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Dr Julie Hawkins from the School of Biological Sciences discusses recent research which aims to revitalise the hunt for new plant-based medicines.

The earliest medicines were derived from plants, and the first doctors were trained in botany. Today, many societies rely directly on plants and plant knowledge for the health of their people, and a large proportion of pharmaceutical medicines are derived from plants. These pharmaceuticals are often used in ways which reflect traditional use of the species from which they have been derived.

Despite the importance of plants to health, however, there is some controversy as to whether new drugs could be derived from them. Recent developments in drug discovery have made use of robotic screening of compound libraries, whist bioprospecting based on traditional knowledge of plant use has fallen out of favour. Some have argued that useful pharmaceuticals are unlikely to be discovered amongst the ‘riches of the rainforests’. There are issues surrounding recognising the intellectual property of the people discovering and using these plants, which is seen as politically complex, and this discourages investment. In addition, collecting traditionally used plants for screening is time consuming and relies on expertise in botany and ethnobotany. Furthermore, some have argued that plant use may not be indicative of bioactivity, so screening plants used by traditional healers may not yield valuable insights.

Research I have been involved in has recently looked at a novel way of evaluating plants used by traditional healers to address this. We considered the phylogenies, or ‘family trees’ of the plants found in three global biodiversity hotspots. By using DNA sequences to work out how plants in these regions were related, we were able to see whether plants usedby traditonal healers in different regions were closely related to each other. The geographic regions we selected for the study were ones unlikely to have exchanged knowledge about traditional plants – Nepal, New Zealand and South Africa. We found that in these regions the same closely-related plants were used by traditional healers, and interestingly were used to treat the same conditions. 

The fact that evolutionarily related plants are used in different regions, even though the same species are not present, strongly suggests an independent discovery of plants which share the same or similar health properties.  This new finding could revitalise the search for valuable plant medicines. Targeted screening of plants with a high potential for having health benefits would reduce the time investment in collecting species, and also make it easier to negotiate fair and equitable distribution of benefits with the originators of the knowledge.

Dr Julie Hawkins works in the School of Biological Sciences and is interested in the application of molecular marker data to determine identity, parentage and provenance of economically important plant species. This research has recently been published in PNAS: Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis, Vincent Savolainen, Elizabeth M. Williamson, Félix Forest, Steven J. Wagstaff, Sushim R. Baral, Mark F. Watson, Colin A. Pendry & Julie A. Hawkins. ‘Phylogenies reveal predictive power of traditional medicine in bioprospecting’ PNAS (2012). doi:10.1073/pnas.1202242109.

 

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On world food day Professor Richard Tiffin from the University’s Centre for Food Security discusses the challenges faced when meeting the global demand for food.

The present debate around how best to meet the global demand for food has a tendency to polarise into two camps.  First there are those who argue that the food system is broken and what is required is a return to more ‘traditional’ ways in which food is produced on labour intensive small farms and distributed locally.  In the opposite corner are technologists who argue that the only way that we will be able to meet the predicted increase in demand for food of between fifty and one hundred per cent, is to continue the process of intensification that characterised the development of agriculture during the twentieth century.  Instead of this polarisation however perhaps some cross fertilisation is necessary.

A return to a more traditional agriculture has some appeal.  There is no denying that small scale production gives a better looking countryside and increased rural employment.  Its diversified products also provide a nice contrast to the commoditised food products that dominate the supermarket shelves.  In a more subtle way the greater diversity of the farming system employed on these units may provide us with a greater degree of resilience in the face of increased risk of extreme weather events which climate change brings.  

This is all logical but the problems arise when attempts are made to scale the approach up to meet a much larger part of our food needs.  Increased labour intensity demands more labour and we have to ask where this will come from.  ‘New-lifers’ can only go so far, farms will need to reverse the reality of the labour market in which non-agricultural jobs have better conditions and therefore draw people out of the sector.  It is sometimes overlooked that farm employment is often dangerous, cold, wet, depressing and poorly paid. 

The argument becomes much more dangerous, however, when we apply it to developing countries.  Here the small scale sector is often vital in ensuring short term food security, but to argue that it should remain so risks consigning these countries to a permanently less developed state.  The process of agricultural intensification must be seen as one component of the process of economic development.  Blocking agricultural development will stop the release of labour (and other resources) from agriculture which drives growth in other sectors of the economy.  Without this, growing populations may or may not have enough food, but they will be without the services that are necessary to support their inevitably more urban lifestyles.

So, we are left with a situation in which ‘intensification’ must continue, but we must also learn from the practitioners of ‘traditional’ agriculture.  These farmers are acutely aware of the fact that food production is not an industrial process.  Food is, at least in part, a product of nature.  This is a fact that seems not have escaped the food consumer, where all the evidence points to the fact that ‘natural’ food is valued.  The implication is that we cannot divorce our food production from the ecosystem which supports it.  Changes in our farming system have implications for the other things which our ecosystem gives us, for example biodiversity and carbon cycling.  Equally changes in the ecosystem, for example reductions in the population of pollinators, have implications for food production.

