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Choosing your growth media for plant science

By | Blog, Future Directions

Considering its weedy nature, Arabidopsis thaliana is a fussy little plant. This can be a pain – even tiny environmental fluctuations can have significant impacts on the physiology and development that many of us are investigating.

As silly as it sounds, my labmates and I have spent many months debating the best compost media to use when growing Arabidopsis for research. It began when our trusted compost supplier changed the formula of its peat-based compost, which stressed our plants and turned them a lovely shade of purple! The conversation has continued to develop as we learn about the different media used in other laboratories.

A new paper from Drake et al. at my university (University of Bristol, UK) has added a new depth to the debate, so I thought I’d bring it all to your attention and perhaps receive some other suggestions to consider!

 

Peat-based vs non-peat compost

Arabidopsis growth media

Arabidopsis growth on peat-based and peat-free growth media. Drake et al., 2016.

The experiment, led by Dr Antony Dodd, was designed to test whether peat-based composts could be replaced by alternatives in Arabidopsis research, in an attempt to reduce plant science’s use of unsustainable peat extraction. The researchers grew two ecotypes of Arabidopsis (Col-0 and Ler) on both autoclaved and non-autoclaved composts, including peat-based compost and some formed of coir, composted bark, wood-fiber, and a domestic compost.

In terms of reducing peat use, Arabidopsis unfortunately grew best on the peat-based growing media, although some vegetative traits were comparable in some peat-free composts.

 

Autoclaving compost

This study caught my eye for another reason, however. We always sterilize our compost before growing Arabidopsis to reduce its contamination by fungi and insect pests; however, after learning that manganese toxicity can become a problem, we no longer autoclave it. As you can see in Boyd’s 1971 paper, manganese is converted to a more bioavailable form during the autoclave process, which can be toxic to plants.

Interestingly, Drake et al.’s research revealed no differences in Arabidopsis growth on autoclaved vs. non-autoclaved media, but I expect that in other environmental conditions the elevated manganese availability could become a problem. They did find that the autoclaved soil actually had more issues with mildew and algae, possibly because the natural microbiota had been killed and the compost was therefore easier to colonize.

 

Insecticide treatment

One of the biggest issues our lab has with non-autoclaved soil is the presence of small insects, which can predate our precious plants. A potential alternative to autoclaving is to treat the media with insecticide, such as imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid. However, many labs have stopped using these pesticides; in 2010, Ford et al. showed that several neonicotinoids, including imidacloprid, induce salicylate-associated plant defense responses associated with enhanced stress tolerance, while in 2012, Cheng et al. found 225 genes were differentially expressed in rice plants treated with imidacloprid. In experiments designed to measure precise physiological responses, I’m not convinced that it’s a good idea to use these pesticides!

 

Potential alternatives

To avoid using autoclaves and insecticides, you could consider baking compost overnight at 60°C (140°F) to try and kill fungal spores and insects, freezing the media, and/or using biocontrols to tackle insect pests, such as nematodes or mites.

In the peat vs. non-peat debate, it looks as though peat-based media are still the frontrunners in terms of compost, but hydroponic systems are becoming more popular as a way of tightly controlling nutrient regimes and manipulating whole plants more easily. Check out this video from Associate Professor Matthew Gilliham (University of Adelaide, Australia) to learn more about the technique:

If you have any other suggestions, please leave a comment and share your methods and ideas!

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!

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!

Flowers of the Global Plant Council

By | Blog, GPC Community

A while ago we published a blog post about the sequencing of the Bauhinia genome. Bauhinia x blakeana is the national flower of Hong Kong, so naturally this sparked our interest in the global importance of flowers as national symbols, such as the English rose. Here we list just a few of the more interesting and unusual plants that are the national symbols of countries hosting GPC member organizations.

