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Resilient cropping systems for the future

By | Blog, GPC Community, Scientific Meetings
Dr John Kirkegaard

Dr John Kirkegaard, CSIRO, Australia

Last year Dr John Kirkegaard (CSIRO, Australia) gave a fantastic presentation to the Stress Resilience Forum hosted by the Society for Experimental Biology and the Global Plant Council. He discussed the need for resilient cropping systems to enhance yields, and described the success of the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative (2009-2013) in discovering the synergies between new crop varieties and better crop management.

Here, Dr Kirkegaard, who was recently elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, describes the work of the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative and the exciting new discoveries made by farmers and scientists already being used to shape resilient cropping systems for the future.

 

Could you begin by explaining how and why the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative was established?

Despite the semi-arid conditions, rain-fed agriculture is by far the most common form of farming in Australia, especially for grain crops such as wheat and canola. The National Water Use Efficiency Initiative was established in 2009 by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), a research-funding organization that collects levies from farmers to support agricultural research. They provided $17 million over five years to growers and research organizations to tackle the challenge of increasing water use efficiency (the amount of grain produced per mm of rainfall) of grain farming systems by 10%.

Wheat in Australia

Wheat is New South Wales, Australia. Image credit: Tim J. Keegan. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

Growers could suggest ways in which they believed this could be achieved and CSIRO scientists provided farming systems research assistance to test and validate the ideas and ensure a consistent and scientific approach was taken.

 

How has modeling been used to guide the research?

Pre-experimental modeling was used to determine which interventions looked most promising. This early modelling suggested there were huge opportunities to catch and store summer rainfall in better ways, and to sow crops earlier to utilize water more efficiently.  Experiments were then designed to test and validate those ideas on-farm, in experiments run by the farmers in their own fields.

 

What synergies have you found between management practices in semi-arid agriculture?

Canola in Australia

Canola growing in New South Wales, Australia. Image credit: Jan Smith. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

In wheat farming, we found that adopting a good crop rotation, controlling summer weeds, maintaining stubble cover and sowing earlier at lower crop densities was very successful. Capturing and storing water in the summer facilitates early sowing because crops can be planted without waiting for rain, and choosing a wheat variety that flowers at the right time makes best use of the seasonal rainfall. This combination of management and variety was very powerful, leading to a doubling in yield.

We are now investigating similar interactions in canola. Sowing canola early helps the plant to avoid heat and water stress at the end of the season, increasing its biomass production and grain yield potential, and improving its water use efficiency.

 

Poppy and wheat

Vigorous wheat varieties may be able to choke out weeds, like this field poppy. Image credit: Tony Smith. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

Have you discovered any other genotype x management (G x M) relationships, where a particular cultivar contributes to crop management?

Vigorous wheat varieties can have beneficial interactions with management. For example, more vigorous crops cover the ground quickly and reduce the direct loss of soil water through evaporation, and can improve water use efficiency. In addition, vigor can also make the wheat more competitive with weeds and provide a non-chemical form of weed control to reduce the overreliance on herbicides as part of an integrated weed management approach.

 

What advice do you have for researchers or breeders developing a new cultivar? How can they test its interaction with crop management?

In some cases, depending on the genetic change that is present in a new variety, there may be little interaction with management. However, large and obvious changes in crop traits, such as changes in crop vigor or root and shoot architecture, may interact strongly with numerous aspects of management (e.g. sowing date, sowing density, nutrient management, weed management). It would be wise to test some of these interactions before crop release, so that the new variety is released WITH a package of sound management strategies to maximize productivity.

 

Stubble cover

Leaving stubble on a field maintains water and increases soil organic matter. Image credit: USDA NRCS South Dakota. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

How will the findings of the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative be built upon in the future?

I believe we have had an impact on the way research is approached. Rather than assume that a single intervention or new variety will have a large impact, people are now more interested in what packages of management and varieties will be most successful. It’s like always asking “what else do I need to add to my innovation to get the most out of it?” Testing some of the G x M interactions experimentally during the pre-breeding process may be a fruitful area to identify likely synergies well ahead of cultivar release.

Large increases in system productivity rarely come from a single transformational change; they arise when several interacting factors combine, such as in the first agricultural revolution in Europe, or the Green Revolution in India and Asia. New crop types combined with management packages to fulfil the higher potential is what made the difference. We need to envisage what combination might provide those synergies for the crops of the future and be sure we organize ourselves and capture those possibilities by NOT staying in comfortable discipline siloes.

