Plantwise – promoting and supporting plant health for the Sustainable Development Goals

Andrea Powell

Andrea Powell, CABI

Promoting and supporting plant health will be an important part of how we achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Andrea Powell, Chief Information Officer of the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) looks at how the CABI-led Plantwise programme is helping to make a difference.

By Andrea Powell

 

On 26th and 27th July 2016, CABI held its 19th Review Conference. This important milestone in the CABI calendar saw our 48 member countries come together to agree a new medium-term strategy. As always, plant health was a key focus to our discussions, cutting across many of CABI’s objectives. For CABI, with 100 years of experience working in plant health, it has become one of our most important issues, upon which our flagship food security program, Plantwise, has been built.

Plant health can, quite simply, change the lives and livelihoods of millions of people living in rural communities, like smallholder farmers. Human and animal health make headlines, while plant health often falls under the radar, yet, it is crucial to tackling serious global challenges like food security. Promoting and supporting plant health will be an important way to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Plant health and the SDGs

Take, for example, SDG 1, which calls for ‘no poverty’. The UN states that one in five people in developing regions still lives on less than $1.25 a day. We know that many of these people are smallholder farmers. By breaking down the barriers to accessing plant health knowledge, millions of people in rural communities can learn how to grow produce to sell to profitable domestic, regional and international markets.

Plantwise ReportSDG 2 focuses on achieving ‘zero hunger’. Almost one billion people go hungry and are left malnourished every day – and many are children. Subsistence farmers, who grow food for their families to eat, can be left with nothing when their crops fail. Access to plant health knowledge can help prevent devastating crop losses and put food on the table.

Interestingly, SDG 17 considers ‘partnerships for the goals’ and is critical to the way in which we can harness and share plant health knowledge more widely to help address issues like hunger and poverty. By themselves, individual organizations cannot easily resolve the complicated and interconnected challenges the world faces today. This is why partnership is at the heart of CABI’s flagship plant health programme: Plantwise.

What is Plantwise?

Plantwise Report 2015

Since its launch in 2011, the goal of Plantwise has been to deliver plant health knowledge to smallholder farmers, ensuring they lose less of what they grow. This, in turn, provides food for their families and improves living conditions in rural communities. Plantwise provides support to governments, helping to make national plant health systems more effective for the farmers who depend on them. Already, Plantwise has reached nearly five million farmers. With additional funding, and by developing new partnerships, we aim to bring relevant plant health information to 30 million farmers by 2020, safeguarding food security for generations to come.

Plantwise ‘plant clinics’ are an important part of the fight against crop losses. Established in much the same way as clinics for human health, farmers visit the clinics with samples of their sick crops. Plant doctors diagnose the problem, making science-based recommendations on ways to manage it. The clinics are owned and operated by over 200 national partner organizations in over 30 countries. At the end of 2015, nearly five thousand plant doctors had been trained.

Plantwise

A Plantwise plant clinic in action. Credit: Plantwise

Harnessing technology for plant health

The Plantwise Knowledge Bank reinforces the plant clinics. Available in over 80 languages, it is an online and offline gateway to plant health information, providing the plant doctors with actionable information. It also collects data about the farmers, their crops and plant health problems. This enables in-country partner organizations to monitor the quality of plant doctor recommendations; to identify new plant health problems – often emerging due to trade or climate change issues; and develop new best-practice guidelines for managing crop losses.

Plantwise

The first ever e-plant clinic, held in Embu Market, Kenya. Credit: Plantwise

The Plantwise flow of information improves knowledge and helps the users involved: farmers can receive crop management advice, and researchers and governments can access data from the field. With a new strategy for 2017–19 agreed, CABI will continue to focus on building strong plant health systems. We are certain that plant health is of central importance to achieving the SDGs and, together in partnership, we look forward to growing the Plantwise program and making a concrete difference to the lives of smallholder farmers.

“A few years ago, I would make ZMW 5000 per year. Last year I got 15 000. I have never missed any plant clinic session. I’ve been very committed, very faithful, because I have seen the benefits.”––Kenny Mwansa, Farmer, Rufunsa District, Zambia.

Take a look at Plantwise in action in Zambia (YouTube):

Plantwise in Zambia

Meet Linda, a Zambian plant doctor

Meet Kenny, a Zambian farmer

 

Learn more about Plantwise at www.plantwise.org.

Uncovering the secrets of ancient barley

This week we speak to Dr Nils Stein, Group Leader of the Genomics of Genetic Resources group at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK). We discuss his recent work on the genomes of 6000-year-old cultivated barley grains, published in Nature Genetics, which made the headlines around the world.

Nils Stein

Dr Nils Stein, Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK)

Could you describe your work with the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK)?

The major research focuses of my group, the Genomics of Genetic Resources, are to continue sequencing the genomes of barley and wheat, perform comparative genomics on the Triticeae tribe, isolate genes of agronomic interest, and investigate the genomics of wild barley relatives.

