SEB 2014: The future is bright in the Plant Section

Categories: conferences
Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: July 1, 2014

Lisa and I are at the Society of Experimental Biology’s 2014 (SEB 2014) conference this week. The highlight so far was the first session, when the Plant Section gathered for talks from their President’s Medallist Cristobal Uauy and three Young Scientist Award Finalists: Beth Dyson, Caroline Upton, Stephanie Johnson.

Cristobal Uauy spoke first about his career and work on wheat genetics. He was frank about the difficulties of working with wheat, but said, “I’m not going to complain about how difficult it is to work on wheat, and blah blah blah … because actually it’s getting much better.”

This optimism was sustained throughout Cristobal’s talk. He aims to improve yield in wheat, and has found a trait that increases grain width by what looks like a tiny amount – but the difference adds up very quickly. Over 20 grains, you gain the equivalent of one whole grain. Scaled up to a field, this trait would give an extra 700 loaves of bread. This is certainly something to be proud of, yet Cristobal is excited about increasing this 5% difference to 20% or 30%. His current trait is the result of a mutation on just one copy of the gene – he hopes to find and modify its homologues on the other ancient genomes that make up the huge modern wheat genome.

Cristobal is keen to promote crop research. He pointed out that Arabidopsis dwarfs all other plant species at SEB meetings, yet the current focus on food security in the plant science community necessitates breakthroughs in crop science. At GARNet obviously we have Views on this, but as Cristobal said at the beginning of his talk, “A huge number of people all over the world eat wheat – so anything we can do to improve wheat will have a huge impact.”

Cristobal is a member of the SEB Plant Section Committee, and has started a new sub-group within the Plant Section entitled Crop Molecular Genetics. If you’re interested in getting involved, I’m sure he’d love to speak to you.

The Young Scientist Award Finalists also gave inspiring talks:

  • Beth Dyson measured metabolite, amino acid and organic acid levels in Arabidopsis plants grown in optimum and cold conditions. She has identified key mechanisms that enable photosynthesis to respond to low temperatures.
  • Caroline Upton’s research on barley roots is laying the groundwork in transparent soil methodology. She finds it far easier to analyse images from roots grown in transparent soil than the CT images she initially had to work with.
  • Stephanie Johnson outlined her PhD project on the molecular mechanisms that gives Stay-Green Sorghum its desirable trait. She spent 3 months with experts at the University of Queensland generating transgenic sorghum and is now waiting to confirm the hypothesis developed from her early models.

The President’s Medal and the Young Scientist Awards are both intended to reward and encourage early career excellence and the speakers were all worthy of this recognition. The UK plant sciences community rightly speaks out regularly about funding cuts and skills gaps, but this morning’s session was a refreshing celebration of the talent our community produces and nurtures.

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