BSPP News Autumn 1998 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 33, Autumn 1998

Plant Diseases Exhibition at the 1998 Edinburgh International Science Festival

"The tables kept moving towards you!" was Mary MacDonald's excited comment on the press of enthusiastic popular interest in the plant pathology centrepiece to Edinburgh's 10th International Science Festival. A continuous stream of the interested and curious visited this exhibition in the Education Centre of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh.

If you've ever been involved in explaining and presenting technical and scientific concepts to the general public, you'll understand the scale of the task facing the team of volunteers who helped stage the exhibition. During the Festival fortnight, we received more than 10,000 visitors, and many more passed through during the course of the Summer.

The Edinburgh International Science Festival is a two week long series of events, lectures, exhibitions and activities to bring science alive to the general public, particularly children. The Plant Diseases exhibition was staged as part of the run-up to the 7th International Congress for Plant Pathology to highlight the social and economic impact of plant diseases. A programme of demonstrations, workshops and plant clinics ran from Saturday 4th April to Sunday 19th April. The main exhibition continued on display at RBGE until August where it was on view to ICPP98 delegates.

The Event was opened in fine style on Thursday 2 April by Jim McColl, BBC Scotland celebrity and professional horticulturalist who works at the practical end of plant pathology, Professor Geoff Dixon, Chairman of the Organising Committee, and Professor David Ingram, President of BSPP and the International Congress. Numerous invited guests and well-wishers supported the Opening from across the spectrum of education, research and publicity.

During the Science Festival, there were three connected elements. Revenge of the Cereal Killers was a stunning, free-standing, poster exhibit which introduced the nature and causes of plant diseases, featuring five diseases with a significant social or economic impact. These were: potato late blight, ergot, coffee rust, Dutch elm disease and tulip breaking virus. A final board looked to future challenges in pathology.

This part of the exhibition was supported by hands-on demonstration and living material of fruit and vegetable rots, fungicide resistance and host resistance to disease. A quiz, based on the exhibition posters and demonstration, was completed by children visiting the exhibition, who were awarded a `Plant Doctor Certificate' to take home with them. The live demonstration attracted much interest, particularly the display of fruit and vegetable rots and the fungi and bacteria that caused them. Visitors were fascinated by a series of `apples per day' which Mark Hocart carefully rotted softly to mummification and disintegration. We confidently forecast a glut of keen applicants to pathology courses in about 10 years time!

A teachers' pack of information on plant pathology, the diseases featured and the experiments involved was produced as part of the education support material (electronic copies may be available on request from Dr Jane Chard, SASA, East Craigs, Edinburgh).

Most of the `younger' generation made straight for`The Maize Game', an interactive computer game developed by Simon Heath and Ian Finlayson of CLUES, Aberdeen, which demonstrated the environmental consequences and opportunities of disease control. Participants were able to make decisions and score points for disease control and yield/profitability, while being charged an Environmental Tax on any fungicide they chose to apply.

The stool in front of the monitor was occupied for most of the fortnight with individuals competing to get the highest profit scores - the game certainly proved addictive to children of all ages. The software for The Maize Game will be made available free of charge to teachers and other interested parties. Copies can be obtained from Ian Finlayson of CLUES, Aberdeen University and, eventually, via the CLUES website.

A second part of the exhibition, Healthy Plants, Healthy Planet, involved a series of activity workshops where children and other members of the general public were able to isolate plant and fungal DNA and characterise it using the SAPS electrophoresis and `fingerprinting' system, use monoclonal antibodies to detect pathogens or conduct a series of simple experiments to show how different apple rot fungi use different enzymes to `eat' different components of the host tissue. These workshops were a great success and were heavily oversubscribed. The tables on which they were set out had repeatedly to be realigned as they were pushed forward by the eagerness of the young participants.

Finally, `What's up, Doc?' plant clinics were held on each weekend during the Festival where people could bring in their problem plants and receive advice and help. The message from Stuart Wale to his team of clinicians was, firstly "enjoy yourself" and secondly "don't panic".

The clinics attracted an enthusiastic response, with many specific and general enquires. Problems as diverse as variegation on Aspidistra to rusts on wild flowers were brought in for the panel of volunteers to examine and discuss. While the number of plant specimens brought in for inspection was relatively modest, many more people had questions they wanted answered.

The exhibition was a tremendous success with many positive comments on all parts of the exhibition and associated events from both children and adults, many of whom got `stuck in' with the quiz, workshops and computer game themselves. Feedback both during the Festival and since it ended show that we achieved our objective of presenting plant diseases and plant pathology in a stimulating, accessible and exciting way to the general public.

The poster boards, designed by Graven Images of Glasgow, looked stunning and the eye-catching use of colour and form was clearly successful in attracting attention and getting the public to spend time reading their content. The posters have remained on display throughout the Summer at RBGE.

BSPP commissioned an additional board describing the importance of plant pathology in safeguarding global food security- the subject of a public discussion forum at ICPP98 - which was added to the exhibition in early summer. The design of the boards allows BSPP to make use of the posters for future meetings and events and they will be featured at the December Conference at the University of Warwick, details of which appear elsewhere in this newsletter.

That there is popular interest in plant diseases was exemplified by the recent BBC Radio programme on potato blight. The success of our exhibition vindicated two years hard work by the Steering Group and the substantial financial commitment by BSPP, the Association for Crop Protection in Northern Britain and the Royal Society.The result was a professional and striking exhibit and a series of events that have helped to promote plant pathology to a general audience, and in particular to children.

The organisers owe a huge debt of gratitude to the volunteers who helped staff the exhibition during the entire period of the festival and to the staff of the Botanic Garden who provided much needed support in the exhibition hall, as well as helping in the organisation of the exhibition.

Members of the organising group were: Geoff Dixon (Strathclyde University), Bill Rennie and Jane Chard (SASA), Stuart Wale and Mark Hocart (SAC), Ian Darwin-Edwards and Zoë Kemp (RBGE) and Mary MacDonald (Science and Plant in Schools).

Responsible for designing the afternoon workshops were Mary MacDonald, Paul Nicholson (John Innes Centre) and Molly Dewey (Oxford University). Other expert helpers with the Plant Clinic included Chris Prior, Deborah Parsons (Royal Horticultural Society), Rob Harling, Fiona Burnett, Jeanie Cooper, Karene Sutherland, Ruaridh Bain, Rob Clayton (SAC), Audrey Litterick (Aberdeen University) Stephan Helfer (RBGE) and Mary Noble.

Other volunteers and contributors included Vince Mulholland, Denise Darling, Susan Irvine, Gillian McLaren, Marian McEwan, Margaret Jacks, James Choiseul, Paul Haddon, Robert Burns, Sylvia Breslin (SASA), Neil Havis, John Elcock, Anne Dubickas, Ann MacDonald (SAC), Dave Cooke (SCRI), Mark Winfield (Cambridge University Botanic Garden) and Carole Fraser (KULU Enterprises).

Apologies if we've missed anyone off!

Mark Hocart and Geoff Dixon