We are currently leading the work to generate the barley reference genome, and we are also partners in several wheat genome sequencing projects. We are genotyping-by-sequencing (GBS) all 20 000 barley accessions in the IPK Genebank, as well as 10 000 pepper accessions as part of a Horizon 2020 project (G2P-SOL) investigating the Solanaceae crop species.
Your recent collaborative paper on the genomic analysis of 6,000-year-old barley grains made headlines around the world. What did this study involve?

This was an interdisciplinary study to sequence the DNA of 6000-year-old barley grains. The grains were excavated by a team of Israeli archaeologists and archaeobotanists led by Prof. Ehud Weiss, Bar-Ilan University, the DNA was extracted and sequenced by ancient DNA specialists Prof. Johannes Krause and Dr. Verena Schünemann in Germany, and the data were analyzed by Dr. Martin Mascher in the context of our comprehensive barley genome diversity information. This allowed the resulting sequence information to be put into a population genetic and ecogeographic context.

Ancient barley

Preserved remains of rope, seeds, reeds and pellets (left), and a desiccated barley grain (right) found at Yoram Cave in the Judean Desert. Credit: Uri Davidovich and Ehud Weiss.

What led you to the realization that barley domestication occurred very early in our agricultural history?

The genome of the analyzed ancient samples was highly conserved with extant barley landraces of the Levant region, which look very similar to today’s high-yielding barley varieties. Although suggestive and tendentious, this told us that the barley crop 6000 years ago looked very similar to extant material. The physical appearance and the archaeobotanical characters of the analyzed seeds also very much resembled modern barley.

 

These barley grains contain the oldest plant genomes reconstructed to date. Did you find any differences between the samples that might give us an insight into the traits that were first selected in the early domestication of the crop?

We have only scratched the surface so far. The major domestication genes controlling dehiscence, brittleness or row-type of the main inflorescence had the same alleles in the ancient samples that are found in extant barley, confirming that these traits were selected for early in domestication. Additional analyses on other genes controlling different traits in barley are still ongoing – bear in mind that many of the genes controlling major traits in barley are still unknown, which complicates the selection of targets for analysis.

Modern barley

Modern barley cultivar. Credit: Christian Scheja. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

 Do these grains have any genetic variation that we lack at key loci in modern barley lines, for example in stress or disease resistance?

This is matter of ongoing analysis. So far it is obvious that the most genetically similar extant landraces from the Levant region have accumulated natural mutations over the last 6000 years, resulting in additional variation that we don’t find in the ancient sample.

 

What can we expect from the barley genome projects in the future?

The International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium is preparing a manuscript on the reference sequence of barley. This will allow further analysis of the ancient DNA data with a more complete, genome-wide view, including the consideration of a more complete gene set than has been available so far. Our Israeli collaborators (Professor Ehud Weiss and Professor Tzion Fahima) have more ancient samples of similar quality. We hope we will be able to generate a more comprehensive view of the ancient population genomics of barley in the future, to better address the question of novel ancient alleles and lost genetic diversity.

The Barley Pan-Genome analysis will soon give us a better understanding of the structural variation in the barley genome. Putting the ancient DNA information into this more comprehensive genomic context will be very exciting. We also hope to be able to compare a variety of ancient samples of different ages to more precisely date the event of barley domestication.


You can read the paper here: Genomic analysis of 6000-year-old cultivated grain illuminates the domestication history of barley ($).

Professor Stefan Jansson on what makes a GMO, and the Scandinavian Plant Physiology Society

This week we speak to Professor Stefan Jansson, Umeå University, Sweden, who is the President of one of the Global Plant Council member organizations, the Scandinavian Plant Physiology Society (SPPS). He tells us more about his fascinating work, his prominent role in the GM debate, and his thoughts on the work of the SPPS and GPC, both now and in the future.

Stefan_Jansson

Could you tell us a little about your areas of research interest?

I have worked on (too) many things within plant science, but now I am focused on two subjects: “How do trees know that it is autumn?”, and “How can spruce needles stay green in the winter?” We use several approaches to answer these questions, including genetics, genomics, bioinformatics, biochemistry and biophysics.

 

Your ground-breaking work on CRISPR led to you being awarded the Forest Biotechnologist of the Year award by the Institute of Forest Biosciences. Could you tell us more about this work, and the role you have played in the GM debate?

In our work on photosynthetic light harvesting, we have generated and/or analyzed different lines lacking an important regulatory protein; PsbS. PsbS mutants resulting from treatment with radiation or chemical mutagens can be grown anywhere without restriction, but those that are genetically modified by the insertion of disrupting ‘T-DNA’ are, in reality, forbidden to be grown. For years, I, and many other scientists, have pointed out that it does not make sense for plants with the same properties to be treated so differently by legislators. In science we treat such plants as equivalents; when we publish our results we could be required to confirm that the correct gene was investigated by using an additional T-DNA gene knock-out line or an RNAi plant (RNA interference, where inserted RNA blocks the production of a particular protein), but in the legislation they and the ‘traditionally mutated’ plants are opposites.