There are some encouraging signs that a middle way may become our focus.

The concept of sustainable intensification is on the agenda.  This recognises that we must not stop the search for new ways of producing food but that we should do so in ways which work with nature rather than in a box apart from it.  We should learn from our traditions but not harp back to them.  By 2050 there will be 2bn more people in the world, 1.9bn of whom will be in developing countries.  We owe it to them.

Professor Richard Tiffin is Director for the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading. Richard is an Agricultural Economist and his current research is focused on diet and health policy, in particular the impacts of fiscal policies with the objective of improving dietary health, such as so-called ‘fat tax’.

 

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As the Law Commission publishes its Supplementary Consultation Paper on the financial consequences of divorce, Dr Thérèse Callus, from the University of Reading’s School of Law, argues that the present law on divorce could be said to be uncertain, outdated and inappropriate to today’s couples.

The fate of pre-nups and divorce matters to more than just celebs

A Law Commission Consultation in 2011 considered whether ‘pre-nups’ – pre-nuptial agreements between spouses, as favoured by celebrities and the super-rich – should receive greater weight in English law. While pre-nups tend to be of only minimal interest to the average couple, their status in English law says a lot about how law regulates the consequences of marriage and civil partnership for us all. (The discussion that follows applies equally to civil partners insofar as the law relating to the dissolution of a civil partnership mirrors that applicable to spouses upon divorce). It is for this reason that the Law Commission issued the Supplementary Consultation Paper  ‘Marital Agreements, Needs and Property’ on 11th September 2012.

London is termed the ‘divorce capital of the world’ yet many argue that the law on divorce settlements is uncertain, dated and incompatible with today’s society. Wealthy individuals claim the right to draw up pre-nuptial contracts in order to protect ‘their’ wealth from being divided with an ex-spouse upon divorce. Yet these ‘contracts’ are not legally binding in law. They are simply one of the considerations that a court will take into account when deciding what a ‘fair’ outcome will be for the parties, through the application of an Act of Parliament from 1973.

In the English common law system, there is no equivalent to the continental matrimonial property regimes or contracts which come into effect upon marriage and which provide for property distribution when the marriage is dissolved through either divorce or death. Consequently, in England & Wales, what is gained from a bespoke case-by-case result is lost in the lack of certainty, both for practitioners advising their clients, and for couples about to embark upon marriage but who are concerned to maintain autonomy over their financial situation.

The law is thus unpredictable and unclear.  The Law Commission consultation on pre-nups in 2011 posed different options for reform and in so doing highlighted the controversial and ambiguous notions of ‘non-matrimonial property’ and the ‘needs’ of each spouse following divorce.  It is these wider issues that are of most interest to all couples and the subject of the Supplementary Consultation Paper.

In making an order, the English courts have always concentrated on the ‘needs’ of the claimant spouse. It is obvious that within most marriages, one or other of the spouses may make career – and therefore economic – sacrifices for the benefit of the family, and often to undertake child care. This in turn allows one spouse to continue with their career and earning progression. Upon divorce, the economically weaker spouse finds herself (or himself) at a disadvantage because of the respective contributions during the marriage. Is this merely to be seen as a matter of choice? Or should the law require that the spouse who maintains their earning capacity ‘compensate’ the other for their economic dependence? What of the pre-nuptial contract which stated that no claim should be made on each other? And what about pre-acquired wealth? For example, how should the law separate Paul McCartney’s wealth accumulated during his music career which preceded his marriage to Heather Mills compared to the family business in existence prior to the marriage, but which has greatly increased in value during the marriage, in part because the non-business spouse has looked after the family? These are some of the questions which need to be addressed through the current consultations.

Of course, more than the legal issues at stake are the political risks – no Government wants to be seen to be ‘undermining marriage’ but at the same time, claims for respect for individual autonomy and choice are strong. Yet choice is only real when parties know both the options and their consequences. The Supplementary Consultation Paper thus also highlights the importance of educating couples as to the legal implications of their actions.

The debate is now open not only on how finances should be shared upon divorce and dissolution of civil partnership, but indeed the rationale behind why the law should dictate how parties wish to manage their lives.  In limiting the consultation to marital property, agreements, and needs, the Government has indicated it is not willing to consider wholesale reform.  Although the Law Commission has realistically noted that such fundamental reform cannot be achieved in this current round, it is clear that the stakes for society are such that it is only a matter of time (and political will) before any Government is forced to grasp the nettle.