India       Indian Society for Plant Physiology

Nelumbo nucifera

The Lotus Plant

The Lotus Plant (Nelumbo nucifera) is an aquatic plant in the Nelumbonaceae family, and is the national flower of India and Vietnam. Image by alterna used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The lotus plant (Nelumbo nucifera) is considered sacred in the Buddhist and Hindu religions, and been used for over 7000 years in Asia as a source of food, herbal remedy and fibers for clothing. In 2013 its genome was sequenced, allowing its phylogenetic history and adaptations for the aquatic environment to be more fully understood.  For example, the plant has a number of genes enabling its adaptation to the nutrient poor soils in waterways, altering its novel root growth, iron regulation and phosphate starvation.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide, Australia, showed that the lotus actually has the ability to regulate the temperature of its flowers, maintaining them between 30 and 36 °C even when air temperature dropped below this. Quite how or why it does this is still unknown, but warmer flowers could play a role in attracting cold-blooded insects and increasing their activity once on the flowers to enhance pollination. An alternative explanation could be that warmer temperatures are required for pollen production.

Another fantastic fact about the lotus is seed viability. A 1300 year old lotus fruit found in a dry lakebed in China was successfully germinated, providing an insight into the aging process of fruits and other organisms

Australia      Australian Society of Plant Scientists

Acacia pycnantha

Acacia

The golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha) is a member of the Fabaceae family. The plant is a small tree that can grow up to 12 meters high! In Australia the 1st September is National Wattle Day. Image by Sydney Oats used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The Australian national flower is the Acacia pycnantha, or wattle, first described in 1942. Its name comes from the Greek pyknos (dense) and anthos (flowers) describing the dense groups of flowers that form on the tree. The wattle is an important source of tannins, and as such has been introduced to parts of southern Europe such as Italy and Portugal in addition to India and New Zealand. The wattle is also found in South Africa where it has now become an invasive pest, and various methods of biological control such as gall forming wasps (Trichilogaster signiventris) are being used to control populations.

Galls on Acacia

Galls on a wattle tree from T. signiventris. Eggs are laid by the wasp in the buds of flower heads and the hatched larvae induce gall formation which prevents flower development. This in turn prevents pollination and continued propagation of the Wattle population. Image by Sydney Oats used under Creative Commons 2.0.

Japan      The Japanese Society of Plant Physiologists

Yellow Chrysanthemum

Yellow Chrysanthemum

The yellow Chrysanthemum is a member of the Asteraceae family. Species of the Chrysanthemum enus are popular ornamental plants, and as such many hybrids and thousands of cultivars in a variety of colors and shapes can be found. Image by Joe deSousa used under Creative Commons 1.0.

Although cherry blossom is often the flower most associated with Japan, yellow Chrysanthemum flowers are equally as important. The flower is used as the Imperial Seal of Japan and on the cover of Japanese passports. Species of the genus Chrysanthemum are members of the Asteraceae (daisy) family.

Two species of the Chrysanthemum genus, C. cinerariifolium and C. coccineum, synthesize pyrethrum compounds, which attack insect nervous systems. As such these species make good companion plants in the field, repelling insects from economically valuable neighboring plants that do not have their own defense mechanisms. The naturally produced toxins are widely used in organic farming, and many synthetic versions are also available commercially.

South Africa      African Crop Science Society

Protea cynaroides

King Protea

The king protea (Protea cynaroides)  is a member of the Proteaceae family and the national flower of South Africa. The South African cricket team has the nickname the Proteas, after the flower. Image by Virginia Manso, used under Creative Commonds 2.0.

The king protea (Protea cynaroides) can grow up to 2 meters in height and comes in several colors and varieties. The plant grows in harsh, dry regions prone to wildfire, and as such has a number of adaptations for the environment. For example, a long tap-root is used for accessing deep water, and tough leathery leaves are resilient to both biotic and abiotic stress. The protea has a thick underground stem with many dormant buds. After a wildfire these dormant buds can become active, forming new stems allowing the plant to survive!

The king protea is only one species within the large Proteaceae family, 120 species of which are now endangered listed on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. The Protea Atlas Project aims to map the geographical location of proteas through Southern Africa in order to help preserve the family. In addition to protea, Southern Africa is home to around 24 000 plant taxa, 80% of which occur no where else in the world. A wider objective of the Protea Atlas Project is to map species-richness patterns in Southern Africa. The distribution of Protea plants within the region largely seems to match the species-richness patterns of other plant species, and therefore proteas are being used as surrogates for plant diversity. Find out more about the project and get involved here.

Germany and Estonia      EUCARPIA, EPSO, FESPB, SPPS

Centaurea cyanus

Cornflower

The cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) is a member of the Asteraceae family, like the Chrysanthemum. Image by Anita used under Creative Commons 2.0.

