By: Dan Mead, the 25th Anniversary Sequencing Project Coordinator
Date: 14/12/2017

Anticipating that the Giant Hogweed would not win the popular vote in the “I’m a scientist, get me out of here – 25 Genomes…” event I decided to try to find some.

Let your fingers do the walking…

The National Biodiversity Network (NBN) atlas is incredibly useful for finding out where (and when) things are found, so I started there, looking for Heracleum mantegazzianum within 5km of the Sanger Institute:

Giant Hogweed locations in a 5km radius from the Wellcome Genome Campus

Giant Hogweed locations in a 5km radius from the Wellcome Genome Campus

This was a bust though, they’d been cleared out (the records are from 2004 and 2011 so no surprise there). So I went to a different source- the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) who are linked to NBN but I figured would be more specific. I was right, you need to register to get the information but once you do, it is very good.

A nice chap called Kevin Walker sent me their records for the Cambridgeshire area. Turns out we’re in a bit of a hotspot, so that’s good news. Unfortunately by the time I found this out, it is November and plants tend to die back in the autumn.

On the other hand I had read somewhere that giant hogweed will germinate in winter so I figured that it might be possible to find some youngish plants – these are ideal for DNA as growing parts are the best for extraction.

It’s a matter of record

From the records I found out who had seen the plants in question and one of the most recent was a chap called Jonathan D. Shanklin who’d seen one in central Cambridge, on Hobson’s conduit. This, by the way, is a water channel cut approximately 400 hundred years ago as a water source for the centre of Cambridge and is now protected as a scheduled ancient monument.

Digression aside, with a name like that it was relatively easy to find Mr Shanklin with a quick google search. Turns out he works for the British Antarctic Survey. One slightly awkward phone conversation later I had clear idea of where this plant would be, not far from the Botanical Gardens. However driving in to the centre of Cambridge isn’t much fun, so this option went on the back burner.

Handle with care

Skin blistering caused by giant hogweed. Image credit: Cosima Pferdeliebe, Wikimedia Commons

Skin blistering caused by giant hogweed. Image credit: Cosima Pferdeliebe, Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a little tangent, this plant is not something to be trifled with. Giant hogweed is nasty stuff, its sap contains a sunlight (UV) activated toxin that can cause pretty horrible blistering (see below). So I made sure that I stocked up on a full face shield [liberated from a past position], plenty of nitrile gloves and a Tyvek suit (thanks to John Lovell at the Sanger).

The next location I wanted to scout out (I like to have backup plans) was the Bourne Brook area as this had a whole bunch of recorded sightings over the past few years (by a Ruth Hawksley) so I went for a little drive as it’s only 15 mins from work.

It turns out that Bourne Brook has been very effectively cleared of hogweed this year so I went to the workplace of Ruth Hawksley. Ruth works at the Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust and they have an office that’s open to the public just 10 minutes from the brook. Sadly she wasn’t there.

However, her colleagues were in and they gave me her card. After a fruitful telephone chat, Ruth embarked on a mission to find some for me. This did not go well so we had an email exchange over the following days about getting hold of some seeds so that I could grow some myself. Again, no success as all the plants had been sprayed. Then Ruth remembered that there was a plant found and de-headed this past summer, rather handily just up the road from me in Ickleton, so off I went.

Lost in translation

Time for another aside. The location I was given was TL49384419 and a street. It seems that there are more ways to record location information than you might think. The above is an example of the Ordnance Survey National Grid coordinate system and it seems to be the standard for biological sample recordings in the UK.

Another nugget I discovered earlier in the project is that iPhones record GPS coordinates in the metadata of pictures. It isn’t easy to extract without using 3rd party software. However, if you do, you can then translate it from “AA; B; CC.cccccc” to “AA.B.CC.ccccc” which you can then copy and past into Google maps.

Anyhoo, a short walk up the lane later and I find myself standing by an electricity substation in Ickleton, looking somewhat suspicious in a pair of bright orange gloves, and staring at this:

Giant hogweed in the wild (hiding beside an electricity substation in Ickleton)

Giant hogweed in the wild (hiding beside an electricity substation in Ickleton)

This is the hogweed you’re looking for

One quick email later (thank you 4G connectivity) and Ruth confirms that this is the plant I’m looking for. Further confirmation came from around the back of the ‘station where there’s a 2m dead stem that’s been de-headed. So I took one of the leaves back to the lab to deposit in the -80 degree freezer, success!

About the author:

Dan Mead is the 25th Anniversary Sequencing Project Coordinator, for the 25 Genomes Project for the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Cambridge.

More on the 25 Genomes Project:

25 Genomes Project web page 

Posted by sangerinstitute

From the Sanger Institute, a charitably funded genomic research organisation