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Increasing Food Production in a Changing World

By | Blog, Global Change

The fifth report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published last year announced that climate change is already negatively affecting our food supply and this problem is only going to be amplified in coming decades.

Our climate is projected to warm by 5ºC by 2050, with increased incidence of extreme weather events. Coinciding with this is a rapidly rising global population, predicted to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. Feeding all these extra mouths is challenge enough. Doing this under changing weather and climate conditions becomes even more difficult.

Food shortages resulting from population growth or unusual weather events can lead to rising food prices and political instability. A global rice shortage in 2008 saw prices rise by over 50%, resulting in riots in Asia and Africa. We might expect events such as this to become more common in the future as the food supply becomes more and more affected by climate change.

Not surprisingly food security is currently a buzz word in the research community, and many resources are being poured into trying to ensure a stable food supply for future generations.

Some climate skeptics argue that increases in carbon dioxide could boost plant growth, resulting in higher yielding plants under climate change. However, the reality is that any positive effect the increased CO2 could have on plant growth is likely to be outweighed by higher temperatures and extreme weather events.

Since the IPCC report there have been a number of studies focussed on the staple food crop wheat, and how yields could be affected in the future.

Wheat

Wheat was first domesticated 10,000 years ago and is now grown more widely than any other crop. Photo by jayneandd used under CC BY 2.0.

Wheat yields are sensitive to temperature, and are predicted to fall by around 6% for every 1ºC rise in temperature. If we do not cut down current emissions, the earth could warm by 5ºC by 2050, equating to a 30% reduction in wheat yields due to temperature increases alone.

This 30% reduction in yield is only the tip of the iceberg. Yields could be further reduced by increased instances of disease epidemics. For example, Fusarium Ear Blight is a wheat disease that causes spikelet bleaching and enhanced senescence. A severe epidemic can wipe out 60% of a wheat crop. In order to take effect, the disease requires wet weather at flowering, something which we can expect to happen more often in the future according to climate models.

Extreme weather events, such as flooding, are predicted to increase over the coming decades, and will cause unavoidable crop losses. This will exacerbate problems with declining yields, further increasing the difficulty of feeding a growing population.

What can we do?

Primarily, we should be trying to limit the extent of climate change, and to do so we need to act now. Reducing emissions and moving to sustainable energy sources should be at the top of the agenda.  However, most climate scientists agree that even if we act now to reduce our emissions, there will be at least 2ºC of warming, which is already impacting on food production.

We therefore need to make our food sources more resilient to climate change. In terms of wheat this means breeding varieties that are tolerant to higher temperatures and diseases. Additionally, we will need to adapt our farming methods, to be more intensive yet sustainable, and perhaps alter our diets.

Stress Resilience Forum, 23–25 October, Iguassu Falls, Brazil

In October the Global Plant Council, in collaboration with the Society of Experimental Biology, will bring together experts from around the world to discuss current research efforts in plant stress resilience. Abstract submission and registration for the Stress Resilience Forum is now open, and we welcome researchers at all levels to take part.

The meeting takes place immediately before the International Plant Molecular Biology Conference (25–30 October), also at Iguassu Falls, and which also includes several scientific sessions on plant stresses.

An Interview with Mary Williams: Plant Teaching & Social Media

By | ASPB, Blog, GPC Community, Interviews

Mary Williams headshotThis week we spoke to Mary Williams about plant science education, her role as features editor of The Plant Cell, and effective use of social media for scientists.

 

 

 

What inspired you to focus your career on education in the plant sciences? 

As a biochemistry student whose friends were arts majors, I discovered that I really enjoyed the challenge of explaining things through plain language and analogy. After a postdoc I took a faculty position at a primarily undergraduate institution where professors were encouraged to explore different approaches to teaching.

By sharing ideas and resources through ASPB Teaching Tools in Plant Biology, workshops, and my blog, I try to help young scientists gain confidence and become better teachers.

How have people responded to the Teaching Tools in Plant Biology (TTPB) you have developed, and how are these being used?