We have a large number of European and Scandinavian member groups, and choosing one flower to represent all of those was a challenge. However, the humble Cornflower seemed an appropriate choice to represent our European societies. This member of the daisy family is not only the national flower of Germany and Estonia, but has a place in many Scandinavian cultures being the symbol for a number of political parties in Finland and Sweden.

In the past this beautiful flower was regarded as a weed, but now due to intensive agricultural practices has become endangered. Cornflowers have many uses in addition to being an ornamental plant. The plant is used in many blends of herbal tea, flowers are edible in salads, and the blue coloring can be used as a clothes dye.

Canada           Canadian Society of Plant Biologists

Acer 

Although not technically a flower, the leaf of the maple tree  is such an iconic symbol on the Canadian flag we just had to include it (we are the Global Plant Council after all). There are many species of maple tree in the genus Acer, which can be distinguished from other genus of trees by their distinctive leaf shape. The most important species of maple in Canada is probably Acer saccharum, the sugar maple. The sap of this species is the major source of maple syrup, and its hard wood is popular for use in flooring and furniture.

Maple

Acer saccharum, the sugar maple, in Autumn. Image by Mark K. used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The sugar maple grows throughout the USA and Canada, favoring cooler climates and is a very shade tolerant species.  Despite this, the sugar maple is now in decline in many regions. It is highly susceptible to increased levels of air pollution and changes to salt levels. As such the species is now being replaced in many regions by the hardier Norway Maple.

Argentina                  Argentinian Society of Plant Physiology

Erythrina crista-galli 

E. crista-galli, the cockspur coral tree, is the national tree in Argentina. Also known in Argentina as the ceibo, the bright red flower of this tree is also the national flower of Argentina and Uruguay.

Cockspur

The bright red flowers of E.crista-galli are the national flowers of Argentina and Uruguay. Image by Gabriella F.Ruellan used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The small tree is a legume from the family Fabaceae. Characteristically of species from this family, the fruit of the cockspur coral tree are dry pods, and the roots have nodules containing nitrogen fixing bacteria making them important for increasing the available nitrogen in the soil. Although native to South America, the tree is also naturalized in Australia, where it is becoming an emerging environmental weed. The tree is invading waterways and wetlands displacing native species, and its spread is now being controlled in New South Wales.

If your country has a particularly interesting national flower that we have missed let us know! Perhaps we can include it in a future blog post.

Connecting Plant Science Researchers, Entrepreneurs and Industry Professionals

By | Blog, Canadian Society of Plant Biologists, Scientific Meetings
From Lab Bench to Boardroom

From Lab Bench to Boardroom workshop at Botany 2015

This blog post was written by Amanda Gregoris and R. Glen Uhrig who organized a workshop entitled “Lab Bench to Boardroom” at the Botany 2015 meeting in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Our motivation behind holding this workshop was to engage graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to consider the science behind biotechnology. We designed this workshop to be an opportunity to expose students and post-doctoral fellows to how industry experts and entrepreneurs develop ideas, and how they refine those ideas to make them attractive business opportunities for investors. We created an environment where students and post-doctoral fellows could ‘pitch’ their own plant science business ideas to a panel of industry experts. Through cooperative idea development with the panel and audience members, presenters were able to learn how to evolve their ideas, as well as how their peers viewed their proposed ideas.

Workshops such as Lab Bench to Boardroom are of central importance given the limited availability of academic positions. In light of this fact, students and post-doctoral fellows alike need to consider career options outside of academia prior to completion of their degrees, contracts or fellowships. It is imperative that early career researchers invest time to maximize long-term career outcomes. Workshops like ours and others assist in this by developing a thorough understanding of the non-academic opportunities available.

If you are an early career researcher looking to move away from academia, some industry positions for graduates and post-doctoral fellows may include:

  • research and development,
  • quality control,
  • marketing,
  • market research analyst,
  • business development manager,
  • competitive intelligence analyst,
  • product manager, and
  • management consulting.

Notice that these opportunities are not only based at the lab bench, but can be in more managerial or consulting positions. Your experiences as a researcher have given you highly valued skills, so don’t limit your options! Of course, industry is not the only option, and other opportunities may include working in a government lab, public policy, science writing, herbarium curation or patent agent.

