight back. Many bacteria possess what is called the type III secretion system, a smart device that allows them to introduce a stylet-like structure in to the plant cells. Throughout the structure, bacteria will leak in molecules that will interfere with the basal response, hence they will be able to survive and take over the plant.

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Plants can recognize bacteria and trigger a signal cascade to fight the disease. However, bacteria can hijack the signal and infect plants. Animation by Hernán Capador.

But plants can still fight back and stop infection. They have also evolved to produce intracellular molecules that will recognize the proteins injected through the type three secretion system. These proteins, called “R” or resistance proteins will trigger again the inducible immune system, and if the infection is severe they will recur to one extreme strategy: suicide. This is a phenomenon called programmed cell death, and it is very useful, as plants will kill infected cells to stop the spreading of infection and prevent it to take over the whole organism.

This is only a glimpse of plant immune system. More can be found in this review paper by Dodds & Rathjen (2010), and in this other review by Barros and collaborators (2015) (By the way, one the collaborators is my teacher on this topic. Very cool huh?)

Please, do not hesitate to comment or ask something below!

Best!

Hernán.

 

The perks of studying in the 6th best small university

Earlier this week, Times Higher Education (THE) published a new ranking, where SLU was placed in the 6th position worldwide: The world’s best small universities. The ranking was based on the yearly assessed World University Ranking, but this time only 20 universities under 5000 students made the cut, and SLU is one of them.

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“The world’s best small universities” data from www.timeshighereducation.com/student/news/worlds-best-small-universities-2016

THE defines universities’ size based on number of students. For me this concept is quite ambiguous, as SLU feels big in every dimension.  It has several campuses all across  Sweden and I go to the biggest, located in Ultuna, 6 km away from Uppsala. Ultuna campus is simply stunning, because It has huge newly built facilities, with plenty of space and opportunities for me to take. Although campus is big and modern, I see familiar faces all the time what makes it feel cozy and homey. Sometimes I feel I could live in there: there are kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, and couches comfortable enough to sleep in.

Additionally, SLU has a high ratio professor/student, what makes education more personalized, thus feedback in every assignment is greater. Also, having small courses makes environment in the classroom better, because shy people feel freer to express in discussions, and there is time to listen everyone’s opinion. In fact, my class is a wonderful 13 people team: We always have lunch together, discuss about politics, help each other, bike together and even bake cookies and treats for everyone! (you rock guys).

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My classmates, accompanied by some exchange students. The picture was initially taken by Sofia Berlin, but we all signed and then Jon Bancic took the picture of the picture.

Furthermore, due to its focus on agriculture, it is a research hub for environmental, natural and biological sciences. I believe that having a big number of researchers, from different disciplines but focused on the same objective promotes interdisciplinary and collaboration. This makes SLU a wonderful university to pursue plant-based research, which I am glad to be part of.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post? Then comment below 🙂

Best!

Hernán.

Plant Growth and Development 15c

As I mentioned in a former post, the master program in Plant Biology is collaborative. Thus, I had the chance to take a course in Uppsala University, which turned out to be tremendous!

The course is called Plant Growth and Development and is taught by the Biology Education Center in Uppsala University. Since it is a 15 credits course the time dedication was 100% during 8 weeks, and I enjoyed every hour of it!

Lectures covered the growth and development of plants from a molecular perspective which makes a lot of sense for me, because the interaction between DNA, RNA and proteins will shape cells and determine their function. The first half of the course was lecture-intensive, hence  we started to unveil in a logical manner the importance of meristems, the development of roots, vascular tissues, leaves and flowers. Lectures were combined with journal clubs, where we read scientific articles published in prominent journals. There, we had the opportunity to dig into more specific topics and learn about current techniques and methods used by plant scientists. Personally, my favorite article was from Mason and collaborators (2014), in which they demonstrate that apical dominance in plants is not regulated by auxins –as it was thought to be for many years, but by sugars produced in photosynthesis.