The response has been really positive. I regularly hear from undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, lab heads and educators who are using them for a multitude of purposes including lesson preparation, self-learning and outreach. The articles can be accessed through most university libraries or via ASPB membership. They are also available throughout the developing world through the AGORA program.

The teaching tools articles are quite technical, so we didn’t anticipate that high school teachers would want to read them. However, in response to their expressed interest I started posting interesting newsclips and videos onto the various social media sites that I manage. This summer we’re moving all of the content onto a new platform, Plantae.org, which will provide a centralized place for educators to connect in what I have described as a Global Plant Science Learning Community. I’m really excited about providing a space for people to share their ideas and promote discussions about effective plant science teaching.

Why do you think teaching the plant sciences in an inspirational way proves so difficult?

The biggest obstacle is the preconception that plants are not interesting, which too often is conveyed by teachers in primary and secondary education. Additionally, many students have no first-hand experience of growing or caring for a plant, and this first-hand experience is really key. We find that many of the most engaged young people have grown up in close contact with plants, perhaps through a family’s involvement in agriculture or horticulture.

In terms of status and salaries, our society places a much higher value on medical sciences and medical research than the plant sciences; the tangible rewards of working with and studying plants are not always evident.

How can we better capture student imaginations when it comes to plants?

Giving students the opportunity to physically engage and inquire about plants is critical, and this has to span from the earliest years through university education. Students need to use all of their senses when exploring plants, and being allowed to explore in an open-ended way lets students develop an interest and curiosity about plants.

This idea of exploration and open-ended inquiry should continue into university, even in large lecture classes. Give students a pea in a pot to take home and observe. Hand out Brussels sprouts, green onions and daisies for students to pull apart and examine. Use some class time to pose open-ended questions. Good ideas are plentiful!

Innovative tools and support for teachers can also be found on sites such as Wisconsin Fast Plants developed by Paul Williams, SAPS and PlantingScience.org.

You are features editor for The Plant Cell. What does this role involve? 

TTPB is published by The Plant Cell, and we made the decision early on to focus our effort on the teaching of upper-level plant biology. This is the point at which students transition from using textbooks to the primary literature.

To write each article, I read dozens of recent papers and review articles to identify the key questions and the foundational concepts a student needs. I then create both a written article and an image-rich version of the information. Images are powerful ways to explain difficult concepts, and also are useful to people who teach and learn in languages other than English. After I finish the articles I send them out to several experts for peer review. I update the articles regularly so that they continue to reflect our current understanding.

A new initiative this year has been to draw on the talents of the community to develop additional Teaching Tools topics. We’ve been running competitions to solicit pre-proposals for development into Teaching Tools – you can read more about that here.

When did you first get involved with social media? How can social media platforms such as blogging and Twitter be of benefit to researchers? 

My social media roots stretch back to the early 1990s when I was active in the usenet email-based Arabidopsis and Plant Education newsgroups. These networks were excellent sources of resources, ideas and support as I became an independent researcher and educator.

I started using Twitter, ScoopIt and Facebook in earnest in 2011 with the encouragement of Sarah Blackford (@BiosciCareers) and the Global Plant Council’s Ruth Bastow (@plantscience). Like many people, I quickly realized the power of Twitter and other social media tools as a way to connect and converse with the broader community of plant scientists, plant educators, and other plant enthusiasts. Social media not only lets me meet and learn from plant scientists from around the world, but also keep abreast of new publications and get a glimpse into what is being discussed at conferences.

Mary identifying moss in the west of Scotland

Mary identifying moss in the west of Scotland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary’s top tips for getting started on social media:

  1. Apply the same social rules online as you would in real life
  2. Be friendly
  3. Give credit where it’s due
  4. Avoid talking about religion and politics; be culturally sensitive
  5. Listen a lot, talk a little
  6. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to get noticed
  7. Be professional; swearing, gossip and slander are common in the social sphere, but when it’s being broadcast to the world and recorded for posterity, think twice

GPC President Professor Bill Davies’ vision for the future

By | ASPB, Blog, Future Directions

Global Plant Council President Professor Bill Davies discusses his vision for the future of the GPC and its role in meeting some of the global challenges facing plant science and society today.