This has been the situation for many years, but it has been impossible to change. To challenge this, we set up an experiment using a targeted gene-editing approach called CRISPR/Cas9 to make a deletion in the PsbS gene, which resulted in a plant with a non-functional PsbS gene but no residual T-DNA. We asked the Swedish competent authority if this would be treated as a GM plant or not, arguing that it is impossible to know if it is a ‘traditional’ deletion mutant or a gene-edited mutant. In the end, the authority said that, according to their interpretation of the law, this cannot be treated as a GMO.

If this interpretation is also used in other countries, plant breeders will have access to gene-editing techniques to aid them in their work to generate new varieties, which would otherwise not be a possibility. The reason we did this was to provide the authorities with a concrete case, and one which was not linked to a company or commercial crop but rather something that everyone would realize could only be important for basic science. Therefore most of the arguments that are used against GMOs could not be used, and this should be a step forward in the debate.

 

Check out Stefan’s fantastic TEDxUmeå talk to hear more on the GM debate:

spps_logoYou are the President of the Scandinavian Plant Physiology Society, one of the Global Plant Council member organizations. Could you briefly outline the work of the SPPS?

We support plant scientists – not only plant physiologists – in the Nordic countries, organize meetings, publish a journal (Physiologia Plantarum), etc.

 

What are the most important benefits that SPPS members receive?

This is an issue that we discuss a lot in the society right now. Only a limited fraction of Nordic plant scientists are members – obviously are the benefits not large enough – and this is something that we intend to change in the coming years. We think, for example, that we need to be a better platform for networking between researchers and research centers, and have a lot of ideas that we would like to implement.

 

How does the GPC benefit the SPPS?

Although there are country- and region-specific issues important for plant scientists, the biggest issues are global. The arguments why we need plant science are basically the same whether you are a plant scientist in Umeå or Ouagadougou, therefore we all benefit from a global plant organization.

 

What do you see as important roles for the future of the GPC, both for SPPS and the wider community?

This is quite clear to me: we will contribute to saving the planet.

 

What advice would you give to early career researchers in plant science?

Your curiosity is your biggest asset, so take good care of it.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The challenge for the GPC is clearly to get enough resources to be able to fulfil its very worthwhile ambitions. GPC has made a good start: the vision is clear and the roadmap is there, which are two prerequisites, but additional resources are needed to employ people to realize these ambitions, build upon current successes, and perform the important activities. It is easy to say that if we all contribute with a small fraction of our time that would be sufficient, but we all have may other obligations and commitments, and a few dedicated people are needed in all organizations.

Interview with Laura Lagomarsino, winner of the Ernst Mayr award at Evolution 2016

This week’s post is reproduced with permission from the New Phytologist blog.

Written by Mike Whitfield

 

During Evolution 2016, I spoke to Laura LagomarsinoNew Phytologist author and one of the winners of the Ernst Mayr Award. Awarded each year by the Society of Systematic Biologists, the Ernst Mayr Award celebrates the quality and creativity of the research conducted by a PhD student in the field of systematic biology. Read more about Laura’s research career and the Ernst Mayr Award in the interview below.

 

Hi Laura, please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your career

I am an evolutionary biologist and botanist who studies the evolution and systematics of Neotropical bellflowers in the family Campanulaceae, and the Andean flora more broadly. I am currently an NSF postdoctoral fellow. I spend most my time at the Missouri Botanical Garden and University of Missouri- St. Louis, but am also affiliated with the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Before that, I finished my Ph.D. at Harvard University, and next year I will begin my own lab as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University.

 

Burmeistera_Panama

Image courtesy of Laura Lagomarsino

Tell me a bit more about the Ernst Mayr Award

The Ernst Mayr Award is given by the Society of Systematic Biologists to graduate students and recent grads for the creativity and breadth of their doctoral research, as presented in a talk at the annual Evolution conference. This year there were two awardees: Michael Landis and myself. It’s an immense honour to receive the award, and it is one of the more important, humbling events of my professional life to date. Much of the research I presented was recently published in New Phytologist.

 

What inspired your interest in plant science?

I grew up camping in the redwood forests of northern California every summer. Being surrounded by such extraordinary plants — the tallest trees in the world — really jumpstarted my interest in the natural world. My very specific interest in Neotropical plant diversity was cultivated when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, studying heliconias, a group of very colourful hummingbird pollinated plants that I fell in love with immediately. Since then I haven’t turned away from trying to understand relationships between species in large evolutionary radiations in Latin America.

 

What are the current hot topics and big questions in your field?

Phylogenetics is making huge strides in methodology right now. I’d say improved phylogenetic inference, especially via methods that incorporate gene tree-species tree incongruence on genomic-scale datasets, combined with advances in molecular dating are rapidly pushing the field forward. These methods and others coming on board increasingly allow us to really tackle the large questions in a more thorough, explicit manner than previously possible. These large questions are what motivate my own empirical research: What explains global biodiversity patterns, and, in particular, why are the Andes home to a disproportionately large number of species? Why are some groups (such as Neotropical bellflowers) so morphologically and ecologically diverse, while others seem to not vary nearly as much?

