The first in our series of Celebrating Basic Plant Science articles comes from Siobhan Braybrook, a Career Development Fellow at the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. She explains her work on plant development and discusses why she thinks basic plant science is value for money.
How do we measure the importance of scientific works? Do we require immediate applications? Do we simply need to know? Both basic and applied science are important and vital for our sociological and scientific progress, but we tend to measure their impact with a very immediate and short ruler, one which is biased towards applied outcomes. Basic science is concerned with knowledge for knowledge’s sake, the desire to know. Applied science is directed towards a specific problem and it’s solution. Here, I propose that is impossible to anticipate the value of a basic scientific work beyond its immediate context, and that attempting to do so might just force us to narrow our field of imagination and innovation.
My group focuses on a basic scientific question- we would like to know how plants grow shapes. Our research definitely falls into the category of basic science as we pursue the answer to this question, not with a specific application in mind, but with a simple desire to know. But that does not mean that we don’t find applied directions during our pursuits.
Plant cells are pretty special to me because they exist in a box; the plant cell wall contains all of the other cell contents, allowing the cell to attain high pressures and also being the regulator of cell shape. We use biology, genetics, biochemistry, and materials science to understand how the cell wall controls cell, organ, and whole plant shape. As an example, we have shown with collaborators in France that new organ formation strictly requires a particular change in the cell wall, altered pectin chemistry. It was surprising that something as simple as pectin, the same thing used to make jellies set, was able to control whole plant shape by limiting new organ growth. These experiments have directed us to look at other growth processes that might be controlled, in part, by pectins in the cell wall.
From a basic science standpoint, our findings were very satisfying- we had found out something new and interesting. But they have also led us down some less familiar paths, into the realm of applied science. Can we take what we have learned about a biological material, the cell wall, and design man-made materials that also have the potential to grow? Could we one day place a small block of material on the ground and have it grow into a house? A car? Alternatively, if we understand how the cell wall controls growth, could we plant a seed that grows into a house frame? A chair? It is unlikely that any company would touch this idea without a very, very, very long pole at this time. It is too speculative, maybe even too crazy. But within the realm of basic science, we can continue to chip away at the possibility- with a freedom that does not require a final product right away, a freedom that allows us to grow our ideas along side our plants.
In closing, it is probably highly simplistic to separate basic and applied science. There is cross talk between the two, research projects that exist in a continuum, and research questions that are entangled. However, there are some very special things about basic science: you don’t need to know exactly where you are going in order to end up somewhere cool; you can explore things for the sake of knowledge which gives a lot of freedom; and sometimes you find out unexpected things that end up having massive applied impacts that you might never have anticipated. It is essential that we create a place for such scientific freedoms, that we don’t assume which pursuits have value before they have been investigated, and that we allow for the possibility of novel discoveries.
You can read Siobhan Braybrook’s research about pectin and new organ formation in Braybrook and Peaucelle 2013, PLoS ONE 8(3): e57813 and Peaucelle et al. 2001, Curr. Biol. 21:1720.
Image credit: Screwtape via Flickr