GPC President Professor Bill DaviesRaising the profile of plant science

As we face the task of sustainably feeding an ever-increasing global population, the issue of food security has never been more pressing, and of course, plant science plays a fundamental role in addressing this challenge. Professor Davies believes the GPC can have a major impact in raising the profile of plants in all parts of society, but perhaps most urgently with the policy makers who can drive investment into research.

He explains: “Plant science tends to have a lower priority with funding agencies. A number of years ago there was quite a lot of talk about plant science being a pretty mature subject and therefore we didn’t need much money for research. Fortunately the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) managed to convince the European Parliament and others that there was an important opportunity here, the funding continued and we’ve seen a lot of benefits from that – both in furthering plant science and enhancing food production”. He continues: “Raising the profile of plant science is key, and – more specifically – we need to think about ways in which, collectively, we could address some of these challenges”.

A global conversation

Genetic diversity research - CIAT

Image by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Used under: CC BY-SA 2.0

Professor Davies believes the GPC is well placed to tackle global problems on a worldwide scale, by providing platforms for member organizations and individuals to collaborate on a variety of issues: “There are some genuinely global challenges that the GPC could take on. We can try to provide more opportunities for people who might be interested in addressing things beyond the boundaries of their own national scientific societies”. He adds: “I’ve been a member of the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) longer than I care to imagine, and it’s been a really important part of my life. It delivers a lot more than just good science. The SEB has made and continues to make a big effort to operate internationally, but there’s a limit, whereas there’s no limit for GPC.

“One of the things we’ve been talking about is whether there is more that we could offer societies, particularly in developing countries. Are we making resources available that can be as influential in Ghana, for example, as they might be in the United States? If there are opportunities to broaden the scope of that offering, particularly to address some of the areas where food security is a major issue, then we can do that and, I hope, help national societies in parts of the world where they are not as influential as they might be. I believe that there is strength in numbers.

“It seems entirely logical to me to address global challenges with a global organization”.

Building resources

One of the key goals of the GPC is to build up databases of information and resources that can be used by researchers, plant breeders, farmers and other agricultural stakeholders all around the world. This is being done both as part of the three main GPC initiatives (Diversity Seek, Biofortification, and Stress Resilience), but we are also collaborating with the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) to launch an online platform for the plant science community this summer.

Gene bank - IRRI

Image credit: IRRI. Used under: CC BY 2.0

Professor Davies is keen to harness the power of the online community for cultivating a new excitement around plant science. He led a massive open online course (MOOC) about food security at Lancaster University last year, and was pleased to see how engaged the participants were. He explains: “We had 5000 students with a fantastic level of enthusiasm and commitment. At the end of it we were left with the feeling that people were keen to know more.

“My view is that if you listen to people talk about why they do the science they do, what’s involved, and to some extent how they do it, then I think you’re in a position to make a much more well-informed decision about the science in general or controversial issues, and to contribute to the debate”.

Professor Davies believes that the online plant science platform from the ASPB and GPC will provide useful resources for scientists, teachers and students alike: “I’m in this business because I was inspired by lecturers both as an undergraduate and in graduate school. If we can capture the drama and excitement of science, we can make it available to everyone. It’s a wonderful opportunity”.


Professor Bill DaviesProfessor William (Bill) Davies is the President of the Global Plant Council and Distinguished Professor of Plant Biology at Lancaster University, UK. His research into stress responses in plants and his involvement with many international projects aimed at improving global food security led to him being awarded a CBE award for services to Science in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. For more information, click here.

A Postcard From… The Australian Society of Plant Scientists

By | Blog, GPC Community

A new feature on the Global Plant Council blog will be ‘A Postcard From…’ In these posts representatives from our member organizations will tell us about their society’s visions, aims and activities.