 

Sipho_retorsus_CDB241__COL_4141

Image courtesy of Laura Lagomarsino

How do you think your research benefits society?

As a systematist, I both describe new biodiversity via species description and attempt to explain biodiversity patterns. My research focuses on the tropical Andes, one of the world’s richest biodiversity hotspots, but also one of the most threatened by climate change and deforestation. In addition to uncovering basic information about poorly studied species, I hope that my research will provide insights in how to best protect this stunning biodiversity for generations to come. It helps that the group of plants that I study is attractive and has such charismatic pollinators (hummingbirds and nectar bats); it makes it that much easier to communicate my research to the general public.

 

Who (scientist or not) do you see as your role model(s)?

I was incredibly lucky to conduct undergraduate research with Dr. Chelsea Specht at UC Berkeley. Chelsea was a great mentor then — providing me with the tools necessary to independently conduct research and helping me apply to fellowships, grants, and eventually graduate school — and she continues to be a great mentor and role model today. I hope that I can remain as enthusiastic about my research and generate as many well-trained, passionate scientists as she has.

 

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

I love working in herbaria, where I can be transported to any part of the world by opening a cabinet and catching a glimpse of the flora of some faraway country in an herbarium specimen. There’s so much botanical diversity that most people, even many plant biologists, are unaware of — and it’s all at my fingertips in these collections! After years studying plant diversity, it’s so rewarding to see a plant, whether a specimen, a photo, or in real life, and think, “Hey, I know you!”

 

… and your least favourite?

It’s perhaps a cliché response, but it can be so challenging to put work aside as an early career scientist. There is the guilt when I shut down my laptop for the evening that I could have worked one more hour, or that I need to work weekends after returning from vacation. I’m not sure there’s an easy way to get around these feelings, but I do my best to regularly carve out unplugged time.

 

What advice would you give to early career researchers?

Be prepared for things to change quickly! It’s hard to predict where you’re going to be in a year until you land a permanent job. It’s also important to maintain your professional relationships with current and previous advisors and collaborators; they can provide insights into your next steps based on what they know about you and from their own hard-earned experiences. But of course, also continue to forge friendships with peers: it’s so important to have a wide social net as you manoeuvre this often-scary, but also very exciting career stage.

 

Aside from science, what other passions do you have?

I love traveling frequently with my husband, whether we’re visiting his family in Costa Rica, getting to know the Midwest a little better, or hopping on a plane to somewhere further afield. We are both botanists, so wherever we go, our hand lenses and portable plant press come along. But most calm weekends at home involve lots of cooking and baking, maybe a good Netflix binge, and at least one puzzle (usually jigsaw or crossword).

SantaTeresa_Peru

Image courtesy of Laura Lagomarsino

 

Follow Laura on Twitter: @lagomarsino_l.

Watch a video of the award presentation at Evolution 2016 here.

Read Laura’s recent New Phytologist paper, ‘The abiotic and biotic drivers of rapid diversification in Andean bellflowers (Campanulaceae)‘ and its associated Commentary by Colin E. Hughes: ‘The tropical Andean plant diversity powerhouse‘.

 

This article was originally posted on the New Phytologist blog. This material was republished with permission.

A postcard from the Spanish Society of Plant Physiology

SEFV logoThe Spanish Society of Plant Physiology (Sociedad Española de Fisiología Vegetal; SEFV) is a society for scientific professionals with an interest in how plant organs, tissues, cells, organelles, genes, and molecules function, not only individually but also through their interaction with the natural environment.

The society was founded in 1974, and currently has approximately 600 members distributed across the seven groups that constitute the SEFV, namely; Phytohormones, Maturation and Postharvest, Carbohydrates, Nitrogen Metabolism, Water Relations, Mineral Nutrition, and Biotechnology and Forestry Genomics.

One of the main objectives of the society is to organize meetings, which are held every two years in collaboration with fellow GPC Member Organization, the Portuguese Society of Plant Physiology (Sociedade Portuguesa de Fisiologia Vegetal; SPFV). In the alternate years between SEFV conferences, the different SEFV groups hold individual biannual meetings.

SEFV 2015 Biannual Meeting

XXI Reunión de la Sociedad Española de Fisiología Vegetal/ XIV Congreso Hispano-Luso de Fisiología Vegetal. Photograph from the combined biannual meeting of the SEFV and SPFV held in Toledo, Spain in 2015

 

Each week the SEFV distributes a newsletter to its members containing information on courses, conference announcements around the world, jobs, student scholarship opportunities, and some current news. Twice a year the SEFV issues a bulletin that comprises a scientific review, interviews with leading figures in plant physiology, information on different research groups, abstracts of doctoral theses presented in the last 6 months, as well as news on science policy.