 

Let’s get Plantae!

By | Blog, GPC Community, Plantae

So you’re hearing good things about the new plant science networking platform Plantae and want to get involved? You’ve come to the right blog post! Read on to learn how to set up your profile, find friends and get involved with the community.

Who are you?

Plantae profile

Filling in your profile is easy!

Plantae is a great place to network with researchers around the world, so you’ll want your profile to be as detailed as possible.

As a minimum, add your name, a profile photo, your professional affiliations and a summary of who you are and what you do. This will help your colleagues and friends to find you, and break the networking ice with new connections!

What makes a good bio? Give the reader a little information about your fields of interest, background, plant science outreach, new papers, favorite plant, whatever you like (related to plants and plant science, of course!). Remember that Plantae is a professional networking site, so don’t put anything on there that you wouldn’t want your boss (current or future!) to see!

Where can I find out more about this interesting person?

Plantae social media

Don’t forget to add your social media and researcher profiles

A great feature of the Core Profile is the ability to add your social media profiles, website, and enhance the visibility of your research by adding researcher profiles, for example your ORCID, Mendeley, or ResearchGate account. To ensure that the accounts connect properly, add the full URL of each profile, not just your account name.

 

Will you be my friend?

From the Community homepage you can choose to see the recent activity of your friends, but only if you’ve added them first!

Add a friend on Plantae

How to add a friend on Plantae

To find colleagues, click on ‘Members’ and you can search for a name, or filter all members by city, state or country. Click on your friend’s name to go to their profile. On the left sidebar, you’ll see a button named ‘User Actions’, which when clicked brings up the option to add them as a friend. After they accept your request, you’re officially friends. Congratulations!

Branching out

Plantae groups

Join a group to continue networking

Now you’ve added everyone you know, it’s time to connect with people that you don’t! Get over to the Discussion boards and let everyone know how you feel about the latest hot paper or public engagement scheme. Or you could join a Group of users who share your interests, location, or love of plant-themed poetry (disclaimer: the latter is currently not a Plantae group – feel free to start it!). It’s easy to join conversations or start one of your own.

Finding funding, jobs and resources

Plantae is a hub of plant science resources, including research news, funding opportunities, job advertisements, science policy news and a wealth of education and public engagement tools. Log in regularly to see up and coming events, grant calls, opinion pieces and more, or maybe upload some of your own!

Join us!

There you have it. Now you know the basics, reach out to the Plantae network, get involved in exciting plant science discussions, make the most of funding and job opportunities, and, pretty please, fill in your profile!

A typical day for PhD students in Japan

By | Blog, GPC Community
Akiko Nakazaki

Akiko Nakazaki, PhD student at Kyoto University

Kon-nichiwa! (Hello!) I am Akiko Nakazaki, a PhD student studying plant molecular cell biology at Kyoto University in Japan.

I’m interested in plant defense – specifically the glucosinolate-myrosinase defense system, which is specific to Brassicales such as Arabidopsis thaliana. Glucosinolates are a group of secondary metabolites stored in separate cells to myrosinases, the enzymes that break them down. Upon tissue damage, the glucosinolates and myrosinases are released from their cells and combine. The glucosinolates are hydrolyzed to volatile repellent compounds such as isothiocyanates and nitriles.

Glucosinolate myrosinase defense system

When damaged, cells containing glucosinolate and myrosinase are ruptured, releasing their contents. The glucosinolate is broken down by the myrosinase into volatile compounds that repel herbivores

I was impressed by this ingenious and rational survival strategy! I want to reveal this defense system at the cellular level, and am researching it in Arabidopsis thaliana by performing microscopic observations, bioassays with insects, and so on.

A day in the lab

Are you interested in how PhD students from other countries spend their day in the laboratory? I am! Let me tell you about my typical day in the lab.

I wake up at 8:30am, and have morning coffee and toast for breakfast while reading a newspaper. Then, I get dressed and ride on my bicycle to the University. During the ride (about 10 minutes), I remind myself of the day’s schedule. I get to the lab at 10am and take my seat. All the members of the lab have their own desk and workbench. I turn on my computer and check my emails.