This pioneering ‘Postcard From’ was sent in by Gonzalo Estavillo and John Evans, both members of    the ASPS.

aspspostcard

The Australian Society of Plant Scientists (ASPS) promotes plant science in Australia, and provides professional contact within our community of teachers and researchers in plant biology. Originally fo­unded in 1958, the ASPS currently has approximately 400 members from Australia and also overseas. It provides a forum for knowledge exchange so that the membership can build on both the depth and breadth of knowledge of plant functions. ASPS offers a unifying representation of plant scientists in Australia, and is linked with the Global Plant Council and many other important international plant science organizations.

One of the main activities of the ASPS is to provide mutual support and collective mentorship to facilitate the dissemination of new research. For example, there has been a long and mutually supportive interaction between ASPS and Functional Plant Biology, which is perhaps the most prestigious journal of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). ASPS is one of the foundation partner societies of ComBio, the annual international biology conference held in Australia. ASPS also sponsors other specialist workshops upon request.

The Society aims to nurture a new generation of plant scientists in many ways. It sponsors student attendance to ComBio through travel awards, and encourages active student participation by awarding poster prizes. Additionally, the RN Robertson Travelling Fellowship is available to students and early career researchers to support their research in another laboratory so as to widen their experience and raise their profile.

ASPS rewards excellence at all levels of scientific career development. Eminent plant scientists are invited to give the JG Wood or RN Robertson lectures at ComBio, in honour of the first two Presidents of the Society. Outstanding young plant scientists are recognized every year by the Peter Goldacre Award and the ASPS–FPB Best Paper Award. The commitment of ASPS to plant science education is reflected by both the ASPS Teaching Award, which recognizes innovative contributions to undergraduate teaching, and the development of online resources for plant biology teaching such as Plants in Action.

The Society’s social media platforms work with members to enhance their ability to do research and to educate others in plant sciences. The ASPS website offers the opportunity to connect with other members, get updates on the latest plant science research around the world, post jobs, student scholarship opportunities and conference announcements, and provides a growing collection of teaching resources for plants sciences. Phytogen is the Society’s newsletter blog to inform our own members and general readers with an interest in developments in Australian plant science, provide a vehicle for communicating new ideas, recent professional experiences, and forthcoming events. Finally, we use our Facebook and Twitter (@asps_ozplants) accounts to interact and engage with both scientific and general audiences. Meet us and view our photos in our ASPS Facebook page!

John Evans

John Evans is the current President of the ASPS and researches the physiology of photosynthesis at the Australian National University

Gonzalo

Gonzalo Estavillo is currently a research scientist at CSIRO and tweets @GMEstavillo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Nature of Crop Domestication

By | Blog, Global Change

Why do we eat some plants but not others? What makes a good crop, and how have we transformed these species to suit our own needs?

Around 12,000 years ago, humans began to transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to a more settled agricultural life. We began to selectively breed cereals and other crops to improve desirable traits, such as their yields, taste and seed retention. Today we eat less than 1% of all flowering plant species, relying on a handful of staples for almost all of our calories.

Why do we eat so few plant species?

Professor John Warren, Aberystwyth University

Professor John Warren, Aberystwyth University

We spoke with Professor John Warren at Aberystwyth University in the UK, who delves into the history of crop domestication in his new book, ‘The Nature of Crops: How We Came to Eat the Plants We Do,’ published on 24th April 2015. He blogs about how we came to eat certain plants over at Pick of the Crop, and said that his book developed from there. “The stories of crop domestication are just so interesting, weird, biologically strange, fun – they just demand to be told,” he enthused.

So why do we eat so few of the edible plants in the world? Based on his research into gene flow and plant breeding systems, Professor Warren presents novel theories in his book: “Previously people have argued that it’s because most plant are poisonous, but I don’t think that holds water. We actively seek out toxic plants as crops; plants with large food stores tend to be well defended with toxins. Instead I argue that it’s plant sexual habits that limit crop domestication. Plants with the usual pollination mechanisms don’t make ideal crops as they will fail to set seed when grown on an agricultural scale. Thus we domesticate things that are wind pollinated or pollinated by common generalist insects.”

Science-led crop breeding

Why do we eat poisonous plants?