The SEFV is a member of the Scientific Societies Confederation of Spain (Confederacíon de Sociedades Científica de España; COSCE), which aims to contribute to scientific and technological development, act as a qualified and unified interlocutor to represent government in matters affecting science, promote the role of science in society, and contribute to the dissemination of science as a necessary and indispensable cultural ingredient.

The SEFV is also part of another GPC Member Organization, the Federation of European Societies of Plant Biology (FESPB) and has links with the Argentine Society of Plant Physiology (SAFV). (You can read a Postcard from the SAFV here.)

We sponsor student attendance at the SEFV and FESPB conferences and encourage their active participation by awarding poster and oral presentation prizes. Additionally, the SEFV convenes biannually (coinciding with the SEFV Congress) to award the Sabater Prize for young researchers.

The SEFV website, Facebook page and Twitter (@NewsSEFV) account provide information to SEFV members and general readers with an interest in plant physiology.

How do you grow a plant scientist?

This week’s blog post is written by Sarah Blackford.

Plant scientists are generally very good at growing their plants, taking good care of them and making sure they’re well fed and watered. But what about their own development? Who’s growing them?

In a recent survey, Principal Investigators (PIs) were asked to rate areas of their work they perceived to be the most important. Research-related activities were valued the highest (Vitae, 2011), while conversely, “providing career development advice” and “continuing professional development” were rated as two of their lowest priorities, at around 5% (see figure). This, perhaps, is not surprising when you consider PIs need to prioritize a multitude of responsibilities on their ‘to do’ list.

PI Leaders report 2011

Figure reproduced from Principal investigators and research leaders survey, Vitae (2011) showing the importance of activities and functions for the development of research leaders, against their own confidence in those activities

 

From small shoots

Like the plant, overlooking the growth of the person could lead to plant scientists being held back from a flourishing career. So, taking responsibility for your own development is vital, especially since programs of professional and personal development are not always readily available to PhD students and researchers in many institutes and universities. Even if they are, the content and timing is not always relevant or convenient. I’ve been delivering bespoke career development workshops for bioscientists, including plant scientists, for over 10 years now and one of the main aims is to help people to help themselves. As well as providing practical information and advice on bioscience-related careers, job seeking strategies and career transition planning, I use interactive exercises and discussions to raise self-awareness. This involves recognizing the range of skills acquired through research, appreciating work values, linking interests with career choice and showing how personality plays a crucial role in effective communication and leadership. During the workshops, the participants complete a personal action plan identifying what they need to do to grow their own careers.

Firmly planted

Most people need to update and improve their CVs (even me!), hone their interview technique and perfect their self-presentation skills. But personal and professional development requires a range of different actions depending on career goals and intentions. Some PhD students want to continue on to do at least one postdoc and then decide whether to carry on after that. With quite a good number of posts available, and with some industry recruiters saying they prefer researchers with postdoc experience, this can be an excellent first step – but be careful to ensure you’re moving forward and building on your experience. Look at the career stories of early career researchers who were awarded this year’s prestigious SEB president’s medal – they relate strategies they have used to fill gaps in their expertise and to position themselves favorably to secure a permanent research leadership position. For researchers who are aspiring academics, their plans may include actions such as submitting an abstract to give a talk at a forthcoming conference, doing some strategic networking or finding a mentor to help them to apply for a fellowship.

Branching out

For those considering a non-academic career, their personal development will depend on which career sector they plan to move into. For example, arranging work shadowing or doing voluntary work can help shift your career towards your desired destination. I helped out at the career service during my job as assistant editor when I was based at Southampton University, giving me enough experience and a reference to break into this career. Internships can provide opportunities to spend time working in areas such as policy, outreach and publishing, and if you’re a budding science writer you can simply start up your own blog, or write on someone else’s – like this one! Everyone would benefit from setting up or improving their presence on social media, whether it’s Researchgate, LinkedIn or Twitter. These global networks help to raise your profile, provide information about companies and careers of interest, build relationships and even advertise jobs. Generic training in communication, networking, self-awareness and other personal effectiveness can help to improve everyone’s self-reliance and confidence.

A fertile future

So in answer to the question, “how do you grow a plant scientist?” I would say it depends on their field of interest and direction of growth. Never think of your PhD as the end of your learning – it’s another new beginning. Even PIs lack confidence in some important aspects of their work, such as securing research funding (see figure) and would likely benefit from training in this area, not to mention management and leadership. Growing plants is your business; without them you would make no progress, nor generate results on which to write your publications and build a career. Ignore your own personal growth and you might be in danger of going to seed!

This blog is a summary of the career workshop, organized and delivered by Sarah Blackford, at the recent FESPB/EPSO Congress 2016 in Prague.


