2050 thinking for plant science

12 Jul 2016 - By: Jonathan Ingram

2050 thinking for plant science

grains of wheat-hands screen res.jpg- RS-Intxt
Grains of wheat-hands. Photo: Fotolia, Sergiogen


By Jonathan Ingram, Journal of Experimental Botany

The basic research reported at conferences should always rekindle any lost passion for our subject, but the annual meetings of the UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF) go one step further – while still covering fundamental progress, they take a much wider view, including vision, strategy and education, all vitally important to a flourishing plant science sector beyond the lab. Videos of the talks from this year’s meeting, PlantSci 2016 at the John Innes Centre (Norwich, UK), and new perspectives from experts in these other aspects, are now available as set out below.

So first the good news. At the start of the meeting, Prof. Dale Sanders (director of the John Innes Centre) noted the current excitement in plant sciences, particularly with post-genomic technologies that enable us to look at a much broader range of species, notably crops, and ask new questions, impossible hitherto. You can read a report of the meeting here, and see videos of the talks – including heterosis and epigenetics, the plant microbiome, ecological resilience and abiotic stress, and signal transduction – on the Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) website here
(See here regarding JXB’s involvement).

The bad news is that plant science doesn’t always inspire others or get prioritized in the way we think it should, with globally important issues like biodiversity conservation, plant breeding and plant pathology not necessarily being the highest government priorities.

How then can we get the message out about the importance of plant science, and do we need to? The answer has to be yes, and from the meeting Prof. Giles Oldroyd’s well-known work on engineering nitrogen fixation into non-leguminous species is an outstanding example not just of the new possibilities, but the way in which an expansive underlying vision can move us on (e.g. see Rogers and Oldroyd, 2014).

Looking at smallholder farming in Africa, access to chemical fertilizers is extremely poor and consequently yields are low. Increase the nutrients available to these farmers’ crops, and societies are transformed – even a very modest increase has profound effects on yield in this situation. So here is a massive opportunity, even though the ultimate prize is taking some semblance of the incredibly complex nitrogen-fixing symbiosis wholesale into a cereal crop.

This sort of insightful thinking – in which both the steps along the way and the destination can inspire – underlies funding by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA), of which Oldroyd’s work is a part.

Vision, strategy and education

Writing in JXB, Prof. Richard Flavell (a former director of the John Innes Centre, and now Chief Scientific Advisor at US biotechnology company Ceres) sets out a way forward (Flavell, 2016). If our vision is making plant science ‘purposeful and relevant to all’ – including those who might invest – then the strategic planning technique of roadmapping should be taken very seriously. He is challenging to the research community:

"There is clearly a need for scientists and investors to understand better the ways in which breakthroughs, not only in plant science but also in other technologies, can and will transform outputs from plant science to benefit science and societies. Part of gaining this understanding can come from deep thinking about and constructing roadmaps … Many scientists claim relevance to long-term goals in their grant proposals but in most cases there is little or no credibility in these claims since there is no information given on how the information being proposed would ever be used to achieve the goal."

Interestingly, in the same issue, Prof. Burkhard Schulz and Kabelo Segobye look at the work by Goggin et al. on the evolution of herbicide resistance in weeds (Goggin et al., 2016; Schulz and Segobye, 2016). Echoing the message about research in other species, their analysis of resistance to systemic herbicide 2,4-D in wild radish will be able to advance much more easily because of the Arabidopsis resource (and moreover both species are Brassicaceae). But it is important not only in identifying the cause of resistance, taking forward our fundamental understanding, but also because of the economic and environmental implications. And Prof. David Hanson’s commentary on the work of Young et al. on Rubisco in diatoms – with implications for our understanding of this most abundant of enzymes far beyond its carbon-fixation function in phytoplankton – is similarly groundbreaking and relevant (Hanson, 2016; Young et al., 2016). Science is intimately linked with, and beneficial to, wider society.

Returning to Prof. Sanders’ points, part of the UKPSF’s value has been in bringing together different plant research communities, but also as a voice for plant sciences, and a voice distinct from that of the biomedical community. The UKPSF’s work in building a roadmap for UK plant science is explained in an article here by Alessandro Allegra
(Royal Society of Biology) and Dr Rick Mumford (chair of the UKPSF and Director of Science at agri-food supply chain specialists Fera Science Ltd). It is important for UK plant science but also a case study for similar efforts elsewhere in the world. And the importance of this for inspiring the next generation is taken up in an article here by Harriet Truscott (Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme). She particularly discusses work with teenagers, and provides perceptive comment and information on a wide range of useful resources.

Where will plant science be in the coming decades of the 21st century? We cannot know for sure, but we can take leading research in plant science and other fields to make meaningful predictions, we can capture this through a systematic and powerful roadmapping approach, and we can ensure that the best current students are inspired and get involved in our endeavour.


Flavell R. 2016. Making plant science purposeful and relevant to all. Journal of Experimental Botany 67, 3186–3187

Goggin DE, Cawthray GR, Powles SB. 2016. 2,4-D resistance in wild radish: reduced herbicide translocation via inhibition of cellular transport. Journal of Experimental Botany 67, 3223–3235.

Hanson DT. 2016. Breaking the rules of Rubisco catalysis. Journal of Experimental Botany 67, 3180–3182.

Raines C. 2016. Accessible research in JXB. Journal of Experimental Botany 67, 553.

Rogers C, Oldroyd GED. 2014. Synthetic biology approaches to engineering the nitrogen symbiosis in cereals. Journal of Experimental Botany 65, 1939–1946.

Schulz B, Segobye K. 2016. Evolution of herbicide resistance in weeds. Journal of Experimental Botany 67, 3177–3179.

Young JN, Heureux AMC, Sharwood RE, Rickaby REM, Morel FMM, Whitney SM. 2016. Large variation in the Rubisco kinetics of diatoms reveals diversity among their carbon concentrating mechanisms. Journal of Experimental Botany 67, 3445–3456.

Journal of Experimental Botany and eXtra Botany

JXB cover 67-11

The PlantSci 2016 meeting is especially important to JXB (owned by, and supporting, the Society for Experimental Biology, SEB): together with the Biochemical Society and British Society for Plant Pathology, the UKPSF operates with support from the SEB.

Some of the journal’s most exciting and interesting research is featured in the eXtra Botany section each month, including the Insight articles mentioned in this article, making the research accessible to a wide audience of plant scientists (see the editorial by Prof. Christine Raines, Editor In Chief of JXB: Raines, 2016).

Author: Jonathan Ingram
Category: Science news
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Jonathan Ingram

Jonathan Ingram is Senior Commissioning Editor/ Science Writer for Journal of Experimental Botany. Jonathan moved from lab research into publishing and communications with the launch of Trends in Plant Science in 1995, then going on to New Phytologist and, in the third sector, Age UK and Mind.