How did our ancestors come to realise that rhubarb leaves are poisonous but the stems make a tasty crumble? Professor Warren says, “Its discovery was an accident and a fairly recent one – but read the book for the full story.” Image credit: Cory Doctorow used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Professor Warren works at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, which houses much of the research into agriculture and the environment that ties into the theme of his book. “Previously it’s been argued that there haven’t really been any new crops in the last 5,000 years. Here in Aberystwyth, we know that ryegrass, clover, elephant grass and others are still in the process of being domesticated, so you don’t need to be an archaeologist to study the process,” he explained. In addition to breeding new varieties of cereals and forage crops for food and feed, the Public Good Plant Breeding group at IBERS are also in the process of breeding Miscanthus, a fast-growing grass species that could be used for sustainable bioenergy in the future.

Resources like the Diversity Seek (DivSeek) initiative, established by the Global Plant Council in association with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the CGIAR Consortium and the Secretariat of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, could be used to enable science-driven crop breeding and domestication. DivSeek aims to unlock the genetic diversity that is currently stored in genebanks around the world by using cutting edge sequencing, phenotyping and ‘big data’ technologies. The genetic variation that is identified can then be used as the basis for breeding programs and could assist in the domestication of novel crops.

The future of agriculture

Drought damage

Drought damage in California, 2014. Image credit: US Department of Agriculture used under CC BY 2.0.

The crops we eat today were domesticated in highly fertile conditions; this means they are nutritious but tend to demand a high input of fertilizers and water. Professor Warren argues that we can use modern science to develop more sustainable ways to feed the global population: “It’s important that we start to think outside the box and try and domesticate a whole range of new crops that are more sustainable and less demanding of agricultural inputs.” An important source of future crop species could be stress-tolerant plants living in difficult environments: “I think the crops of the future could still be waiting to be domesticated from plants growing in harsh conditions,” explained Professor Warren.

Professor Warren also discussed how we could use underutilized crops in new ways to make agriculture more sustainable in the future: “I think and hope that we will eat more species, and that we will grow many more of these as perennials in poly-culture systems. That makes ecological sense in terms of niche exploitation and yield sustainability. It also makes more genetic sense in terms of resistance to pests and diseases.” The only downside, he said, is that these systems are so different to what we have now that we will need innovative research to develop them.


About Professor John Warren

Akee fruit

The akee is the national fruit of Jamaica. Image credit: Loren Sztajler, used under CC BY-ND 2.0.

John is a plant ecologist at Aberystwyth University, UK, with research interests in the origin and maintenance of diversity and enhancement of conservation value, particularly within agricultural ecosystems. He is the Director of Teaching and Learning and a Professor of Botany in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences. John says the strangest plant he’s ever eaten is the akee, a plant beloved of Jamaicans that looks and tastes a bit like scrambled eggs but which is delicious with saltfish.


Over to you

What do you think will be the most important crops of tomorrow, and which underutilized plants will become dietary staples in an effort to feed the world more sustainably?

The Next Generation

By | ASPB, Blog, Future Directions, GPC Community, SEB

Meet Amelia and Sarah, the two newest additions to the Global Plant Council team.

As a coalition of plant and crop societies from the around the globe, the Global Plant Council (GPC) aims to bring together scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders to engage in coordinated strategies to find solutions to global problems.

The GPC currently has 29 member organizations representing thousands of scientists in diverse disciplines around the world. Online media such as this blog and the @GlobalPlantGPC Twitter account provide a fantastic resource for our member organizations to stay in touch, share ideas and develop interdisciplinary collaborations.

For Spanish speakers, we’ve also recently launched a Spanish version of our Twitter feed at @GPC_EnEspanol, kindly translated for us by Juan-Diego Santillana-Ortiz, an Ecuadorian currently studying at Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Amelia is in the third year of her PhD at the John Innes Centre, Norwich UK. She is researching how altering the biochemistry of epicuticular waxes affects the physiology and ultimately yield of UK wheat. She tweets @AmeliaFrizell (https://twitter.com/AmeliaFrizell)

Amelia Frizell-Armitage is in the third year of her PhD at the John Innes Centre, Norwich UK. She is researching how altering the biochemistry of epicuticular waxes affects the physiology and ultimately yield of UK wheat. She tweets @AmeliaFrizell.

