The Variable Light and Atmosphere Laboratory Launch

The Variable Atmosphere and Light (VAL) Lab Launch

At the beginning of February, we celebrated the launch of the Variable Atmosphere and Light (VAL) Laboratory at the Trinity Technology and Enterprise Centre in Dublin. The laboratory co-funded by the Science Foundation Ireland and Trinity College Dublin, comprises six walk-in experimentally controlled climate chambers with full control of light intensity and spectra, temperature, humidity, atmospheric composition and the diurnal cycle. The CONVIRON PGC20 plant growth chambers are instrumented with an infra-red phenotyping platform, full solar spectrum LED lights and many other state-of-the-art environmental sensors and control systems, that can simulate past, present or future climatic, atmospheric and light environments of Earth or other planets, for experimentation in plant science, geology, material sciences, engineering and astrobiology.

The grand opening of the laboratory marked the securing of the  SFI Infrastructure award back in 2015 by Prof. Jennifer McElwain, allowing the performance of high-quality scientific research and collaboration with other institutions and disciplines.

The event, attended by over 50 people, was highlighted by the speech from Ankit Verma, the Scientific Infrastructure Programme Manager at SFI, emphasizing the importance of the major founding agency in Ireland, enabling the researchers across the country to access some of the best equipment for the delivery of high-quality science. Prof. Sinéad Ryan, the Dean of Research, brought to attention the possibilities for collaboration within Trinity College and beyond, allowing excellence in innovation and research development.

For more information on the VAL Lab launch and the planned future experiments conducted in the climate-controlled plant growth chambers, see here.

Are plants Ecosystem Engineers?

Will Matthaeus presents a case to the International Biogeography Society in Prague

In the frosty early days of January, Dr Will Matthaeus went to Prague to deliver a talk at the Ecosystem Engineering Symposium organized by Kate Lyons and Amelia Villaseñor at the 11th Biennial Conference of International Biogeography Society (IBS). In a session covering everything from Edicarian bioturbation to anthropogenic impacts and rewilding—500 million years of ecosystem engineering—Will presented plants as a foundational aspect of terrestrial ecosystems and classic examples of ecosystem and landscape reorganization with plant evolutionary changes (e.g., ‘The Devonian Plant Hypothesis’). The earliest plants were little more than ‘green slime.’  These small, prostrate organisms that were limited to wet environments may still have impacted global ecosystems by altering atmospheric oxygen concentrations.  Over the course of the evolutionary transformations that led from green slime to boreal forests and savannahs, plants have likely increased the diversity and maximum effect in their impact on ecosystems. Synthesis of paleo-plant traits, among other paleontological techniques, may provide insight into this function over periods of change, upheaval, and extinction in terrestrial environments that are informative for our future. However, understanding these changes requires expertise in a broad variety of disciplines; IBS meetings are a valuable opportunity for developing the frontiers of paleoecology through new collaborations.

Members of the Terraform team take part in the first Irish Paleo Forum (IPF) in Cork

The first Irish Paleo Forum (IPF) - Cork, January 2024

On January 18th, our lab members, Antonietta Knetge, Catarina Barsboa and William Matthaeus joined fellow Irish palaeontologists for the first Irish Paleo Forum (IPF) meeting at University College Cork. The organisation of the IPF was proposed by Prof. Maria McNamara, Dr. Chris Mays, and our own, Prof. Jennifer McElwain. The forum aims to enhance the palaeontology community in Ireland by offering an open space for current research, communication and innovation. Members of Trinity College Dublin’s Plant Climate Interaction lab look forward to participating in future IPF meetings, making history in Ireland for the bright future of palaeontology.

Workshop held at the Botany Lecture Theatre on Overcoming Barriers to Fen Restoration

Workshop held at the Botany Lecture Theatre on Overcoming Barriers to Fen Restoration