In the daylight, I basically do experiments and read papers. I start doing microscopic observations and lose track of time until I hear my stomach growling and realize that it is almost 2pm. I have lunch at the eating space in lab. In this room, there are always some lab members who are eating, discussing their research, playing social games, etc. After lunch, I report the result of my microscopic observations to my boss and we have a brief discussion about it.

Microscopic_observations

Then, I return to my seat and realize the primers I ordered yesterday have arrived. I perform a PCR and prepare an agarose gel for electrophoresis. While I am waiting for the PCR to end, I search PubMed and Google Scholar for new papers to read. I load the PCR products to the gel and check that the PCR worked. In the evening, I allocate myself free time for doing more experiments, reading more papers, preparing research presentations, discussions, etc.

I’ve sought a more effective way to advance my research through trial and error. For example, when I started researching in the lab I was a little too ambitious, and planned my schedule too tightly. I sometimes felt tired and depressed when my research was not right on schedule, as is often the case. In these negative moods I couldn’t enjoy my work, so I adopted a schedule with more free time. Because of this change, I’ve come to be able to work flexibly and keep a positive frame of mind.

I’m home between 10pm and midnight. At home, I have a late dinner and take a good long soak in the bath (my favorite time of day!). I go to bed at 2am.

Free weekends!

On weekends I enjoy playing badminton, learning traditional Japanese dance and shopping. I try to make plans without lab work as much as I can, however I’m not able to do avoid it sometimes when I am struggling to get new data before academic conferences and progress reports. Leaving the lab allows me to get rid of stress and feel refreshed for a healthy next week. Furthermore, I devise ways to work more efficiently on weekdays, because I am required to take time off at the weekends.

Treasure every encounter

My boss always says, “It is important to value encounters with people and things.” It wasn’t until recently that I finally understood that message! I have found that experiments may not always work well, but when I look at it from a different angle, even experiments that haven’t gone the way I’d wanted could make me aware of something new and interesting. This awareness could also be brought about through discussions with others.

I am grateful for being able to receive this opportunity. Thank you.


Akiko Nakazaki is in the first year of her doctoral program in the Department of Botany, Graduate School of Science, Kyoto University, Japan.

 

Protecting plants, protecting people

By | Blog, GPC Community
Professor Sophien Kamoun

Professor Sophien Kamoun (The Sainsbury Lab, UK)

This week on the blog, Professor Sophien Kamoun describes his work on plant–pathogen interactions at The Sainsbury Lab, UK, and discusses the future of plant disease.

Could you begin by describing the focus of your research on plant pathogens?

We study several aspects of plant–pathogen interactions, ranging from genome-level analyses to mechanistic investigations focused on individual proteins. Our projects are driven by some of the major questions in the field: how do plant pathogens evolve? How do they adapt and specialize to their hosts? How do plant pathogen effectors co-opt host processes?

One personal aim is to narrow the gap between research on the mechanisms and evolution of these processes. We hope to demonstrate how mechanistic research benefits from a robust phylogenetic framework to test specific hypotheses about how evolution has shaped molecular mechanisms of pathogenicity and immunity.

 

Phytophtora ramorum

Sudden oak death is caused by the oomycete Phytophthora ramorum. Image from Nichols, 2014. PLOS Biology.

Tree diseases such as sudden oak death, ash dieback and olive quick decline syndrome have been making the news a lot recently. Are diseases like these becoming more common, and if so, why?

It’s well documented that the scale and frequency of emerging plant diseases has increased. There are many factors to blame. Increased global trade is one. Climate change is another. There is no question that we need to increase our surveillance and diagnostics efforts. We’re nowhere near having coordinated responses to new disease outbreaks in plant pathology, especially when it comes to deploying the latest genomics methods. We really need to remedy this.

 

The wheat blast fungus recently hit Bangladesh. Could you briefly outline how it is being tackled by plant pathologists?

Wheat blast has just emerged this last February in Bangladesh – its first report in Asia. It could spread to neighboring countries and become a major threat to wheat production in South Asia. Thus, we had to act fast. We used an Open Science approach to mobilize collaborators in Bangladesh and the wider blast fungus community, and managed to identify the pathogen strain in just a few weeks. It turned out that the Bangladeshi outbreak was caused by a clone related to the South American lineage of the pathogen. Now that we know the enemy, we can proceed to put in place an informed response plan. It’s challenging but at least we know the nature of the pathogen – a first step in any response plan to a disease outbreak.