The question of whether enough is being done to inform graduate students and post-doctoral fellows of alternative, non-academic career paths is one often asked, and is one that varies by institution. In our experience, universities have taken a largely standard approach, offering lectures by professionals from industry, as well as informal social gatherings aimed at connecting students to industry. Although these are good opportunities, they represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what could be done to inspire entrepreneurship amongst the upcoming generation of plant scientists, and better assist them with the transition from an academic focus to an industry focus.

Workshop concepts similar to Lab Bench to Boardroom could be developed at the departmental level, or by university career centers, to allow graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to gain an elevated understanding of non-academic career opportunities. Some universities have made great strides in this area, creating internship resources for current graduate students in the areas of biotechnology and public policy. Along these lines, university career centers will usually have databases of current job postings that can assist students in the search for life after grad school.

In the end, it is imperative that universities, governments and industry continue to work to develop strategies that assist graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the transition from academics to successful non-academic careers. This can be accomplished either individually, or through partnerships between these groups. We believe that developing these strategies is undoubtedly essential to the sustainable development of new ideas and technologies in the plant sciences that will be required to address the current and future needs of society.

 

Amanda Gregoris is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, Canada and Dr. R. Glen Uhrig is a post-doctoral fellow at the ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Both are members of the Canadian Society of Plant Biologists

Glen Uhrig

Glen Uhrig

Amanda Gregoris

Amanda Gregoris

New Year, New Executive Board

By | Blog, Future Directions, GPC Community

Happy New Year!

Although they’ve actually been in post since our Annual General Meeting (AGM) in October 2015, I thought I’d take this opportunity to introduce you to our new(ish!) Executive Board; the elected committee of plant science experts from around who help Ruth and myself, and Bill our President, to direct and drive the GPC’s activities and initiatives.

Barry-PogsonBarry Pogson – Chair

Aussie Barry is stepping into the (very large!) shoes of our outgoing Chair, Willi Gruissem. Barry is no stranger to the GPC, having been a GPC Member Organization representative of the Australian Society of Plant Scientists since the GPC’s inception, and being the lead on our Biofortification initiative.

In the lab, based at the Australian National University in Canberra, Barry explores the signaling pathways between chloroplasts and nuclei, particularly investigating how these can impact plants’ tolerance to drought, and carotenoid synthesis and accumulation. His work has important implications for plant biology as a whole, but also for human nutrition, particularly in the biofortification of crops as a means to reduce micronutrient deficiencies.

Barry is Chair of the Golden Rice Technical Advisory Committee and has won numerous awards for his research, teaching and supervision excellence. You can read more about Barry on the GPC website.

Ariel-Orellana-200x300Ariel Orellana – Vice Chair

Ariel replaces outgoing Vice-Chair Henry Nguyen. A Professor of Plant Biotechnology at the Universidad Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile, Ariel has also been involved with the GPC for a number of years as a representative of Chile’s National Network of Plant Biologists, and we look forward to continuing to work with him as a key point of contact in South America.

A highly decorated scientist with many awards, titles, and attributions to his name, Ariel’s research interests are in plant cell wall polysaccharide biosynthesis in the Golgi, particularly looking at the contribution of nucleotide sugar transporters, and he also uses genomics as a tool for the marker-assisted breeding of fruit.

Read more about Ariel on the GPC website.

VickyVicky Buchanan-Wollaston – Treasurer

Vicky joins the GPC Executive Board as our new Treasurer, taking over control of the purse-strings from Brazil’s Gustavo Habermann.

Vicky is Emeritus Professor of Plant Sciences at the University of Warwick, UK, where her research interests are focused on plant senescence, using both Arabidopsis and vegetable Brassicas to carry out functional analysis of leaf senescence-regulating genes. She is a GPC Member Organization representative for the Society for Experimental Biology, and with Professor Jim Beynon, leads the GPC’s initiative on Stress Resilience. Read more about Vicky here.

Carl_2014Carl Douglas – Board Member

Now joining us as Board Member – together with Yusuke Saijo (below) replacing former Board Members Kasem Ahmed and Zhihong Xu, Carl is also a GPC Member Organization representative for the Canadian Society of Plant Biologists (CSPB). He works at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he is a Professor in the Department of Botany. He leads research exploring plant cell wall biosynthesis, and is an expert in tree genomics.