On October 25th, a workshop on “Overcoming Barriers to Fen Restoration” took place at Trinity College Dublin’s Botany Department. The event was organised by Dr Sate Ahmad and Adam Bates, as part of the IRC-funded DIVE2STORE project, to offer a collaborative space for individuals involved with all facets of peatland-related work. The workshop discussed the diversity of peatland ecosystems in Ireland with a focus on fens (groundwater-fed peatlands), the pros and cons of rewetting peatlands, and how restoration efforts should consider social aspects along with an acknowledgement of gaps in technical knowhows. Highlighted talks on these topics include those of Prof. Gerald Jurasinski (University of Greifswald, Germany) and Dr Shane Regan (National Parks and Wildlife Service) discussing The Power of Long-term Monitoring to Understand the Climate Effect of Peatland Rewetting, and EU Just Transition Wetlands Restoration Project – Fen Management, respectively. The workshop also focused on the societal aspects of fen restoration, how people interact with these landscapes and the significance they hold for the locals neighbouring these areas. To cover these points, Dr Mícheál Callaghan from the Community Wetlands Forum (CWF) presented the Lessons and Experiences of the CWF and its members. All talks were followed by productive discussions and debates on potential restoration and monitoring solutions integrating responsible management schemes to address potential negative externalities, as well as setting restoration goals based on peatland type (eg. climate mitigation vs. biodiversity). The importance of the involvement of local communities in restoration and monitoring efforts was highlighted along with the need for providing incentives for fen restoration. Attendees included members of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Community Wetlands Forum, Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly, Bord na Móna, BEC Consultants, Green Restoration Ireland, Ó Ceallaigh Ecology, FarmPEAT Project, iCRAG, University of Galway, University College Dublin, and Trinity College Dublin (Departments of Botany, Geography, Zoology, and Environmental Engineering).

Dr Richard Nair awarded SFI-Royal Society University research fellowship

Dr Richard Nair awarded SFI-Royal Society University research fellowship

RODEO: Root Dynamics for Ecosystem Observation is a SFI-Royal Society University research fellowship awarded to Dr Richard Nair. RODEO is an 8-year project where Richard and the interdisciplinary RODEO team will build on his previous work building instruments and AI methods to understand root phenology (seasonal cycles) and use this to understand the links between root and shoot phenology. Phenology is important because it affects how much CO2 is taken up by vegetation and thus how plant life can buffer climate change. But most phenology information is only above ground, so if the changing environment causes differences in root and leaf activity, we cannot understand this from above-ground observations only leading to uncertainty in future predictions. RODEO will allow the team to study the links between whole plant phenology and CO2 uptake and release under real field conditions, and help improve forecasts, adaptions, and management of climate change.


RootCheck: Image-Based Root Health Assessment Tools for Sustainable Agriculture

RootCheck is a SFI-funded National Challenge Fund project, led by Dr Richard Nair with co-PI Dr Saoirse Tracy at University College Dublin. Health and physiological syndromes can affect roots and leaves differently, but there are no tools to help assess root health under field conditions. Generally, roots are much more difficult to measure than leaves, but root health status may not be visible above-ground. RootCheck will develop new tools for rapid and non-destructive in-field assessment of root health status using a combination of cheap sensors and artificial intelligence methods. RootCheck will build an interdisciplinary team to approach this challenge with an end-user focus. The output of RootCheck will help ensure data parameterized agricultural systems, helping ensure long-term agricultural sustainability and productivity in uncertain future conditions.

Adam Bates attends the Power to the Peatlands conference, Antwerp, Belgium

Adam Bates attends the Power to the Peatlands conference, Antwerp, Belgium

On the 19-21 September, lab member Adam, a Research Assistant to the Dive2Store project, attended the Power to the Peatlands conference, held at the University of Antwerp, Belgium.

Presenting a poster on Dive2Store’s recent fieldwork, Adam was able to discuss the ongoing study with peat experts from across Europe and beyond.

Rewetting, restoration, and conservation of peatlands are currently at the forefront of environmental concern in Ireland and Europe, with significant implications for climate goals and policy, relating to carbon stores, emissions, and mitigation.