 

Which emerging diseases do you foresee having a large impact on food security in the future?

Obviously, any disease outbreak in the major food crops would be of immediate concern, but we shouldn’t neglect the smaller crops, which are so critical to agriculture in the developing world. This is one of the challenges of plant pathology: how to handle the numerous plants and their many pathogens.

European Corn Borer

European corn boreer. Image from Cornell University. Used under license CC BY 2.0.

As far as new problems, I view insect pests as being a particular challenge. Our basic understanding of insect–plant interactions is not as well developed as it is for microbial pathogens, and research has somewhat neglected the impact of plant immunity. The range of many insect pests is expanding because of climate change, and we are moving to ban many of the widely used insecticides. This is an area of research I would recommend for an early career scientist.

 

What advice would you give to a young researcher in this area?

Ask the right questions and look beyond the current trends. Think big. Be ambitious. Don’t shy away from embracing the latest technologies and methods. It’s important to work on real world systems. Thanks to technological advances, genomics, genome editing etc., the advantages of working on model systems are not as obvious as they were in the past.

 

How can we mitigate the risks to crops from plant diseases in the future?

My general take is to be suspicious of silver bullets. I like to say “Don’t bet against the pathogen”. I believe that for truly sustainable solutions, we need to continuously alter the control methods, for example by regularly releasing new resistant crop varieties. Only then we can keep up with rapidly evolving pathogens. One analogy would be the flu jab, which has a different formulation every year depending on the make-up of the flu virus population.

 

Blight Potato

Potato with blight, caused by the oomycete Phytophthora infestans. Image credit: USDA. Used under license CC BY-ND 2.0.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I read that public and private funding of plant science is less than one tenth of biomedical research. Not a great state of affairs when one considers that we will add another two billion people to the planet in the next 30 years. As one of my colleagues once said: “medicine might save you one day; but plants keep you alive everyday”.

 

Round-up of Fascination of Plants Day 2016

By | Blog, GPC Community

On May 18th, botany geeks around the world shared their love of plants in this year’s Fascination of Plants Day! Here’s our round-up of some of the best #fopd tweets!

First things first, test your skills with this challenging plant science quiz:

Check out some of the amazing work done by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI):

Have you read this thought-provoking post from The Guardian?

Check out these amazing ears of maize! 

Read on to learn how signals are converted to epigenetic memory:

More from BGCI:

Includes the amazing subheading “Ovules before brovules”!:

Great to hear from some of our younger plant scientists:

Some fun facts to share with your friends:

A fantastic image featuring the adaptations of marram grass to its sand-dune home:

This fascinating mutation results from an elongated apical meristem:

How long does this starch need to last? Plants use their internal circadian clock to ration their energy stores:

The loblolly pine’s genome is over seven times larger than yours!

Need more Fascinating Plants? There are lots of great ‘Roots and Shoots’ articles on eLife‘s Medium page

How did you celebrate Fascination of Plants Day this year? Let us know in the comments below!

Underutilized crops and insects replace fishmeal in aquaculture feed

By | Blog, Future Directions, GPC Community

Farmed fish are often fed with fishmeal, produced from the dried tissues of caught marine fish. In 2012, a total of 16.3 million metric tons of fish were caught to produce fishmeal and fish oil, 73% of which was used in aquaculture. This practice is unsustainable, and as the global human population is expected to rise to 9 over billion by 2050, capture fisheries will not be able to satisfy the demand for fish protein.

Barramundi

Barramundi fish

In recent decades there has been extensive research into ingredients to replace fishmeal, but this has focused mainly on sources of plant carbohydrate and protein such as maize and soy, which also serve as human foods. While these crops are now used in some commercial aquaculture feeds, they are not suitable for many species and have had less than optimal results. In addition, many countries do not grow these mainstream crops and are left in the undesirable position of having to import fishmeal alternatives, which can be cost prohibitive, and increase carbon emissions.

An alternative to fishmeal

Insect based feed

Insect based fish feed

The Crops for the Future (CFF) team in Malaysia is working with the University of Nottingham, UK, to investigate insect-based aquaculture feed as a replacement to fishmeal use in fisheries. Both organizations recognize that current rates of wild fish depletion are unsustainable and will not meet future demand for fishmeal under a ‘business as usual’ scenario. With support from the Newton-Ungku Omar Fund Institutional Linkages Programme, they have shown that the quality of insect larvae as an aquafeed ingredient is affected by the substrate on which the insects feed.