A highly cited and well published author, Carl is also a former President of the CSPB, a Corresponding Member of the American Society of Plant Biologists, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You can find out a bit more about Carl here.

Saijo photoYusuke Saijo – Board Member

As well as being a newly elected GPC Board Member, Yusuke Saijo is also new to the GPC, replacing his predecessor Takashi Ueda as the Member Organization representative for the Japanese Society of Plant Physiologists.

His lab work at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan is focused on understanding plant–microbe interactions, particularly plants’ ability to sense danger, undergo transcriptional reprogramming and priming, and the control of plant immunity under fluctuating environmental conditions.

Read more about Yusuke on our website.

Thank you

Huge thanks to our outgoing Board Members – Wilhelm Gruissem, Henry Nguyen, Gustavo Habermann, Kasem Ahmed and Zhihong Xu – for all their hard work and support during their terms.

And don’t forget…

The members of the GPC’s Executive Board are an elected subset of the Council’s representatives from professional plant, crop, environmental and agricultural societies from all over the world. But, if you are a member of one of our Member Organizations, you’re also a part of the GPC community! We encourage you to get in touch with your GPC representative, especially if you would like to get involved with our activities, or if you have any ideas as to how we can help filter the GPC’s news and information down from the Council to your society’s individual members.

You can find a full list of our member societies, their reps, and their contact details here.

Finally, if your society or professional association is not already a member of the GPC and would like to be, we’d love to hear from you! Please contact us at info@globalplantcouncil.org.

Now That’s What I Call Plant Science 2015

By | Blog, Research, Science communication

With another year nearly over we recently put out a call for nominations for the Most Influential Plant Science Research of 2015. Suggestions flooded in, and we also trawled through our social media feeds to see which stories inspired the most discussion and engagement. It was fantastic to read about so much amazing research from around the world. Below are our top five, selected based on impact for the plant science research community, engagement on social media, and importance for both policy and potential end product/application.

Choosing the most inspiring stories was not an easy job. If you think we’ve missed something, please let us know in the comments below, or via Twitter! In the coming weeks we’ll be posting a 2015 Plant Science Round Up, which will include other exciting research that didn’t quite make the top five, so watch this space!

  1. Sweet potato is a naturally occurring GM crop
Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop

Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop. Image from Mike Licht used under creative commons license 2.0

Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, found that 291 varieties of sweet potato actually contain bacterial genes. This technically means that sweet potato is a naturally occurring genetically modified crop! Alongside all the general discussion about GM regulations, particularly in parts of Europe where regulations about growing GM crops have been decentralized from Brussels to individual EU Member States, this story caused much discussion on social media when it was published in March of this year.

It is thought that ancestors of the modern sweet potato were genetically modified by bacteria in the soil some 8000 years ago. Scientists hypothesize that it was this modification that made consumption and domestication of the crop possible. Unlike the potato, sweet potato is not a tuber but a mere root. The bacteria genes are thought to be responsible for root swelling, giving it the fleshy appearance we recognize today.

This story is incredibly important, firstly because sweet potato is the world’s seventh most important food crop, so knowledge of its genetics and development are essential for future food supply. Secondly, Agrobacterium is frequently used by scientists to artificially genetically modify plants. Evidence that this process occurs in nature opens up the conversation about GM, the methods used in this technology, and the safety of these products for human consumption.

Read the original paper in PNAS here.

  1. RNA-guided Cas9 nuclease creates targetable heritable mutations in Barley and Brassica

Our number two on the list also relates to genetic modification, this time focusing on methods. Regardless of whether or not we want to have genetically modified crops in our food supply, GM is a valuable tool used by researchers to advance knowledge of gene function at the genetic and phenotypic level. Therefore, systems of modification that make the process faster, cheaper, and more accurate provide fantastic opportunities for the plant science community to progress its understanding.

The Cas9 system is a method of genome editing that can make precise changes at specific locations in the genome relatively cheaply. This novel system uses small non-coding RNA to direct Cas9 nuclease to the DNA target site. This type of RNA is small and easy to program, providing a flexible and easily accessible system for genome editing.

Barley in the field

Barley in the field. Image by Moldova_field used under creative commons license 2.0

Inheritance of genome modifications using Cas9 has previously been shown in the model plants, Arabidopsis and rice. However, the efficiency of this inheritance, and therefore potential application in crop plants has been questionable.

