Stressing resilience to combat climate change

18 March 2016 - By: Lisa Martin

Stressing resilience to combat climate change

A report on the SEB Plant Symposium 2015 and Global Plant Council Forum

Iguacu Falls
Iguacu Falls. Photo: Lisa Martin

By Lisa Martin, Global Plant Council

It’s a strange thing to be packing for 38ºC weather while the temperature at home in England plummets towards 0ºC. Nevertheless, leaving a cold and rainy London behind, the Global Plant Council team took to the skies on 21st October and touched down in tropical Foz do Iguaçu, a resort town on the Brazil/Argentina/Paraguay border. 

Iguaçu is best known for its spectacular UNESCO World Heritage waterfalls, but we – that is myself, Executive Director Ruth Bastow, and our two New Media Fellows Amelia Frizell-Armitage, and Sarah Jose – were in town for three different reasons. As well as attending the International Plant Molecular Biology conference, followed by the GPC’s Annual General Meeting, we were also running a Stress Resilience symposium in collaboration with the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) on 23 and 24th October.

We’ve all heard the stats before: by the year 2050, the world’s population is predicted to top 9 billion. To be able to feed all these extra people, estimates suggest we need to increase crop production by around 60%, all the while our existing crops and cropping systems are threatened by climate change and dwindling natural resources.  Urgent action must be taken to achieve global food security and to provide the world’s hungry and malnourished with enough and sufficiently nutritious food to eat. 

Recognising that plant scientists have an enormous role to play in helping to meet this challenge, the intention of the GPC/SEB Stress Resilience Symposium was to bring together experts from around the world to discuss current research efforts in developing stress resilience, showcase new approaches and technologies, and build new networks and collaborations to help contribute to global efforts to develop crops and cropping systems that are better able to deal with fluctuating and stressful environmental conditions.  


Food security Challenges

After a welcome from the new GPC President, Professor Bill Davies (Lancaster University, UK), the first session of the day focused on how scientists are helping to overcome existing and emerging barriers to food security. Matthew Reynolds gave an overview of the crops and climate change research at CIMMYT in Mexico, and was followed by CGIAR’s Jean-Marcel Ribault, who described the collaborative approach to developing food crops being taken by partners involved in the Generation Challenge Program (GCP, not to be confused with GPC!). The aim of this programme, he said, is to improve the germplasm in farmers’ fields, focusing on six staple crops, the integration of data management, and building capacity for the future. 

Improving stress tolerance in variable environments

Chaired by Vicky Buchanan-Wollaston, who is both the SEB Plant Section Chair and now the newly elected GPC Treasurer, the session after lunch took a closer look at some specific stress-related challenges. Drought tolerance was a popular topic, with Andrew Borrell of the University of Queensland (Australia) speaking about his work to elucidate the molecular and physiological basis for the Stay Green trait, which gives greater sorghum yields under drought conditions; Vincent Vadez from ICRISAT describing how investigating the way in which plants use water under drought-free conditions can help understand their responses under drought stress; and INRA’s François Tardieu discussing the high variability in “drought tolerant” alleles, and the differing effects those alleles can elicit in different plants under different environmental conditions. 

Innovating for stress resilience

In the next session, we heard about some exciting projects being carried out across the globe that are advancing our understanding of stress resilience in plants. Chile’s Ariel Orellana gave a fascinating talk, illustrated with some beautiful photographs, of how mining the genome of a desert flower could provide valuable insights into stress tolerance. Cystanthe longiscapa lives in the barren, extremely dry Atacama desert – its seeds can lie dormant for many years, yet germinate rapidly and explode into a short-lived riot of deep pink flowers on the very rare occasion that rain should fall. 

Speaking about the part her lab played in the PRESTA project, Warwick University’s Katherine Denby showed us some of the complex, intricate transcriptional network models used to predict, test and reveal interactions between genes involved in Arabidopsis’ defence against Botrytis cinerea, while China’s Xinguang Zhu explained that when it comes to photosynthesis, it’s not all about the leaf. His photosynthesis research has shown that simply increasing the photosynthetic rate of the leaf can in fact have negative consequences for canopy photosynthesis – his 3D internal leaf models simulating cell structures, water and metabolite movement were quite stunning. 


The next day a smaller group of invited experts returned to the venue for some in depth discussion and debate. The aim was to prepare the ground for a forthcoming GPC report, which will highlight the specific challenges facing plant science in terms of developing stress resilient crops and cropping systems, and outline some potential solutions that the plant science community – and those beyond it – can initiate to meet these challenges.

The day began with a series of short presentations about exemplar large-scale projects in the area of stress resilience, including GPC President Bill Davies, who talked about his collaborative work in China to improve agricultural water use efficiency, and in India, where the simple ‘alternative wetting and drying’ technique is building a more sustainable agricultural system; Jianbo Shen from the Chinese Agricultural University, who spoke on the subject of improving the sustainability of nutrient use in Chinese agriculture; and Roberto Tuberosa from the University of Bologna on “the great project with a terrible acronym”, IDuWUE: Improving Durum Wheat for Water Use Efficiency. 

Inspired by these successful international projects, attendees then split off into groups to discuss what they felt to be the key challenges facing stress resilience research today, and the areas in which plant scientists around the world need to come together to mitigate these challenges. Unsurprisingly, this session was lively and animated, with several differences of opinion, but each thought was a valuable and useful contribution to the assessment of the global landscape. Participants talked about the current regulatory climate, particularly surrounding GM and gene edited crops; the need for silos of knowledge to be linked and shared, and for effective technology transfer to make sure that the science we do in the lab has impact in the field – and in the fields where that science is most needed. 

After a long and fruitful two days, the Stress Resilience forum ended with a team photo and further opportunities for ‘networking’ by the hotel pool (or for the Australian participants among us, the Argentina vs. Australia Rugby World Cup Semi Final!). The GPC is now compiling a report, which we hope will provide a powerful and realistic call to action for stress resilience scientists across the globe to come together. Watch this space! 

Thanks to Oliver Kingham and Paul Hutchinson from the SEB, Professors Vicky Buchanan-Wollaston and Jim Beynon from the University of Warwick, Professor Bill Davies from Lancaster University and Andrew Borrell from the University of Queensland for their help in making this symposium possible. 

Category: Plant Biology
Lisa Martin, GPC

Lisa Mrtin

Lisa Martin is a freelance science writer and editor and the part-time Outreach & Communications Manager for the Global Plant Council, a non-profit coalition of plant, crop, agriculture and environmental scientists around the world that seeks to develop plant science for global challenges. She has a degree in Biological Sciences, and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Science Education, both from the University of Warwick, UK.