Sarah Blackford

Dr Sarah Blackford

 

Sarah Blackford started her career in plant science research at York University, moved into journal publishing with the Journal of Experimental Botany and then trained to be a professional higher education careers adviser. She is currently the Head of Education and Public Affairs at the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) and writes a regular blog for bioscience PhD students and postdocs: www.biosciencecareers.org

Resilient cropping systems for the future

Dr John Kirkegaard

Dr John Kirkegaard, CSIRO, Australia

Last year Dr John Kirkegaard (CSIRO, Australia) gave a fantastic presentation to the Stress Resilience Forum hosted by the Society for Experimental Biology and the Global Plant Council. He discussed the need for resilient cropping systems to enhance yields, and described the success of the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative (2009-2013) in discovering the synergies between new crop varieties and better crop management.

Here, Dr Kirkegaard, who was recently elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, describes the work of the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative and the exciting new discoveries made by farmers and scientists already being used to shape resilient cropping systems for the future.

 

Could you begin by explaining how and why the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative was established?

Despite the semi-arid conditions, rain-fed agriculture is by far the most common form of farming in Australia, especially for grain crops such as wheat and canola. The National Water Use Efficiency Initiative was established in 2009 by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), a research-funding organization that collects levies from farmers to support agricultural research. They provided $17 million over five years to growers and research organizations to tackle the challenge of increasing water use efficiency (the amount of grain produced per mm of rainfall) of grain farming systems by 10%.

Wheat in Australia

Wheat is New South Wales, Australia. Image credit: Tim J. Keegan. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

Growers could suggest ways in which they believed this could be achieved and CSIRO scientists provided farming systems research assistance to test and validate the ideas and ensure a consistent and scientific approach was taken.

 

How has modeling been used to guide the research?

Pre-experimental modeling was used to determine which interventions looked most promising. This early modelling suggested there were huge opportunities to catch and store summer rainfall in better ways, and to sow crops earlier to utilize water more efficiently.  Experiments were then designed to test and validate those ideas on-farm, in experiments run by the farmers in their own fields.

 

What synergies have you found between management practices in semi-arid agriculture?

Canola in Australia

Canola growing in New South Wales, Australia. Image credit: Jan Smith. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

In wheat farming, we found that adopting a good crop rotation, controlling summer weeds, maintaining stubble cover and sowing earlier at lower crop densities was very successful. Capturing and storing water in the summer facilitates early sowing because crops can be planted without waiting for rain, and choosing a wheat variety that flowers at the right time makes best use of the seasonal rainfall. This combination of management and variety was very powerful, leading to a doubling in yield.

We are now investigating similar interactions in canola. Sowing canola early helps the plant to avoid heat and water stress at the end of the season, increasing its biomass production and grain yield potential, and improving its water use efficiency.

 

Poppy and wheat

Vigorous wheat varieties may be able to choke out weeds, like this field poppy. Image credit: Tony Smith. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

Have you discovered any other genotype x management (G x M) relationships, where a particular cultivar contributes to crop management?

Vigorous wheat varieties can have beneficial interactions with management. For example, more vigorous crops cover the ground quickly and reduce the direct loss of soil water through evaporation, and can improve water use efficiency. In addition, vigor can also make the wheat more competitive with weeds and provide a non-chemical form of weed control to reduce the overreliance on herbicides as part of an integrated weed management approach.

 

What advice do you have for researchers or breeders developing a new cultivar? How can they test its interaction with crop management?

In some cases, depending on the genetic change that is present in a new variety, there may be little interaction with management. However, large and obvious changes in crop traits, such as changes in crop vigor or root and shoot architecture, may interact strongly with numerous aspects of management (e.g. sowing date, sowing density, nutrient management, weed management). It would be wise to test some of these interactions before crop release, so that the new variety is released WITH a package of sound management strategies to maximize productivity.

 

Stubble cover

Leaving stubble on a field maintains water and increases soil organic matter. Image credit: USDA NRCS South Dakota. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

How will the findings of the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative be built upon in the future?

I believe we have had an impact on the way research is approached. Rather than assume that a single intervention or new variety will have a large impact, people are now more interested in what packages of management and varieties will be most successful. It’s like always asking “what else do I need to add to my innovation to get the most out of it?” Testing some of the G x M interactions experimentally during the pre-breeding process may be a fruitful area to identify likely synergies well ahead of cultivar release.

Large increases in system productivity rarely come from a single transformational change; they arise when several interacting factors combine, such as in the first agricultural revolution in Europe, or the Green Revolution in India and Asia. New crop types combined with management packages to fulfil the higher potential is what made the difference. We need to envisage what combination might provide those synergies for the crops of the future and be sure we organize ourselves and capture those possibilities by NOT staying in comfortable discipline siloes.

 

Let’s get Plantae!

So you’re hearing good things about the new plant science networking platform Plantae and want to get involved? You’ve come to the right blog post! Read on to learn how to set up your profile, find friends and get involved with the community.

Who are you?

Plantae profile

Filling in your profile is easy!

Plantae is a great place to network with researchers around the world, so you’ll want your profile to be as detailed as possible.