The breakthrough study published in November by researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory and John Innes Centre both in Norwich, UK, demonstrated the mutation of two commercial crop plants, Barley and Brassica oleracea, using the Cas9 system and subsequent inheritance mutations.

This is an incredibly exciting development in the plant sciences and opens up many options in the future in terms of genome editing and plant science research.

Read the full paper in Genome Biology here.

  1. Control of Striga growth

Striga is a parasitic plant that mainly affects parts of Africa. It is a major threat to food crops such as rice and corn, leading to yield losses worth over 10 billion US dollars, and affecting over 100 million people.

Striga infects the host crop plant through its roots, depriving them of their nutrients and water. The plant hormone strigolactone, which is released by host plants, is known to induce Striga germination when host plants are nearby.

In a study published in August of this year the Striga receptors for this hormone, and the proteins responsible for striga germination were identified.

Striga plants are known to wither and die if they cannot find a host plant upon germination. Induction of early germination using synthetic hormones could therefore remove Striga populations before crops are planted. This work is vital in terms of regulating Striga populations in areas where they are hugely damaging to crop plants and people’s livelihoods.

Read the full study in Science here.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed. Image from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture used under creative commons license 2.0

  1. Resurrection plants genome harvesting

Resurrection plants are a unique group of flora that can survive extreme water shortages for months or even years. There are more than 130 varieties in the world, and many researchers believe that unlocking the genetic codes of drought-tolerant plants could help farmers working in increasingly hot and dry conditions.

During a drought, the plant acts like a seed, becoming so dry that it appears dead. But as soon as the rains come, the shriveled plant bursts ‘back to life’, turning green and robust in just a few hours.

In November, researchers from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre in Missouri, US, published the complete draft genome of Oropetium thomaeum, a resurrection grass species.

O. thomaeum is a small C4 grass species found in Africa and India. It is closely related to major food feed and bioenergy crops. Therefore this work represents a significant step in terms of understanding novel drought tolerance mechanisms that could be used in agriculture.

Read the full paper in Nature here.

  1. Supercomputing overcomes major ecological challenge

Currently, one of the greatest challenges for ecologists is to quantify plant diversity and understand how this affects plant survival. For the last 500 years independent research groups around the world have collected this diversity data, which has made organization and collaboration difficult in the past.

Over the last 500 years, independent research groups have collected a wealth of diversity data. The Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) are collecting and collating these data together for the Americas using high performance computing (HPC) and data resources, via the iPlant Collaborative and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). This will allow researchers to draw on data right from the earliest plant collections up to the modern day to understand plant diversity.

There are approximately 120,000 plant species in North and South America, but mapping and determining the hotspots of species richness requires computationally intensive geographic range estimates. With supercomputing the BIEN group could generate and store geographic range estimates for plant species in the Americas.

It also gives ecologists the ability to document continental scale patterns of species diversity, which show where any species of plant might be found. These novel maps could prove a fantastic resource for ecologists working on diversity and conservation.

Read more about this story on the TACC website, here.

Stress Resilience: Call for papers for a JXB Special Issue!

By | Blog, GPC Community, Scientific Meetings, SEB

GPC banner Without linkFollowing the recent Stress Resilience Symposium and Discussion Forum that we co-hosted in Brazil last month with the Society for Experimental Biology, we are pleased to announce a call for papers for a forthcoming Special Issue of the SEB’s Journal of Experimental Botany.

Achieving food security in a changing and unpredictable climate urgently requires a better understanding of the mechanisms by which plants interact with and respond to their environments. This special issue will bring together a collection of papers highlighting the best current research in stress resilience contributing to global efforts to develop crops and cropping systems that are better able to deal with fluctuating and stressful environmental conditions.

Proposals are invited for the submission of new and innovative research papers that contribute to this goal (submission before the end of January 2016 will guarantee inclusion in the special issue pending positive peer review). Confirmed contributors already include: Andrew Borrell (University of Queensland, Australia), Elizabete Carmo-Silva (Lancaster University, UK), Scott Chapman (CSIRO, Australia), Bill Davies (GPC President and Lancaster University, UK), Lyza Maron (Cornell University, USA), Jianbo Shen (China Agricultural University), and Roberto Tuberosa (University of Bologna, Italy).

