Sixth form students in Norfolk will take on the challenge of providing the first insights into how some plants resist a major wheat disease. They will work with scientists from the John Innes Centre on a project called "Supermodel fights famine" funded with £3000 from the Royal Society and £2000 from the British Society for Plant Pathology.
Their work from now until July could help reduce losses to Take-all, one of the most serious fungal diseases of wheat. The disease invades roots and is named for the fact that it can kill an entire crop.
"We hope to introduce students to the excitement of scientific discovery and to inspire them to consider plant science as a degree choice," said Dr Paul Nicholson who is leading the JIC project.
Students aged 15-17 will receive seeds of an important model crop used to study wheat called Brachypodium. They will learn plant husbandry techniques to grow the seeds in the classroom under specific conditions. They will record the extent of root blackening on each root and compare it across different lines of Brachypodium.
Taken collectively, the data from schools and scientists will reveal differences in resistance to Take-all across 200 Brachypodium lines collected from across Europe and the Near East. Pupils will examine data sets from other participating schools to cross-check all the results.
The findings will be made available to plant breeders to help them develop new wheat varieties with greater resistance to the disease.
"We hope that the students' work will feature in peer-reviewed publications and make a real contribution to advancing scientific knowledge," said Dr Nicholson.
"The experience with enrich their education beyond the national curriculum."
Students will gain skills in plant biology, pathology, microbiology and statistics. The importance of such skills has been highlighted by the recent outbreak of ash dieback. They will also learn about the uncertainties and pitfalls involved in generating scientific knowledge.
"Students hear enough about supermodels in the media, but not the plant kind," said Justin Smith from Wymondham High.
"The project will help bring home the importance of plant science to ensuring food security and will enable our students to make their own real contribution to reducing future crop losses."
A consortium of schools will take part, with Wymondham High acting as the hub school. Teachers and pupils will test run the experimental procedures, suggest improvements and provide support to the other participating schools.
Professor John Pethica FRS, Vice-President of the Royal Society, said: "We're pleased to be supporting "Supermodel fight famine" are looking forward to seeing this imaginative project come to life over the coming months.
"Science and engineering are exhilarating and dynamic subjects and we hope that by giving teachers the opportunity to introduce innovative science that we can help show young people how much fun in real-life these subjects can be, and inspire them to become the inventors, explorers and innovators of the future."