Perseverance and community: The opening session of Plant Biology 2013

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Published on: July 21, 2013

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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.”

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