Dr Thérèse Callus is Senior Lecturer in Law and a member of the Advisory Board to the Matrimonial Property, Needs and Agreements project to the Law Commission. The opinions expressed in this piece are her own.

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Professor Peter Kruschwitz, from the Department of Classics at the University of Reading, is a Latin scholar with a long-established specialism in Latin inscriptions. One of his current projects aims to collect, edit, translate, and explain the Latin inscriptions, ancient, mediaeval, and modern, from Reading. The Latin term monumentum, from which the English ‘monument’ is derived, is related to the verb monere, ‘to remind’. Monuments are thus tangible, visible manifestations of human memory. Often monuments are inscribed, to aid the memory of those who want to remember, and that of future generations, as to why a certain monument was erected – be it specific to a person, an event, or gnomic, i. e. in the form of some general wisdom. Monuments and inscriptions form a unit that cannot be dissolved, and it is the conjunction of the two that makes for a particularly powerful tool. But what if the language of the inscription cannot be understood by (most or at least some) of the public that it addresses? What happens if neglect allows the monument itself to decay? One could argue that in those cases memory will fade with the monument itself, and neglect will turn into ignorance. The Latin inscriptions from Reading, whether ancient, mediaeval, or modern, provide numerous telling examples for this view. Times are a-changin’Inscription on HSBC building

Vis unita fortior.

Meaning:

“A force united is stronger.”

Why exactly is this on display in Reading’s Broad Street? Older residents of Reading may remember that the building was not always that of HSBC, but was once the location of the Midland Bank. This bank was acquired by HSBC in 1992, and it was rebranded in 1999. The crest, with its freemasonic elements, and the Latin motto was that of the Midland Bank, originally founded in 1836.

It is beautifully ironic in a way that the Latin inscription and the crest alone survive, with a Latin motto that in hindsight seems to suggest that, even for banks, only joining forces is hope for survival.

Voices muffled and vanishing

After just twenty years, it has become difficult to understand the relationship between the Midland Bank motto and its current location. It may also be difficult or in fact impossible for many passers-by to grasp the meaning of the text, even though Latin mottos are, in fact, still frequent in Britain.

Inscription for Edward Dalby

But what if the inscription is closer to 300 years old, substantially longer, yet exclusively written in Latin, and it is not even on display in a prominent spot? The answer should be obvious, and it is depressingly easy to illustrate the point with an example. The following stone now lies in the graveyard of Saint Laurence, just north of the church building. This is the monument of Edward Dalby, once upon a time the Recorder of Reading. It reads thus:

 

Spe resurgendi

Hic prope depositi sunt cineres Edwardi Dalby,

ar(miger) qui obiit 30 Martii, Anno D(omi)ni 1672,

aetatis 56.

Et Franciscae uxoris ejus, filiae superstitis et her(e)dis

Caroli Holloway, ar(miger), servientis ad legem:

Haec obiit 17 Augusti, anno D(omi)ni 1717,

aetatis 90.

Et Elizabethae, filiae eorundem, quae obiit

8 Februarii, anno D(omi)ni 1686, aetatis 23.

“In the hope of resurrection, here are deposited the ashes of Edward Dalby, armiger, who died 30th of March, A.D. 1672, aged 56. Also of Frances, his wife, surviving daughter and heir of Charles Holloway, serjeant-at-law: she died on 17th of August, A.D. 1717, aged 90. Also of Elizabeth, their daughter, who died on 8th of February, A.D. 1686, aged 23.”

The stone, embellished with a significant coat of arms at its top, now exposed to weather, filth, and vegetation, records the life of one of Reading’s foremost dignitaries at the time as well as those of his family: Edward Dalby of the Inner Temple. Henry Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, described him as a man ‘of eminent loyalty and as wise a man as I have known of his rank’. He married Frances, daughter of Charles Holloway, also a lawyer. Dalby became Recorder (or High Steward) of Reading in 1669, replacing Daniel Blagrave, who had to flee the country for his involvement in regicide (as one of the signatories of King Charles I’s death warrant). Their daughter died young. Their son John, not mentioned in this text, continued the legacy of the Dalby family after his father’s death. Only a small street, Dalby Close in Hurst, Wokingham, still preserves the family’s name today.

A small step towards regaining collective memory?

There are well over 100 Latin inscriptions, from ancient to modern, in Reading – some of them well-known to everyone (like the one on the pedestal of the statue of Queen Victoria on Blagrave Street), others rather more cryptic and hidden away. Many of them have fascinating stories to tell, and they all add to the jigsaw puzzle that is the history of Reading. For the Latinist, they are also invaluable documents to understand the spread, role, and legacy of Latin in modern times. It is high time to collect these texts and to make them available to the public, in translation and with appropriate amounts of documentation, so that fading memory, in conjunction with a language barrier, will not soon turn into complete and utter oblivion.

http://www.reading.ac.uk/classics

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