The CFF ‘FishPLUS’ program has revealed that black soldier fly (BSF; Hermetia illucens) larvae fed with underutilized crops can be used to produce insectmeal and replace up to 50% of fishmeal in formulated aquaculture. These crops are not used for human food and can be grown on marginal land close to areas of aquaculture production in tropical climates, increasing the sustainability of the process.

Producing insectmeal with underutilized crops

Ground Sesbiana

Ground Sesbania is used to feed the black soldier fly larvae

Over a year, the researchers worked with a private sector supplier to develop laboratory-scale BSF breeding pods in which different substrate combinations of underutilized crops could be trialed. BSF feeding trials were conducted using five separate or combined underutilized crops as substrate, i.e. Sesbania (Sesbania sp.); 90% Sesbania with 10% Moringa (Moringa oleifera); Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea) leaf; Bambara groundnut flour; and Moringa leaf.

The best results were obtained by feeding the larvae on Sesbiana, a nitrogen-fixing legume that grows well in marginal tropical landscapes and is not a human food crop. Overall, nutrient analyses indicated that the amino acid profile for insectmeal is encouraging and closely resembles fishmeal.

Successful feeding trials

Black soldier fly larvae

Black soldier fly larvae

Fish feeding trials using the BSF insectmeal were undertaken in Malaysia at the CFF Field Research Centre. The trial fish, barramundi, accepted a formulated feed with up to 50% replacement of fishmeal with Sesbania-fed BSF insectmeal. The feed conversion ratio, mortality rate and biomass growth rate were all comparable to control trials with commercial fishmeal aquaculture feed. Back in the UK, complementary antinutritional studies at the University of Nottingham contributed essential information to guide the development of an optimal aquaculture feed formulation in the future.

Waste not, want not

Amaranth alternative fertilizer

Amaranth growing with either commercial fertilizer (right) or FishPLUS substrate compost (left)

This project also embraces the use of undigested material from the insect feeding as compost for crops like okra and amaranth. For example, 10kg of Sesbania leaves produces 1kg of BSF pre-pupae and 9kg of undigested waste material. When used as a soil conditioner in our agronomy trial, this waste material improve the crop growth at a comparable level to commercial fertilizer. This could be used by terrestrial crop farmers to reduce their fertilizer bill.

The findings of this project are of importance to world food security. As leaders in this field of research, the UK and Malaysian partners are well placed to leverage these preliminary results and explore scalability and options for commercialization of benefit to both economies.


CFF is the world’s first and only organization dedicated to research on underutilized crops. Professor M.S. Swaminathan, World Food Prize Laureate and Father of the Asian Green Revolution, described CFF as `the need of the hour.’

You can see more about the FishPLUS project from Crops for the Future in the video below:



This article was written by FishPLUS Team, for Crops for the Future.

Newton-IUCAP workshop

Newton-IUCAP workshop

University_of_Nottingham CFFlogo

This work is supported by:

Funders links

Witty gene names

By | Blog, GPC Community

It is a well known fact that biologists are a clever bunch. Most of the time they’re out applying their intellect and tackling the world’s problems, but occasionally (probably at happy hour on a Friday evening) they sit around coming up with witty names for genes.

Drosophila (fruit fly) geneticists have some classics, including the tinman mutant (which lacks a heart), Smaug (represses the ‘dwarves’ – Nanos), and the tribbles mutant (which has out of control cell division – don’t add water!).

Don’t worry though – plant scientists have come up with some clever gene names of their own! I asked the #plantsci community on Twitter for their favorites:

The superman mutant in Arabidopsis lacks the female parts of the flower, replacing it with more stamens. Fairly funny on its own, but naming its suppressor KRYPTONITE was even better!   

Like the 1970s TV cop Kojak, the kojak mutant is completely (root) hairless! In contrast, the werewolf  mutant produces LOTS of root hairs.

kojak

The kojak mutant (B) is completely bald! Image credit: Favery et al., 2001 and Universal Television

 

Ah yes, we can partially blame GPC’s Ruth Bastow for this one as she was co-first author on the discovery paper! TIMING OF CAB EXPRESSION1 (TOC1) had been shown to be involved in the circadian clock, and when Ruth and her colleagues discovered a gene that appeared to regulate TOC1, they named it TIC for the clever TIC-TOC of the circadian clock, then fit the full name (TIME FOR COFFEE) around it! The official reason was, “We located TIC function to the mid to late subjective night, a phase at which any human activity often requires coffee”. Hmm!    