As a minimum, add your name, a profile photo, your professional affiliations and a summary of who you are and what you do. This will help your colleagues and friends to find you, and break the networking ice with new connections!

What makes a good bio? Give the reader a little information about your fields of interest, background, plant science outreach, new papers, favorite plant, whatever you like (related to plants and plant science, of course!). Remember that Plantae is a professional networking site, so don’t put anything on there that you wouldn’t want your boss (current or future!) to see!

Where can I find out more about this interesting person?

Plantae social media

Don’t forget to add your social media and researcher profiles

A great feature of the Core Profile is the ability to add your social media profiles, website, and enhance the visibility of your research by adding researcher profiles, for example your ORCID, Mendeley, or ResearchGate account. To ensure that the accounts connect properly, add the full URL of each profile, not just your account name.

 

Will you be my friend?

From the Community homepage you can choose to see the recent activity of your friends, but only if you’ve added them first!

Add a friend on Plantae

How to add a friend on Plantae

To find colleagues, click on ‘Members’ and you can search for a name, or filter all members by city, state or country. Click on your friend’s name to go to their profile. On the left sidebar, you’ll see a button named ‘User Actions’, which when clicked brings up the option to add them as a friend. After they accept your request, you’re officially friends. Congratulations!

Branching out

Plantae groups

Join a group to continue networking

Now you’ve added everyone you know, it’s time to connect with people that you don’t! Get over to the Discussion boards and let everyone know how you feel about the latest hot paper or public engagement scheme. Or you could join a Group of users who share your interests, location, or love of plant-themed poetry (disclaimer: the latter is currently not a Plantae group – feel free to start it!). It’s easy to join conversations or start one of your own.

Finding funding, jobs and resources

Plantae is a hub of plant science resources, including research news, funding opportunities, job advertisements, science policy news and a wealth of education and public engagement tools. Log in regularly to see up and coming events, grant calls, opinion pieces and more, or maybe upload some of your own!

Join us!

There you have it. Now you know the basics, reach out to the Plantae network, get involved in exciting plant science discussions, make the most of funding and job opportunities, and, pretty please, fill in your profile!

A typical day for PhD students in Japan

Akiko Nakazaki

Akiko Nakazaki, PhD student at Kyoto University

Kon-nichiwa! (Hello!) I am Akiko Nakazaki, a PhD student studying plant molecular cell biology at Kyoto University in Japan.

I’m interested in plant defense – specifically the glucosinolate-myrosinase defense system, which is specific to Brassicales such as Arabidopsis thaliana. Glucosinolates are a group of secondary metabolites stored in separate cells to myrosinases, the enzymes that break them down. Upon tissue damage, the glucosinolates and myrosinases are released from their cells and combine. The glucosinolates are hydrolyzed to volatile repellent compounds such as isothiocyanates and nitriles.

Glucosinolate myrosinase defense system

When damaged, cells containing glucosinolate and myrosinase are ruptured, releasing their contents. The glucosinolate is broken down by the myrosinase into volatile compounds that repel herbivores

I was impressed by this ingenious and rational survival strategy! I want to reveal this defense system at the cellular level, and am researching it in Arabidopsis thaliana by performing microscopic observations, bioassays with insects, and so on.

A day in the lab

Are you interested in how PhD students from other countries spend their day in the laboratory? I am! Let me tell you about my typical day in the lab.

I wake up at 8:30am, and have morning coffee and toast for breakfast while reading a newspaper. Then, I get dressed and ride on my bicycle to the University. During the ride (about 10 minutes), I remind myself of the day’s schedule. I get to the lab at 10am and take my seat. All the members of the lab have their own desk and workbench. I turn on my computer and check my emails.

In the daylight, I basically do experiments and read papers. I start doing microscopic observations and lose track of time until I hear my stomach growling and realize that it is almost 2pm. I have lunch at the eating space in lab. In this room, there are always some lab members who are eating, discussing their research, playing social games, etc. After lunch, I report the result of my microscopic observations to my boss and we have a brief discussion about it.

Microscopic_observations

Then, I return to my seat and realize the primers I ordered yesterday have arrived. I perform a PCR and prepare an agarose gel for electrophoresis. While I am waiting for the PCR to end, I search PubMed and Google Scholar for new papers to read. I load the PCR products to the gel and check that the PCR worked. In the evening, I allocate myself free time for doing more experiments, reading more papers, preparing research presentations, discussions, etc.

I’ve sought a more effective way to advance my research through trial and error. For example, when I started researching in the lab I was a little too ambitious, and planned my schedule too tightly. I sometimes felt tired and depressed when my research was not right on schedule, as is often the case. In these negative moods I couldn’t enjoy my work, so I adopted a schedule with more free time. Because of this change, I’ve come to be able to work flexibly and keep a positive frame of mind.

I’m home between 10pm and midnight. At home, I have a late dinner and take a good long soak in the bath (my favorite time of day!). I go to bed at 2am.

Free weekends!

