Plant synthetic biology takes centre stage

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Published on: October 27, 2014

On Monday and Tuesday last week I was at the Marriott Heathrow for the Global Engage Synthetic Biology Congress. Plant synthetic biology had a dedicated track, and while this meant I regretted missing some talks in the other sessions, it did enable me to be suitably impressed at the quality of plant synthetic biology research, mostly coming from the UK and Europe, and its exciting range of applications.

Plant synthetic biology at Global Engage

A highlight for me was Matias Zurbriggen’s excellent presentation on using plant signalling pathways to remotely control mammalian cells. His objective is to understand plant pathways by reconstructing them in other systems, and via research on phytochromes he has developed a tool to remotely control gene expression in mammalian cells (1) and a light-controlled switch for plant cells (2).

Birger Lindberg Møller gave an interesting and accessible talk about plant synthetic biology for high value product (HVP) synthesis. Whatever your level of expertise, if you’re interested in this area I recommend you watch this earlier version of his talk.

Continuing the HVP theme were Brian King, Vincent Martin and plenary speaker Jules Beekwilder. They all aim to make HVPs using simple chassis instead of relatively energy-intensive, and often inefficient, plants. (more…)

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!

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…)

SpotOn London 2012 in brief

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Published on: November 15, 2012

This weekend, Ruth and I were in London for SpotOn London 2012 at the Wellcome Trust. There were too many incredible sessions to attend, let alone to cover on this little blog – but all the talks were recorded and you can see them on the SpotOn youtube channel. There will be Storifies aplenty before the end of the week, which I will tweet if they cross my path.

I plan to write at least one ‘proper’ post about the sessions I attended, but for now here are some brief summaries of the topics most discussed in the sessions I attended at SpotOn 2012.

Open data: All the speakers and delegates assumed that everyone else understood and supported open access publishing. What was more interesting was the discussions of other issues in open science – digital licensing, openness in peer review, accessibility of raw data. A longer blog post on this is forthcoming, but I recommend Ross Mounce’s blog, in particular this post on price and ‘openness’ in open access journals, for more information about open science.

Crowd-funding: Around the fringes of publically funded science are small projects supported by funds raised by the researchers. Crowd-funded science is very much in the minority, but in the UK the University of Buckingham has survived for over thirty years without government support, including research programmes. For crowd-funding, excellent marketing and PR are crucial. If you have a public-good, sexy, relatively low-cost research project in your to-do list, and you have a flair for public relations and promotion, it is worth considering. You also need to be able to reward donations in some small way. Check out crowd-funded projects by Matthew Partridge (Cranfield University) and Ethan Perstein (Princeton) to find out more, or donate to their projects. Kickstarter is the best platform to raise your funds.

(more…)

FESPB-EPSO Plant Congress 2012

Ruth Bastow has put together an excellent Storify on the recent Plant Biology Congress in Freiburg. Here are just a few snippets from the first two days – go to the Storify for the complete story, including insights from diverse speakers like Professor Richard Dixon, farmer Helmut Bonn, and Joachim Schneider from Bayer.

(more…)

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