If you would like to contribute a paper, please email a title and short abstract to Mary Traynor: m.traynor@lancaster.ac.uk.

Genetic Diversity in our Food Systems

By | Blog, Future Directions
Gurdev Khush at IRRI

Gurdev Khush at IRRI. Photo credit: IRRI photos. Reproduced under a Creative Commons license 2.0

This week’s blog post has been written by agronomist and geneticist Gurdev Khush. Gurdev had a major role to play in the Green Revolution, and while working at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) developed more than 300 rice varieties, one of which (IR36) became the most widely planted variety of rice. The impact and significance of his work has been recognized by numerous awards including the World Food Prize in 1996, the Wolf Prize in Agriculture in 2000, the Golden Sickle Award in 2007, and in 1987 the Japan Prize.

Our civilization developed with the domestication of plants for food, fiber and shelter about 10,000 years ago. Since then we have made constant improvements to these domesticated plants based on genetic diversity. It is the conservation, evaluation and utilization of this genetic diversity that will be essential for further improvements in our food crops and world food security.

Gene banks conserve biodiversity

The first important step in conserving biodiversity was the establishment of a gene bank by Nikolai Vavilov at the Leningrad Seedbank in Russia during the 1920s. In subsequent years more gene banks were created in developed countries, and the Green Revolution provided major impetus for the establishment of gene banks in developing countries. The first gene bank for the conservation of rice germplasm was organized after IRRI was established in the Philippines in 1960. Other rice growing countries followed suit and now most of them have their own gene banks.

The IRRI gene bank has over 120,000 entries

IRRI medium term seed store

The medium term storage unit of the IRRI seed bank. Photo credit: IRRI photos. Reproduced under a Creative Commons license 2.0.

The IRRI gene bank has progressively grown from a few thousand entries in 1962 to over 120,000 entries today, including accessions of all the wild species. The germplasm is stored under two-temperature and humidity regimes. The medium term store keeps seeds at 4ºC and a relative humidity of 35% for 30–40 years, while in the longer term store, maintained at –10ºC and a relative humidity of 20%, seeds are expected to remain viable for 100 years.

IRRI accessions are evaluated for morphological traits, grain quality characteristics, disease and insect resistance, and for tolerance to abiotic stresses such as drought, floods, problem soils and adverse temperatures. These are all important characteristics in terms of breeding resilient and high yielding rice varieties for the future.

Selection of new rice varieties

Numerous landraces have been utilized for breeding high yielding rice varieties. The first high yielding variety, IR8, was developed from a cross between two landraces, one from Indonesia and the other from China. Another variety, IR64, is one of the most widely grown rice varieties, and has 19 landraces and one wild species in its ancestry.

IR64

Rice variety IR64, one of the most widely grown rice varieties. Photo credit: IRRI photos. Used under Creative Commons license 2.0.

Ensuring future food security

Gene banks have played an important role in world food security. However, as the population grows there are now even bigger challenges for meeting demand. Climate change and increased competition for land and water resources further magnify the problem. We need to breed climate resilient crop varieties with higher productivity, durable resistance to diseases and insects, and tolerance to abiotic stresses. Success will depend upon the continuous availability of genetic diversity; we must redouble our efforts to unlock the variability currently preserved in our gene banks.

Diversity Seek Initiative

Establishment of the Diversity Seek Initiative (DivSeek) and the proposed Digital Seed Bank, under the auspices of the Global Plant Council, is a welcome development.

The aim of DivSeek is to develop a unified, coordinated and cohesive information management platform to provide easy access to genotypic and phenotypic data on germplasm preserved in gene banks. It is an international effort to bring together gene bank curators, plant breeders and biological researchers. To begin with, the project will develop standards and generate genotypic, transcriptome and phenotypic information for cassava, rice and wheat diversity. This will form the foundation of the Digital Seed Bank, a novel type of database containing standardized and integrated molecular information on crop diversity. The information from this database will be publicly available, and will be of enormous scientific and practical value. It has the potential to significantly increase our understanding of the molecular basis of crop diversity, and its application in breeding programs.

If your organization is interested in joining DivSeek, information can be found here. Alternatively, sign up to the mailing list to keep up to date with the initiative.