On weekends I enjoy playing badminton, learning traditional Japanese dance and shopping. I try to make plans without lab work as much as I can, however I’m not able to do avoid it sometimes when I am struggling to get new data before academic conferences and progress reports. Leaving the lab allows me to get rid of stress and feel refreshed for a healthy next week. Furthermore, I devise ways to work more efficiently on weekdays, because I am required to take time off at the weekends.

Treasure every encounter

My boss always says, “It is important to value encounters with people and things.” It wasn’t until recently that I finally understood that message! I have found that experiments may not always work well, but when I look at it from a different angle, even experiments that haven’t gone the way I’d wanted could make me aware of something new and interesting. This awareness could also be brought about through discussions with others.

I am grateful for being able to receive this opportunity. Thank you.


Akiko Nakazaki is in the first year of her doctoral program in the Department of Botany, Graduate School of Science, Kyoto University, Japan.

 

Protecting plants, protecting people

Professor Sophien Kamoun

Professor Sophien Kamoun (The Sainsbury Lab, UK)

This week on the blog, Professor Sophien Kamoun describes his work on plant–pathogen interactions at The Sainsbury Lab, UK, and discusses the future of plant disease.

Could you begin by describing the focus of your research on plant pathogens?

We study several aspects of plant–pathogen interactions, ranging from genome-level analyses to mechanistic investigations focused on individual proteins. Our projects are driven by some of the major questions in the field: how do plant pathogens evolve? How do they adapt and specialize to their hosts? How do plant pathogen effectors co-opt host processes?

One personal aim is to narrow the gap between research on the mechanisms and evolution of these processes. We hope to demonstrate how mechanistic research benefits from a robust phylogenetic framework to test specific hypotheses about how evolution has shaped molecular mechanisms of pathogenicity and immunity.

 

Phytophtora ramorum

Sudden oak death is caused by the oomycete Phytophthora ramorum. Image from Nichols, 2014. PLOS Biology.

Tree diseases such as sudden oak death, ash dieback and olive quick decline syndrome have been making the news a lot recently. Are diseases like these becoming more common, and if so, why?

It’s well documented that the scale and frequency of emerging plant diseases has increased. There are many factors to blame. Increased global trade is one. Climate change is another. There is no question that we need to increase our surveillance and diagnostics efforts. We’re nowhere near having coordinated responses to new disease outbreaks in plant pathology, especially when it comes to deploying the latest genomics methods. We really need to remedy this.

 

The wheat blast fungus recently hit Bangladesh. Could you briefly outline how it is being tackled by plant pathologists?

Wheat blast has just emerged this last February in Bangladesh – its first report in Asia. It could spread to neighboring countries and become a major threat to wheat production in South Asia. Thus, we had to act fast. We used an Open Science approach to mobilize collaborators in Bangladesh and the wider blast fungus community, and managed to identify the pathogen strain in just a few weeks. It turned out that the Bangladeshi outbreak was caused by a clone related to the South American lineage of the pathogen. Now that we know the enemy, we can proceed to put in place an informed response plan. It’s challenging but at least we know the nature of the pathogen – a first step in any response plan to a disease outbreak.

 

Which emerging diseases do you foresee having a large impact on food security in the future?

Obviously, any disease outbreak in the major food crops would be of immediate concern, but we shouldn’t neglect the smaller crops, which are so critical to agriculture in the developing world. This is one of the challenges of plant pathology: how to handle the numerous plants and their many pathogens.

European Corn Borer

European corn boreer. Image from Cornell University. Used under license CC BY 2.0.

As far as new problems, I view insect pests as being a particular challenge. Our basic understanding of insect–plant interactions is not as well developed as it is for microbial pathogens, and research has somewhat neglected the impact of plant immunity. The range of many insect pests is expanding because of climate change, and we are moving to ban many of the widely used insecticides. This is an area of research I would recommend for an early career scientist.

 

What advice would you give to a young researcher in this area?

Ask the right questions and look beyond the current trends. Think big. Be ambitious. Don’t shy away from embracing the latest technologies and methods. It’s important to work on real world systems. Thanks to technological advances, genomics, genome editing etc., the advantages of working on model systems are not as obvious as they were in the past.

 

How can we mitigate the risks to crops from plant diseases in the future?

My general take is to be suspicious of silver bullets. I like to say “Don’t bet against the pathogen”. I believe that for truly sustainable solutions, we need to continuously alter the control methods, for example by regularly releasing new resistant crop varieties. Only then we can keep up with rapidly evolving pathogens. One analogy would be the flu jab, which has a different formulation every year depending on the make-up of the flu virus population.

 

Blight Potato

Potato with blight, caused by the oomycete Phytophthora infestans. Image credit: USDA. Used under license CC BY-ND 2.0.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I read that public and private funding of plant science is less than one tenth of biomedical research. Not a great state of affairs when one considers that we will add another two billion people to the planet in the next 30 years. As one of my colleagues once said: “medicine might save you one day; but plants keep you alive everyday”.