My thesis is on stomatal development, so these are close to my heart! The word ‘stoma’ is  ancient Greek for ‘mouth’, so lots of stomata genes are mouth-based puns!

Where does YODA fit into this, you ask? This gene is the (Jedi) master regulator of stomatal development, of course!

tmm

The too many mouths mutant produces too many stomata. Image credit: Guseman et al., 2010.

 

In the run-up to the Brexit referendum on the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, SCHENGEN is a topical choice! This gene is involved in establishing the Casparian Strip, a lignified type of cell wall located in the endodermis. The schengen mutants don’t form this barrier, so were named after the Schengen Agreement that ‘established a borderless area between European member states’.  

Lisa’s spot on with these. The pennywise mutation was discovered first, named after a band, then when a paralogous gene was identified by the same authors, they continued the finance theme with POUND-FOOLISH.

The armadillo mutant in Drosophila has abnormal segment development, which looks a little like the armor plating of an armadillo. This protein contains ‘Armadillo repeats’, which is actually found in a huge variety of species including plants. The ARABIDILLO genes in Arabidopsis promote lateral root development, while PHYSCODILLO genes affect early development in the moss Physcomitrella patens.

 

Thanks, Ian!

Thanks to everyone who participated in this list. If you have a favorite whimsical gene name that hasn’t been mentioned, let us know in the comment section!

Lessons from the oldest and most arid desert on Earth

By | Blog, Global Change, GPC Community
Atacama Desert

Image credit: Center for Genome Regulation

The Atacama Desert is a strip of land near 1000 km in length located in northern Chile. With an average yearly rainfall of just 15 mm (close to 0 in some locations) and high radiation levels, it is the driest desert in the world. Geological estimates suggest that the Atacama has remained hyperarid for at least eight million years. Standing in its midst, one may easily feel as though visiting a valley on Mars.

Despite these harsh environmental conditions, it is possible to find life in the Atacama. At the increased altitudes along the western slopes of the Andes precipitation is slightly increased, allowing plant life.

Convergent evolution

The driest and oldest desert in the world acts as a natural laboratory where for 150 million years plants adapted to and colonized this environment. These adaptations are likely present in multiple desert plant lineages, thus providing an evolutionary framework where these traits can be associated with a signature of convergent evolution.

Surviving a nitrogen-limited landscape

Plant in the Atacama Desert

Image credit: Center for Genome Regulation

The interplay of environmental conditions in the transect of the Atacama, ranging from 2500 to 4500 meters above sea level, results in three broad microclimates; Pre Puna, Puna, and High Steppe. These microclimates have different humidities, temperatures, levels of organic matter and even different pH levels, but share one common feature: low nitrogen levels.

To engineer crops with higher nitrogen use efficiency, it is very useful to first learn how plants adapt to growth in low nitrogen environments. Here the Atacama Desert enters into the game. Plants growing in the desert can survive 100-fold less nitrogen below optimum concentrations. Using phylogenetics it is possible to uncover novel genes and mechanisms related to adaptation to these extreme conditions, which have not been discovered through traditional genetic approaches.

Currently, nitrogen fertilizers are widely employed to increase crop yield. In 2008 100 million tons of this fertilizer were used and it is projected that for 2018 the demand for nitrogen will rise to 119 million tons. Regretfully, the production and over-usage of this type of fertilizer has an enormous impact in the environment and human health. Around 60% of the nitrogen introduced to the soil for agricultural purposes is leached and lost. Moreover, nitrogen runoffs to the water cause eutrophication in both freshwater and marine ecosystems, leading to algae and phytoplankton blooms, low levels of dissolved oxygen, and finally the migration or death of the present fauna, forming dead zones such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico.
 

Plants in the Atacama Desert

Image credit: Center for Genome Regulation

Nitrogen fertilizers are not the only major concern in modern agricultural procedures. The co-localization of drought and low nitrogen levels is especially detrimental for plant growth and development. We need to support not only the nutritional requirement of an expanding global population but also new energetic strategies based on production of biomass for biofuels on marginal nutrient poor soils. In order to increase crop yields while reducing the environmental impact of nitrogen fertilizers, it is necessary to develop new agricultural strategies and cutting edge technologies.

