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!

How many ways can you measure a plant?

Categories: GARNet, guest blogger, methods
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Published on: January 8, 2013

In December, Ruth gave a talk at the Julich Plant Phenotyping Centre – here she explains what’s going on in plant phenotyping at the moment. 

Recently I had the opportunity to visit and talk at the Julich Plant Phenotyping Centre in Germany and see the wealth of tools and technologies that the centre has available to measure and analyse plant growth and development in a non invasive manner. By using a range of sensors and computer vision tools for quantifying plant traits the centre aims to help overcome the current bottleneck in effectively linking genotype to phenotype.

As a mere amateur in this field, I used CCD cameras during my Ph.D to monitor circadian rhythms and during my post-docs I just counted leaves to determine flowering time. I was amazed by the depth and breadth of analysis that can now be carried out, and on such a large scale.

For example their purpose built automated Rhizo screen enables researchers to non-invasively obtain quantitative measurements of root architectures of plants grown in soil in 2D as well as evaluating shoot area. Whilst a variety of spectral and optical imaging systems sensitive to a wide range of wavelengths provide a plethora information from chlorophyll fluorescence, water content, lignin and cellulose composition to growth dynamics via leaf area. The centre also has a NMR, MRI and PET setup to visualize the inner structure of plant organs and tissue and transport of substances such as CO2. (Fiorani et al. Imaging plants dynamics in heterogenic environments. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 23: 227-235).

Julich is just one of a number of phenotyping centres that are being established all over Europe, including the UK centre at Aberystwyth. The major European centres have been linked together in the European Plant Phenotyping Network (EPPN). This network offers access to 23 different plant phenotpying facilities spread across the EU. So if you haven’t experienced the power of phenomics yet this might be one way to dip your toe in phenotyping water!

From bench to bountiful harvest … MASC roadmap summarised in current Plant Cell Paper

Highlighted article: Lavagi I., Estelle M., Weckwerth W., Beynon J., and Bastow R. (2012) From Bench to Bountiful Harvests: A Road Map for the Next Decade of Arabidopsis Research. Plant Cell Advance Online Publication.

The Multinational Arabidopsis Steering Committee (MASC), as you might expect from their title, is an international group of Arabidopsis researchers who steer research in a productive direction. MASC reduces redundancy in research and encourages collaborations.  Over the last 20 years, MASC has neatly guided the Arabidopsis community to achievements in genome sequencing, understanding of plant hormones, development of open access bioinformatics resources and much more. Now MASC has planned a roadmap for the next ten years of Arabidopsis research entitled From Bench to Bountiful Harvest.

The roadmap consists of five broad objectives: (more…)

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