GARNet goes global with the Global Plant Council

If you follow me on Twitter (@GARNetweets) then you’ll know that I’ve been out of the office quite a lot recently, attending a variety of conferences.

Charis has already blogged about our trip to Manchester for the Society of Experimental Biology conference a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve also been helping out our colleague Ruth Bastow at some conferences further afield.

The Global Plant CouncilAs well as being GARNet’s part-time co-ordinator, Ruth is also Executive Director for the Global Plant Council (GPC) – a coalition of global crop and plant science societies that aims to connect the wealth of knowledge and expertise from around the world to help find solutions to global plant science challenges.

The GPC is focusing on three priority initiatives: firstly the creation of a Digital Seed Bank, which aims to capture and exploit the wealth of diversity in crop collections around the globe. The Digital Seed Bank is part of larger project; the Diversity Seek Initiative (DivSeek), whose mission is to unlock the potential of crop diversity stored in genebanks around the world and make it available to all so that it can enhance the productivity, sustainability and resilience of crops and agricultural systems.

This is an ambitious project and will need to tackle problems such as how to tag or assign a DOI to genetic resources, just as you can to a journal paper. If this can be done, scientists will be able to trace published work or data back to a single seed, accession or group, and know where they can find and access that germplasm to cross-reference and compare data. A grand aspiration, but aim high and you never know what you might achieve!

GPC is also working to join up global research and policy in the areas of biofortification and stress resilience. There are many scientists across the globe working on the improvement of crops, whether by traditional or marker assisted breeding, or using GM or synthetic biology technologies – wouldn’t it be great if we could facilitate better global collaborations on these projects?

The Convention Centre Dublin, or The Coke Can, to its friends!
The Convention Centre Dublin, or The Coke Can, to its friends!

The GPC is made up of (at present) 28 member organisations, including some big players such as the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO), the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) and our own UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF).

As members of these societies, many researchers are also members of the GPC by default – whether they realise it or not! To help spread the word to these organisation’s members, I’ve been helping Ruth to man (woman?) an exhibition booth.

So first we flew off to Dublin and attended EPSO’s Plant Biology Europe 2014 conference (23–26th June). This was held at the Convention Centre Dublin in Ireland (known locally, I’m reliably informed, as the ‘Coke Can’!).

Delegates at the EPSO conference came from all over the world
Delegates at the EPSO conference came from all over the world

Our booth was well attended and generated lots of interest from not just European plant scientists as you might expect, but also the global community. Rather than just collecting email addresses in a list, we collected business cards, or got people to fill in a GPC card, and pinned them to a world map so we could see exactly how ‘global’ the GPC’s reach is – I was surprised to meet delegates in Dublin from as far afield as Africa, Australia and New Zealand!

As well as working on the booth, we also had the opportunity to hear some great talks, including a public evening lecture given by Charles Godfray from Oxford University. Charles put a population biologist’s twist on ‘The Challenge of Global Food Security”; lamenting our ‘Malthusian pessimism’ about the need to feed 10 billion people by 2050 and resistance to technologies that might allow us to do this, Godfray said that failure is not an option – “If we fail to have food security, everything will fail,” he said. A sobering thought!

Portland is known for being a bit on the "alternative" side
Portland is known for being a bit on the “alternative” side

After Dublin, and a week in Manchester at SEB, I was back on the plane again; this time heading to Portland in Oregon in the US’s pacific northwest. After a few days’ holiday exploring this very cool ‘hipster’ city and sampling the infamous Voodoo Donuts, Ruth and I set up our GPC booth, this time at the Oregon Convention Centre for the ASPB Plant Biology 2014 conference.

As you can see from the map we generated this time, it was a different demographic who visited the booth; mostly researchers from the US, Canada and western Europe, although we did speak to a few people from Asia and Latin America too. The GPC’s giveaway pens went down a treat here and I came home with only one left!

Our Global Plant Council map at the ASPB conference
Our Global Plant Council map at the ASPB conference

Again, I found some time between exhibit sessions to attend a few talks, and was particularly impressed by journalist/food writer Nathanael Johnson, winner of the ASPB award for Leadership in Science. He spoke about the challenge of communicating science to the public, arguing “facts are not enough”. The big issues in science, he said, are simply too big and too complex for people to grasp, so instead they will grasp at small pieces of information they can understand – and this is often how things like the anti-vaccination movement, or anti-GM campaigners get started. Building trust between scientists, industry and the public is of huge importance, because simply giving people piles of ‘evidence’ has no impact a) if people do not understand it, and b) if there is an assumption that it is inaccurate or they are being misled.

Ruth in the Booth
Ruth in the Booth

So now I’m back in the GARNet office (though the weather here in Coventry is just as hot as it was in Portland!) but only for a week. This weekend the whole GARNet team is off to Vancouver for the International Conference on Arabidopsis Research (ICAR), so stay tuned for more blog posts and tweets from Canada!

Perseverance and community: The opening session of Plant Biology 2013

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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.”

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