Can we reverse climate change? By-product use for a sustainable future

An exciting collaboration is taking place between Trinity College Dublin’s TERRAFORM group and a research team at University College Dublin working on the “Crushed returned concrete as a soil amendment for carbon capture” project. Co-funded by iCRAG and Silicate, the project aims to investigate the potential of concrete application on agricultural soils as a negative emissions technology. A team of botanists and geologists from two leading Irish universities have joined forces to provide a holistic understanding of the potential of enhanced weathering to capture carbon, as well as any possible benefits for crops.
The project draws on silicate weathering, an ancient process that plays an important role in the Earth’s long-term carbon cycle, capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and helping regulate the Earth’s climate over millions of years. Cations produced during rock weathering react with CO2 from the atmosphere and the reaction products are eventually stored deep in the ocean as carbonates.
The ancient silicate weathering process inspired the exploration of enhanced weathering as a negative emissions technology. The practice aims to accelerate weathering reactions in order to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and reduce the effects of global warming. It commonly involves crushing silicate rocks followed by application onto agricultural soils, where it has the added benefit of weathered rock acting as a fertilizer by providing nutrients to crops. This project is unique in that it aims to investigate the possibility of using an otherwise waste industrial product, concrete, as the reactant in this process, further streamlining the sustainability of enhanced weathering as a practice.
Pilot studies are in full swing on fields of barley and oat located in Co. Wexford. Dr Ruadhán MaGee and Leo Hickey, based at UCD, study the CO2 removal potential under field conditions. Terraform members, Dr Christos Chondrogiannis and Katie O’Dea investigate the impact of concrete application on crop physiology and yields.
Possible positive results yield multiple benefits including; 1) Enhanced weathering as a carbon negative emission technique, 2) Alternate use of crushed concrete, a waste by-product of construction industry, 3) use of rocks as a crop soil fertilizer.

Cycads Bring us Together

Facilitating an exciting investigation into photosynthesis.

An exciting collaboration is underway between the Variable Light and Atmosphere (VAL) lab, Trinity College Botanic Gardens and the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland. The VAL lab has borrowed a variety of Cycads from both botanic gardens. The plants hail from all three extant Cycad families including Cycadaceae, Stangeriaceae, and Zamiaceae, capturing current diversity across the group.

Evolving around 280 million years ago, Cycads are an ancient group of gymnosperms. Often termed ‘living fossils’, these plants have existed since before the appearance of dinosaurs. Once dominating ancient ecosystems, todays Cycad species are limited to tropical and subtropical regions.

Borrowed Cycads have been acclimated to pre-set conditions within the state-of-the-art CONVIRON climate control chambers available at the VAL lab. Temperature, humidity and light spectra and intensity have been set to simulate the tropical environments in which today’s cycads reside.

Dr. Christos Chondrogiannis and Katie O’Dea from the ERC funded TERRAFORM project are studying photosynthetic characteristics of this unique group. The study aims to deeper understand the evolution of this iconic biological process which enables plants to synthesize energy from light.

The VAL lab would like to thank Trinity College Botanic Gardens and the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland for facilitating this research.

Siobhán McDonald captures landscapes at tipping points - The Boglands Are Breathing exhibition

'Siobhan McDonald communicate complex science in a visual way — reaching out to people with their heartstrings’

Siobhán’s latest exhibition – ‘The Boglands Are Breathing’ blends scientific and creative processes to make sculptures, videos, works on paper, paintings and sound pieces. The exhibition gathered numerous collaborators, bringing together scientists, conservators, musicians, philosophers, perfumers and celestial phenomena, all of whom collectively take part in the evolution of the work. Our shared boglands are positioned as the protagonists of an unseen drama, and this work makes visible the collective memory that is held in the rich repository that exists within the thin layer between the soil and the rocks.  An installation entitled ‘A library of lost smells,’ consisting of plant species, gathered from numerous bog sites across Ireland acts as a slow distillation of deep time created from plants and mineral-rich bog waters, that explores links between smell & memory. The installation holds an assortment of hand-blown glass bottles containing scents from eight of the most important notes. Some of the vessels contain scent-infused remnants that were buried deep in a bog for over 20 years alluding to the low oxygen levels and unusual smells derived from the preservation conditions.

Find out more about Siobhán’s exhibition, which took place at Model Arts Centre in Sligo, from the Irish Times article.

Click below to see the short documentary on the exhibition.

Second year of the monitoring program at Trinity College Botanic Garden

Trinity College Botanic Garden successfully run the second year of its long-term monitoring program

Trinity College Botanic Garden successfully run the second year of its long-term monitoring program. From the 26th to the 30th of June visiting researcher Midori Yajima, Dr Christos Chondrogiannis and research assistant Orla Banting daily measured trees’ physiological parameters in the garden, to add to the growing dataset to be used to assess tree responses to climate change in the long run. Lab analyses of trees’ ability to intercept particulate pollution are also underway, thanks to the collaboration with the iCRAG lab, and herbarium specimens are in the making for the year 2023, to be hosted in Trinity College Herbarium for future research questions. After the first year of testing the monitoring is growing into being a well-established project, attracting the interest from realities within and outside College.

Following the ethics of open science, all the resources for the monitoring have been published online in an accessible way, including protocols on the platform, accessible through management in the database DMP online, and datasets in the Dryad database, accessible through, and will be regularly updated.