Reports from ICAR 2013 – Emily Breeze

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Published on: July 25, 2013

This year GARNet was able to contribute to the travel costs of four students attending ICAR 2013, thanks to a kind donation from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. They will each write an article about their experience – here is the first, by University of Warwick student Emily Breeze.

Emily with her poster; and the inflatable plant cell BioBounce.

Global food security is one of the prominent challenges facing mankind with environmental stresses such as drought and pathogen attack causing significant crop losses worldwide. I am in the final year of my PhD at the University of Warwick researching the role played by the NF-Y transcription factor family in regulating the plant’s response to environmental stress, using the plant model organism, Arabidopsis thaliana.

I was fortunate to receive a travel bursary from GARNet funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, to enable me to attend the International Conference on Arabidopsis Research (ICAR) in Sydney, Australia. ICAR is the primary international scientific conference for the Arabidopsis research community and around 700 delegates from all over the world attended over the five days, including a number of eminent scientists within my field of study. The conference was made up of a mixture of lectures from keynote speakers and concurrent symposium sessions on a wide variety of biological themes including development, epigenetics, proteomics, biotic interactions, systems biology, signalling, phenomics and translational biology. Although some of the topics were not directly related to my own research interests, they introduced me to novel techniques and approaches that I can potentially apply to my own research and/or in the future, as well as broadening my wider understanding of plant biology.

The thirteen keynote lectures given by internationally renowned plant scientists were all captivating. (more…)

Perseverance and community: The opening session of Plant Biology 2013

Categories: conferences
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Published on: July 21, 2013

Follow Plant Biology 2013 on #plantbiology2013

Plant Biology 2013 is in full flow here in Providence, Rhode Island. It kicked off on Saturday afternoon with an impressive Awards Ceremony recognising fifteen plant scientists (see the list here) from across the world, and of all ages – from graduate students to emeritus professors. Celebrating the huge breadth and depth of plant science today and over lifetimes was an inspirational way to start the conference.

The first major conference talks began directly after the Awards Ceremony with lectures from two of last year’s award winners, Lisa Ainsworth and Ian Sussex, and the Science Perspective Speaker Robert Zeigler. These three lectures were each very different, but represented three major themes of ASPB and the conference: an overview of excellent research, a celebration of plant science, and an update on the reason most plant scientists do what they do: the food security challenge.

Lisa Ainsworth’s work on ozone damage and ozone resistance in soybean is remarkable for its quality (publications here) and its potential impact, but for me the stand out message was the reminder that US science is just on another scale to UK plant science. Ainsworth carries out most of her experiments in the open air at SoyFACE in Illinois – not a growth chamber or glass house in sight. UK scientists constantly struggle with the difference between results obtained in ‘lab conditions’ and the field phenotype, even when working on crop species. Ainsworth’s results, although they are very much in the experimental stage, already show realistic field phenotypes.

Ian Sussex, an Emeritus Professor from Yale, gave a perspective on experimental plant morphogenesis and how it evolved from what was essentially surgery on plants in the 18th century into modern molecular biology in the 1970s. It was an interesting talk, and some of the ideas are in this paper by Sussex in Plant Cell vol. 20.

The CEO of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Robert Zeigler, gave the last of the three diverse opening lectures. He gave an overview of the food security challenge, but with an understandable focus on rice and the work of IRRI. Rice is the staple food for 50% of the global population, but of a staggering 70% of people living in poverty worldwide. Zeigler presented an impressive and typical case study demonstrating the objectives of IRRI: submergence-tolerant rice. Using an integrated research approach, including soil scientists, genetics, and physiology, IRRI scientists bred ‘scuba rice’ and tested it in 2009.

A theme that ran through these three talks was perseverance and the importance of seeing the long view. Ainsworth is part of a long-running research programme that she joined as a post-grad student, and no doubt in the next few years, her ozone-tolerant soybean will be having a big impact. Sussex’s history of plant biology, in which he highlighted the decades before the Arabidopsis genomics revolution in the 1970s as a dry spell for cell and molecular plant science reminded us that modern plant scientists are part of a long tradition of strong community and modernisation. Zeigler summed it up when anticipating a second Green Revolution: “You can do what people say can’t be done.”

Biology by design

Categories: synthetic biology
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Published on: July 11, 2013

 

At the moment I’m reading a lot about synthetic biology (GARNet report and paper to come in the next few months) and it’s all technical stuff – genome assembly, online resources, transformation methodologies. Synthetic biology is the application of engineering principles to biology, so it’s natural that the technical challenges and ingenious solutions take centre stage.

But engineering isn’t all about building things that work. It’s also about the way things look. How much do synthetic biologists consider the aesthetics of their product? Do they need to?

In May, Daisy Ginsberg gave a talk at Warwick and argued strongly that aesthetics are a crucial part of synthetic biology. She is an artist and designer who works with scientists, including iGEM teams, to develop design principles in scientific research.

I think the idea of bringing art and science together to create beautiful, functional plant products is exciting in itself, and certainly another perspective to consider when planning a plant synthetic biology project. But a great aesthetic experience will also be very important when it comes to marketing and selling synthetic biology products, which is the ultimate goal for synthetic biology investors, and many scientists too.

Have a look at Synthetic Aesthetics, a joint project including scientists and artists run by the University of Edinburgh and Stanford University, in you are interested in aesthetics and design in synthetic biology. This recent article by Daisy on the ‘pre-future’ of synthetic biology is worth a read too.

The next time I blog it will be from Plant Biology 2013 – if you’re going, I hope to see you there!

Image credit: ‘Growth Assembly‘ by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sascha Pohflepp, illustration by Sion Ap Tomos.

What isn’t plant science?

Categories: synthetic biology
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Published on: July 5, 2013
Carboxymethylated nanocellulose adsorbed on a silica surface.

When does plant science stop being plant science? Here at Warwick, the Warwick Manufacturing Group made a nano-cellulose steering wheel with raw material from carrots. It resides in the Science Museum as part of the Nano-Cellulose exhibition, which features a car made entirely of biomaterials. The raw material was plant biomass, yet the scientists and engineers who work with it are not ‘plant scientists’.

This is just one of a lot of articles I’ve seen about nano-cellulose, a super-strong and light material which is conductive and absorbent too, so it has the potential to be used for pretty much everything. It is made from renewable raw material from plant or algal biomass. It sounds like a boon for plant science, a great plant synthetic biology product – but it is definitely a materials science baby.

Of course there are differences between developing super-materials from plant biomass and what we usually think of as ‘plant science’. Plant scientists aim to understand and/or improve plants and plant products, while materials scientists see plant biomass as a raw material to be worked with, not on.

Plant scientists should not let this difference stop them seizing the opportunities presented by increasing interest in nano-cellulose and other biomaterials. Now more than ever we can highlight the absolute dependence of humanity on plants, and promote the importance of plant science funding for improved crop production for food, energy, and materials. It is also the ideal time to start building and strengthening interdisciplinary connections.

Something I’ve noticed recently is a feeling among the plant science community that there is a need for more interdisciplinary networking and collaboration opportunities. Plant science is already crucial for agricultural innovations, and even here there are only a few opportunities for bench scientists and agriculturalists to talk to each other. Plant science can make a difference to biomaterials production, but first new connections need to be forged between two very different groups of researchers.

As with any supply chain, it is important that relevant groups are able to communicate their needs and capabilities to each other. If this were possible, it would improve the economic and environmental sustainability of biomaterial production.

Does anyone have any experience of working, however distantly, with a biomaterials group? I’d be interested to find out!

Image credit: Innventia, via Wikimedia Commons.

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