To further enhance this network, the GPC has awarded two New Media Fellowships to early career plant scientists Amelia Frizell-Armitage and Sarah Jose. The role of the Fellows will be to increase visibility of the GPC through managing this blog, devising new strategies to promote GPC activities and to increase traffic flow and engagement on Twitter.

A key priority will be to increase members’ contributions to this blog to promote their organizations and associated activities. Contributing to the blog is a fantastic way to interact with other GPC members, and we are always open to suggestions for guest posts. Perhaps you want to talk about a recent meeting or activity, discuss a particularly exciting piece of emerging research, promote a newly published book, or even just give some insight into your everyday life?

Sarah Jose is a third year PhD student at the University of Bristol, UK. She is investigating the link between wax biosynthesis and stomatal development in barley and Arabidopsis, and its potential impact on the water use efficiency of plants. Find her on Twitter @JoseSci.

Sarah Jose is a third year PhD student at the University of Bristol, UK. She is investigating the link between wax biosynthesis and stomatal development in barley and Arabidopsis, and its potential impact on the water use efficiency of plants. Find her on Twitter @JoseSci.

Whatever it is, we want to hear from you! Please get in touch on Twitter, via the comments section on the blog, or by emailing our Outreach & Communications Manager Lisa Martin.

It is an exciting year ahead for the GPC with the launch of a new online platform for the plant community that is being built in partnership with the ASPB and with support from SEB. There are also various fundraising initiatives in the works, and a Stress Resilience Forum coming up in October, which is being organized in collaboration with SEB.

Stay tuned to this blog to keep up to date with all our activities. The events calendar for member organizations is also looking busy and vibrant, and can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you crowdfund the sequencing of a plant genome?

By | Blog, Future Directions, Global Change
Dr Peng Jiang, University of Georgia, USA

Dr Peng Jiang, University of Georgia, USA

Peng Jiang and Hui Guo at the University of Georgia think you can! They are currently raising money via a crowdfunding approach to sequence the first cactus genome – but the question is: why would they want to? Peng explains all in this guest blog post.

A Prickly Proposal: Why Sequence the Cactus?
In these times of growing food insecurity due to climate change and population pressures, the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus) has growing commercial and agricultural importance across much of the world – you will find it growing in Mexico and Brazil, Chile, large parts of India and South Africa, and in Spain and Morocco.

The goal of our proposal is to sequence the genome and transcriptome of the prickly pear cactus, a recognized food and forage crop in these challenging semiarid regions of the world.

With more than 130 genera and 1,500 species of Cactaceae, we will create a draft genomic and transcriptome database that would aid the understanding of this understudied plant family, and provide the research community with valuable resources for molecular breeding and genetic manipulation purposes. Here are some of the reasons why we think a first cactus genome would be so important:

The Prickly Pear Cactus

The Prickly Pear Cactus

1. Ecological Improvement
The beauty of the drought-tolerance cactus is that it can grow on desert-like wastelands. Nowadays, more than 35% of the earth’s surface is arid or semiarid, making it inadequate for most agricultural uses. Without efforts to curb global warming, “Thermageddon” may hit in 30–40 years time, causing desertification of the US, such that it may become like the Sahara. Opuntia helps create a vegetative cover, which improves soil regeneration and rainfall infiltration into the soil. This cactus genome research may help us to adapt our food crops to a much hotter, drier climate.

2. Food Crops, Feed and Medicine
The fruits of prickly pear cactus are edible and sold in stores under the name “tuna”. Prickly pear nectar is made with the juice and pulp of the fruits. The pads of prickly pears (“Nopalito”) are also eaten as a vegetable. Both the fruits and pads of prickly pears can help keep blood sugar levels stable because they contain rich, soluble fibers. The fruit contains vitamin C and was used as an early cure for scurvy.

