Plant root sensors and flu research: News from Imperial

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Roots in soil

Here’s a batch of fresh news and announcements from across Imperial.

From a new tool to monitor the chemistry of plant roots' environments, to research that might explain why we lose weight when we are sick, here is some quick-read news from across Imperial.

Plant sensors  

Roots under soilImperial researchers have developed a new low-cost sensor platform, named TETRIS, that measures the chemistry of plant roots’ environments in real time.   

Measuring the soil around plant roots is important for predicting and maintaining plant health, which is crucial for food security. However traditional ways to measure plants’ environments fail to capture ever-changing parameters like continuous temperature, salinity and pH.  

This new system uses electrochemical sensors to collect environmental data and a machine learning model uses the data to predict nutrient uptake rates. The researchers say that with further testing, the platform could help to ensure food security through the development of robust plants in the face of challenges brought by the climate crisis and overfarming.  

They tested the platform by measuring pH changes, ion uptake and H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide) in kale, tomato, and rice seedlings, and used it to detect differences between nutrient and heavy metal ion uptake. The researchers say the platform is an important step in developing sensors for whole plants, as not many sensors for roots or seedlings exist presently.  

They then demonstrated that the data collected using TETRIS can help to build machine learning models that predict the rates of uptake of salts.  

The researchers intend the platform to be used to guide the development of new stress-resistant crops that can better withstand pathogens and fluctuating conditions such as temperature, salinity, and pH.   

First author Philip Coatsworth, PhD candidate at Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, said: “Our sensing platform is a key step towards the full sensing of plants in real-time. Through expanding the range of sensors in the near future, we believe TETRIS could predict stress and disease response in plants, accelerating the development of new resistant plant varieties.” 

Senior author Dr Firat Güder from the Department of Bioengineering said: “Most biological plant experiments are performed in single, one-off measurements. Time carries a lot of information which is lost in these single measurements. Continuous monitoring of the chemistry around the roots of plants with TETRIS will help us perform a range of new experiments that could not have been performed before. These new experiments will help us answer new biological questions related to plants. ”  

The research is published in Science Advances

Feed a cold 

Woman in bed with the fluIn some viral infections, the immune system may make you feel unwell in the process of killing the virus.

As appealing as a warming soup may be, many of us can’t face eating when we get infected with cold-like viruses. Imperial scientists were hungry for an answer to how the immune system plays a role in weight loss after viral infection, to help people stay healthy and eat more, even when they are sick.    

The researchers found that after infection with Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), a virus that can make infants and the elderly very sick, mice ate less food and lost weight. Further analysis revealed that the RSV infection caused a molecule found in the lungs during infection (IL-1α) to enter the brain, triggering a cascade of hormone production which ended up with mice being put off their food.   

 PhD student Ziyin Wang, from Imperial’s Department of Infectious Disease, and study co-author said: “In humans, weight loss following infection can cause a negative spiral increasing frailty and predisposing older people to future infections. Interventions that target aspects of the immune response – including molecule IL-1α – could help people recover faster from illness.”   

Dr John Tregoning, from the Department of Infectious Disease and co-author of the study said: “Our immune system is vital in keeping us alive, but sometimes through its eagerness to do this it can end up making us feeling ill. In this study we show that immune signalling reduces appetite during viral infection.”   

The paper was published in Mucosal Immunology.  

Air quality alerts  

Ambulance outside an hospitalThe Mayor of London has announced plans to improve the way that healthcare professionals are informed about incidents of poor air quality in the city, using forecasts from Imperial College London.

Data and forecasts provided by the School of Public Health’s Environmental Research Group will now alert GPs and emergency departments the day before and during the worst air pollution episodes.  

The alert, the first of its kind in the UK, provides information for health care professionals to use with patients, including on inhaler use and physical activity during high pollution episodes as well as advice on the steps individuals can take to reduce their contribution to air pollution.   

The alert system has notified Londoners, schools and boroughs of toxic air episodes since 2018, with 19 high and 217 moderate alert issues in that time.

Read more about the new alert on the Mayor of London's website

All image credit: Shutterstock

 A hand holds a phone on the Imperial website

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Bryony Ravate

Bryony Ravate
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Jack Stewart
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Caroline Brogan

Caroline Brogan
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Pollution, Healthcare, News-in-brief, Engineering-Bioeng, Climate-change
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