Animation by Hernán Capador. When decapitation of the tip occurs, sugars travel from old leaves to axilar buds and promote branching . Based on Mason et al., 2014

The later part of the course was laboratory-intensive. This allowed me and my lab-partner to focus  on a project full-time. We decided to evaluate the effect of light on one transcription factor in the root of Arabidopsis thaliana. It sounds ambitious, I know. However, we did prove our hypothesis using techniques such as RNA extraction, real-time PCR, NBT root staining and light microscopy in just two months, but many hours in the laboratory. At the end of the period when we had to present the results it felt great, mainly because I realized how much did I learned about plants in such a short period, but also because we obtained the highest possible grade on the research project and had lots of fun 😀 .

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Figure by Jon Bancic & Hernán Capador. Roots of different mutants of A. thaliana stained with NBT.

I hope you liked this post and the animation I made myself! I have to admit it… I spent a lot of time on it. But look at it again, please. Isn’t it beautiful? 😛

More information about the course can be found here

Please, do not hesitate to comment or ask something below!

Cheers!

Hernán.

Welcome here, welcome home.

When someone arrives to Uppsala either by car or train, the phrase  Välkommen hit, Välkommen hum, which means Welcome here, Welcome home shows up.

Välkommen hit, välkommen hum. Picture by Johannes Rosseau, from Beautiful Uppsala.

I arrived to Uppsala 5 months ago and it does feel like home.

For those who do not know much about it, Uppsala is the 4th largest city in Sweden and its located just 60 km north from Stockholm, the capital. Uppsala is best known for its cathedral Dormkyrka – which happens to be the tallest of its kind in Sweden, but also because of  its universities: Uppsala University; one of the largest universities in the country and famous worldwide and SLU; an university specialized in the management and understanding of natural resources and biodiversity. Now, imagine a city of roughly 150.000 inhabitants with two universities and 50.000 students. Pretty astounding, right? On this post I would like to highlight 2 things I love about living in such a place!

Biking

In Uppsala, a bicycle is essential. It is the main mean of transportation in the city and I truly love it. It is cheap, convenient,  healthy, friendly with the environment and fun! I live near city center and SLU is located 6km in the south. Therefore I bike everyday around 30 mins and enjoy every minute (except when it is cold. Read more about it here), because there are exclusive bike roads and some of them go along the riverside or through the forest!

Ciudades con casas lindas, calles empedradas y gente montando bicicleta ❤

A photo posted by Hernán Capador (@capadorr) on

 

International student life

I have met wonderful people from all around the world, because many international students come to both Uppsala University and SLU to take graduate and undergraduate courses taught in English language. This has allowed me to learn a lot about different cultures and points of view, eat delicious food, have lots of fun and cheer in many languages 😛 (Swedish, Dutch, German, Slovenian, Afrikaans, Bulgarian, Russian, Greek, etc). Also, the vibrant student life keeps me busy all the time, because there are tons of committees, unions, nations (I will take this in depth in a following post), societies and activities happening every single day!

We just felt like pancakes and wine after the exam.

A photo posted by Hernán Capador (@capadorr) on

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post? Then comment below 🙂

Best!

Hernán.

The coldest I have ever been

Uppsala is located far north (59 latitudes away from tropical and very much missed Colombia) and it is said that winter is warmer than in other places equally distant from the equator. However, I recently realized that warmer winter in Sweden is a mere euphemism, because it will be still cold, very cold (I mean the bold).

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Weather in Uppsala for the next 24h. Forecast by www.klart.se

Last friday I had an examination early in the morning  and according to my phone  it was -20 °C outside. On top of it, winter brought me a terrible cold that barely let me study for the exam without sneezing. So, how to get to SLU? Biking was not an option, as I would have had to ride that cold piece of steel for at least 30 minutes with the freezing drizzle hitting on my face. Therefore, I took the bus, what implied walking 15 minutes at -20 to get to the bus stop -The coldest I have ever been.