Furthermore, there has been much medical interest in the prickly pear plant. Studies [1, 2, 3] have shown that the pectin contained in prickly pear pulp lowers cholesterol levels. Another study [4] found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit may lower a diabetic’s need for insulin. The plant also contains the antioxidant flavonoids quercetin, (+)-dihydroquercetin (taxifolin), quercetin 3-methyl ether (isorhamnetin) and kaempferol, which have a protective function against the DNA damage that leads to cancer.

3. Biofuels in Semiarid Regions
Planting low water use, Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM; a water saving mode of photosynthesis) biofuel feedstocks on arid and semiarid lands could offer immediate and sustained biogas advantages. Opuntiapads have 8–12% dry matter, which is ideal for anaerobic digestion. With an arid climate, this prevents the need for extra irrigation or water to facilitate the anaerobic digestion process. Requiring only 300 mm of precipitation per year, Opuntiacan produce a large amount of dry matter feedstock and still retain enough moisture to facilitate biogas production. It’s possible to get as much as 2.5 kWh of methane from 1 kg of dry Opuntia.

4. Phylogenetic Importance
Trained botanists and amateurs alike have held cacti in high regard for centuries. The copious production of spines, lack of leaves, bizarre architecture and impressive ability to persist in the harshest environments on Earth are all traits that have entitled this lineage to be named a true wonder of the plant world.

The cacti are one of the most celebrated radiations of succulent plants. There has been much speculation about their age, but progress in dating cactus origins has been hindered by the lack of fossil data for cacti or their close relatives. Through whole genome sequencing, we help will reveal the genomic evolution of Opuntia by comparing this genome with that of other sequenced plant species.

Cacti are typical CAM plants. We will analyse the evolution of CAM genes in the cactus to help reveal the secret of drought tolerance. Furthermore, plant architecture genes and MADS-box gene family members will be analysed to reveal the specific architecture and structure of cactus.

Crowdfunding the Cactus Genome Project
Cactus has several fascinating aspects that are worth exploring, not just for its biology, but also its relevance to humanity and the global environment. We plan to generate a draft genome for Opuntia, and have launched a crowdfunding campaign to help fund this project – we have already raised $2300 USD (46% of what we need), but we only have 15 days to raise the rest. If you would like to help fund this project, please visit our Experiment page at: https://experiment.com/projects/sequencing-the-cactus-genome-to-discover-the-secret-of-drought-resistance.

If we are successful in raising enough money to initiate the Cactus Genome Project, not only will this be the first plant genome to be sequenced in the Cactaceae family, we will be releasing the results to the plant science community through GeneGarden, an ornamental plant genome database. Our citizen science approach is also allowing us to reach out directly to members of the public, creating exciting opportunities for outreach and engagement with plant science.

If you have any further questions, please contact project leader Dr Peng Jiang at pjiang@uga.edu.

This blog post is slightly adapted from a post originally appearing on GigaScience Journal’s GigaBlog. Reproduced and adapted with permission, under a CC-BY license.

References

  1. Wolfram RM, Kritz H, Efthimiou Y, et al. Effect of prickly pear (Opuntia robusta) on glucose- and lipid-metabolism in non-diabetics with hyperlipidemia – a pilot study. Wien Klin Wochenscr. 2002;114(19–20):840–6.
  2. Trejo-Gonzalez A, Gabriel-Ortiz G, Puebla-Perez AM, et al. A purified extract from prickly pear cactus (Opuntia fulignosa) controls experimentally induced diabetes in rats. J Ethnopharmacol. 1996;55(1):27–33.
  3. Fernandez ML, Lin EC, Trejo A, et al. Prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) pectin alters hepatic cholesterol metabolism without affecting cholesterol absorption in guinea pigs fed a hypercholesterolemic diet. J Nutr. 1994;124(6):817–24.
  4. Frati-Munari AC, Gordillo BE, Altamirano P, et al. Hypoglycemic effect of Opuntia streptacantha Lemaire in NIDDM. Diabetes Care. 1988:11(1):63–66.