Learning from the desert

What if we could profit from the extraordinary plants that have had thousands of years to learn how to cope with nitrogen scarcity, drought and extreme radiation? Specifically, can we unravel the genes and mechanisms that allow them to survive in such a barren place?

Atacama Desert

Image credit: Center for Genome Regulation

Over the past three years our group has identified 62 different plant species that inhabit the Atacama Desert, and established a correlation between their habitat attributes and biological characteristics. Using tools such as whole transcriptome shotgun sequencing or RNA-Seq complemented with different bioinformatics approaches, we have identified over 896,000 proteins that are expressed in these conditions.

In this way we aim to learn which processes are highly utilized in these “extreme survivors” compared to similar species that are present in the deserts of California, where the climatic conditions are similar but there is no nitrogen scarcity. That is how we expect to find new mechanisms (or, more precisely, very old mechanisms) that enable plants to survive and grow efficiently in extreme environments.


 

Susana Cabello

Dr Susana Cabello

Written by Dr Susana Cabello, Center for Genome Regulation, Millennium Nucleus for Plant Systems and Synthetic Biology, Chile. Susana would like to acknowledge Maite Salazar & Rodrigo Gutierrez for their suggestions and edits.

A year at the Global Plant Council

By | ASPB, Blog, GPC Community

Last April I joined the Global Plant Council as a New Media Fellow along with Sarah Jose from the University of Bristol. The GPC is a small organization with a big remit: to bring together stakeholders in the plant and crop sciences from around the world! As New Media Fellows, Sarah and I have have assisted in raising the online profile of the GPC through various social media platforms. We wrote about our experiences in growing this blog and the GPC Twitter and Facebook accounts in the The Global Plant Council Guide to Social Media, which details our successes and difficulties in creating a more established online presence.

 

Why do it?

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

I chose to apply for the fellowship during the third year of my PhD. Around this time I had started to consider that perhaps a job in research wasn’t for me. It was therefore important to gain experience outside of my daily life in the lab and field, explore possible careers outside of academia and of course to add vital lines to my CV. I still loved science, and found my work interesting, so knew I wanted to stay close to the scientific community. Furthermore, I had always enjoyed being active on Twitter, and following scientific blogs, so the GPC fellowship sounded like the perfect opportunity!

 

The experience

I think I can speak for both Sarah and myself when I say that this fellowship has been one of the best things I’ve done during my PhD. Managing this blog for a year has allowed me to speak to researchers working on diverse aspects of the plant sciences from around the world. My speed and writing efficiency have improved no end, and I can now write a decent 1000 word post in under an hour! I discovered the best places to find freely available photos, and best way to present a WordPress article. Assisting with Twitter gave me an excuse to spend hours reading interesting articles on the web – basically paid procrastination – and I got to use my creativity to come up with new ways of engaging our community.

Next career move, camera woman?

Filming interviews at the Stress Resilience Forum. Next career move, camera woman?

Of course going to Brazil for the Stress Resilience Symposium, GPC AGM and IPMB was a highlight of my year. I got to present to the international community both about my own PhD research and the work of the GPC, Sarah and I became expert camera women while making the Stress Resilience videos, and I saw the backstage workings of a conference giving out Plantae badges on the ASPB stand at IPMB. It didn’t hurt that I got to see Iguassu Falls, drink more than a few caipirinhas and spend a sneaky week in Rio de Janeiro!

Helping out on the ASPB stand

Helping out on the ASPB stand with Sarah

 

Thank you

Working with the GPC team has been fantastic. I learnt a lot about how scientific societies are run and the work they do by talking to the representatives from member societies at the AGM. The executive board have been highly supportive of our activities throughout. Last but not least, the lovely GPC ladies, Ruth, Lisa and Sarah have been an amazing team to work with – I cannot thank you enough!

I have now handed in my PhD, left the GPC, and moved on to a new career outside of academic research. I’m going into a job focused on public engagement and widening access to higher education, and have no doubt my GPC experiences have helped me get there. My advice if you’re unsure about where you want to end up after your PhD? Say “yes” to all new opportunities as you never know where they will take you.

Thank you the GPC! Hopefully I’ll be back one day!

 

Thank you! It's been amazing!

Thank you! It’s been amazing!

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