Celebrating basic plant science with David Baulcombe

Categories: UKPSF
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Published on: May 10, 2013

 

Barbara McClintock discovered transposable elements when investigating irregular colouring in maize.

It’s now nearly a month since UK PlantSci 2013, and high time I wrote something about it on this blog. Rebecca Nesbit has written two posts about it already on the Society of Biology blog, and a New Phytologist meeting report will be coming out soon. The Weeding the Gems contribution to this collection of UK PlantSci nostalgia is a write-up of the second keynote talk by David Baulcombe.

David Baulcombe’s talk was a rallying cry in defence of basic research and plant science. He kicked it off with a whistle-stop history of important scientific achievements, all by scientists carrying out basic research on plants: Robert Hooke, who identified and labelled ‘cells’ for the first time when studying woody plant biomass in 1665; 19th century monk Gregor Mendel, whose peas were the first genetic model system; Russian botanist Dmitri Iwanowsk, who in 1892 was the first scientist to identify and characterise a virus; and Barbara McClintock, who discovered transposable elements in maize. More recently even than McClintock’s work, Argonaute proteins, tumour formation, and cellular totipotency were all identified first in plants (Bohmert et al. 1998, EMBO 17:170; Sussex 2008, Plant Cell 20:1189).

The scientists involved in the discoveries listed above were carrying out what they presumably viewed as interesting work, simply because they wanted to know the answer – pure science, but all with far-reaching consequences. Baulcombe commented than in the 21st Century research is impact-driven, so some of these pioneers may have struggled to get funding via today’s funding mechanisms.

Now, it is unfair to say that research today is all end-product focussed and impact driven. I know that the BBSRC and other funders worldwide fund basic plant science research regularly, and I highlight some of it here on this blog. Baulcombe’s main point in this first half of the talk was that basic excellent plant science research has to be celebrated in its own right rather than as a half-way point to a useful product in the future. (more…)

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