Even though I put on many layers of clothing, and nice leather boots before hitting the road it was not enough, I was certainly freezing. I tried to walk as fast as possible to warm myself, minded every step and focused on my breath’s pace  to not think about my frozen toes, but still freezing.  I put my mind elsewhere, thought of myself in a little cabin near the Caribbean Coast in Colombia eating coconut-rice with fried bananas. Worthless, still freezing. Fortunately I got distracted by an absurd amount of snow pilled up,  which seemed to be strategically placed for people to  say: Damn it, it has been snowing a lot. And it has indeed.

Ridiculous amount of snow. Picture by Hernán Capador.
Ridiculous amount of snow. Picture by Hernán Capador.

After all, I am glad to say that I survived -20. Once I got in the bus, my classmates that were already inside welcomed me with a “Hej snowman!” – My face was frozen white.

Do you have any thoughts about this very cold post? Then comment below and let everybody know 🙂 !

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Best!

Hernán!

How to choose a master’s degree abroad

When I meet new people in Sweden almost everyone has the same reaction: WOW, why did you decide to come from so far away to study here? Well,  I always explain the system I came up with:  three criteria that filtered the programs I was interested in and helped me to choose the program I follow now (read more about it here). I hope it can help you guys too 🙂

1. Language and location 

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint
Drawing by Hernán Capador

Most programs request specific scores from international recognized language tests. Therefore,  one should be aware of its own language skills and make a wise choice. Then, a specific location may  be considered, because many countries around the world speak the same language and actually, there are also universities that teach graduate courses in languages different from the country’s official language- as  in Sweden. When I applied this filter I was certain about doing my master’s degree in English language and  somewhere in Europe.

2. Program and reputation 

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint
Drawing by Hernán Capador

The second criteria is not as easy to sort out as the first one, because the answers are not in the decision-maker, but out there in the web. There are plenty of international rankings that rank universities according to the impact of their research, the number of PhD students, ratio professors/students, etc. Even when I am aware that those rankings do not tell the absolute truth about an university, I think they are worth considering to make decisions. Some of those rankings are subject specific, which helps even more when filtering the options. For example, when I looked at the best universities in agriculture, I realized that SLU was among the top 10 worldwide.

3. Affordability 

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint
Drawing by Hernán Capador

Finally, money. Postgraduate studies are expensive and living abroad is as well, reason why this factor is important. When it comes to tuition fees one should see if they are affordable. If not,  there are always  scholarships available. There are also scholarships available to cover living expenses, but I will get to this whole subject in a later post. What is important here is to be reasonable and aware of how much money one can pay for a master’s program. In Sweden, UE citizens  do not have to pay tuition fees (great, huh?). As I come from Colombia I was entitled to pay around 30.000 USD for tuition fees. However, SLU offers certain number of scholarships to cover tuition fees on a yearly basis and guess what… I got it one of them 🙂

I hope you liked this post and the crappy, but lovely drawings!

Please, do not hesitate to ask something or share your thoughts below!

Best!

Hernán.

 

A Master of Science in Plant Biology

It is quite difficult to decide a topic for the very first blog post. However I guess that the most logical approach is to start with the basics: What am I doing  in Sweden?

I was admitted to the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU for its acronym in Swedish language) to study a 120 credits master program called “Plant Biology”. Because the program is held in an agriculture-focused university it explores topics in biology of plants from a production perspective and suits my previous education (read more about me). However, the genetic and molecular background is present throughout all course, which makes it a leading program, that prepares  students for the current and upcoming knowledge in plant sciences. Furthermore, SLU is among the the top 10 universities in agriculture worldwide, and is a wonderful place for plant studies.

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The class in the green house. Photo by Jon Bancic ©.

The master program is collaborative, as it is organized by three outstanding Swedish universities: Uppsala University, Stockholm University and obviously, SLU. Therefore,  the students have to take at least one course at each university, which turns out to be awesome, as I will get to meet more people, more professors, more research groups, and in the end I will get more opportunities. 

I started it in September 2015, and will finish before summer 2017. So far I have no regrets. Coming to SLU to pursue my Master of Science was definitely the wisest choice I have ever made!

Do you have any questions? Do not hesitate to comment below 🙂

Best!

Hernán.