James Wong: Plant Geeks Will Save The World!

James Wong trained as a botanist at Kew Gardens in London, UK, before embarking on a wide and varied career encompassing broadcasting, writing and garden design. He demonstrates his passion for plants in every strand of his work, and is making a significant contribution towards raising the profile of horticulture and the plant sciences within the UK. He took some time out of his busy schedule to speak to Amelia at the Global Plant Council.

james wongJames qualified with a Masters in Ethnobotany; the study of how people use plants, in 2006. This branch of the plant sciences is very relevant to tackling pressing issues such as food security and conservation.

Plants have provided humanity with essentially every aspect of our sustenance and material culture for millennia. Being a fusion of anthropology and botany, ethnobotany is vital to understanding everything we are and everything we do.

 Humanity relies on an incredibly narrow range of plants to meet its needs, with just 3 crops providing up to 50% of our sustenance. This means civilization has pinned its future on just 0.00006% of the world’s edible plants!

With threats like climate change and a growing global population, it is simply not feasible to continue to marginalise 99.99994% of our crops. Learning about how to grow, prepare and eat those other plants is where the work of ethnobotanists is vital.

 This is just one example of how ethnobotany is essential in helping combat some of the biggest threats our species are facing in the next century. Plant geeks will indeed save the world.

To meet the needs of a growing population, many resources are currently focused on grow for flavourincreasing productivity of our large scale farming systems. However, in his most recent book, Grow for Flavour, James explores how we can increase the nutritional quality of home-grown produce. Could small-scale food production such as personal allotments or gardens have any role to play in our future food production systems?

In short, no. My tiny urban garden is just 6x6m, and there is no way that it is ever going to make a significant contribution to my calorie intake.

However (and this is a big however), even in this tiny space I can get access to a range of fruit and vegetables that could make an important contribution towards certain micronutrients in my diet. Many of these, including key phytonutrients, are not found in the limited range of crops grown commercially, at least in large quantities.

Green Zebra tomatoes are a good source of tomatidine.  Photo credit: J https://www.flickr.com/photos/florence_craye/2953736794/in/photolist-5v1F3s-6Pshmn-8 Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Green Zebra tomatoes are a good source of tomatidine.
Photo credit: J  Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

For example tomatidine, a chemical found in green tomatoes, may help improve muscle tone and reduce atrophy according to some studies. It is not really found in any supermarket produce, yet I can easily grow 10 kgs of tasty, tomatidine-rich fruit like ‘Green Zebra’ each summer. Popped in the freezer they could provide me with an important source of this phytonutrient year round that would otherwise be almost totally absent in my diet.

Home gardens can make significant financial sense too, removing cost as a barrier to nutrient availability.

The garden design studio, Amphibian Designs, was co-founded by James in 2008. I have always been fascinated by plants and I feel that designing with them helps me express that.” This fascination has led the studio to win four Royal Horticultural Society medals for its designs, including two gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. Gardening is perhaps something we might associate more with art and creativity than science. However, James finds that: creating spaces with plants and arranging them to express an idea allows me to better understand their botany.” Furthermore, having a scientific rather than arts background can be advantageous in design.

 I have no formal design training and find this actually allows me more creative freedom! I rarely know the design rules and conventions, so I don’t feel I need to slavishly devote my works to them. There is an awful lot of assumed knowledge and entrenched ideas in horticulture, much of which has no factual basis, and being an outsider means you get to circumvent all that.

Engaging the public with the plant sciences is becoming increasingly important yet the perception that plants are boring can be difficult to overcome. Could gardens and horticulture provide a way to approach this problem?

Absolutely. Humans instinctively find plants beautiful. Sadly, I do think UK horticulture has done a rather good job of suppressing this instinct in many people by holding up a singular, historical ideal as the dominant mode of what a ‘proper’ garden should be. Between the rustic woven willow and stately home symbolism, it can be very easy for many people (like me) to not associate themselves with gardening. Would food, fashion, music, art or film limit themselves to such as singular ideal? Of course not, and that explains their far more broad-based appeal.

 One of the most popular stands I saw at Chelsea Flower Show this year was for the European Space Agency, and represented how plants would be grown in space to feed astronauts and fuel interplanetary discovery. The look of wonder in faces of the kids (of all ages) as they wandered through spoke volumes. What an amazing way to engage kids with science.

So, we can’t leave without asking one final question: any tips for the budding gardeners amongst our readers?

Plants always grow and look best when planted to echo how they would naturally grow in the wild. Doing so means you will have less work, healthier plants and a perfectly matching aesthetic almost every time. Google image your favourite plants in their wild habitat and try your best to match them. The rest will take care of itself!

An interview with Ellen Bergfeld

EllenBergfeldThis week, New Media Fellow Amelia Frizell-Armitage has been talking to Ellen Bergfeld, CEO of the Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Societies (ACSESS), a coalition of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) (both of which are Global Plant Council member organisations) and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). She spoke to us about the societies, her role as CEO, and her visions for the future.

What is the purpose of the ACSESS?

ACSESS is a nonprofit organization founded by the ASA, CSSA and SSSA to support the activities of member societies.

ACSESS has five primary goals. 1) Firstly, we help professional societies representing agronomic, crop, soil, and environmental sciences to collaborate and 2) advance the missions, visions, and activities of these societies. 3) We promote the value and image of agronomic, crop, soil and environmental resource professions, and 4) unify communication with scientists, educators, policy-makers, and the public to enhance impact. Finally, 5) we engage science-based knowledge on the challenges facing humanity.

How do the work and aims of the ACSESS coalition cross over with those of the Global Plant Council (GPC)?

The GPC’s goal to feed an ever-growing human population sustainably is of paramount interest and importance to all three of our member societies.

Additionally, all three societies advocate nationally and internationally for plant and crop sciences. They act as catalysts to generate plant-based solutions for the sustainable intensification of agriculture, whilst preserving biodiversity, protecting the environment, reducing world hunger, and improving human health and wellbeing.

In your opinion, what will be the biggest challenges over the next 50 years in terms of food production and agriculture?

Three things: climate change, degraded and decreased natural resources, and population growth.

What do you think our top priorities should be in terms of tackling these issues?

Adapting plants to climatic changes and developing crops that can be sustainably grown in the field is a top priority, and very broad in terms of the research required.

Another large gap I see is education and science literacy. By educating and empowering communities, particularly girls and women, regarding the carrying capacity of the planet, we can open up discussions and raise awareness of the need for sustainability in all aspects of our lives.

What are the key developments in agronomy required to ensure sustainable agriculture in the future?

If we continue to deplete our soil and water resources, this will have a dire impact on our ability to feed the population. We need to recognize this, and adapt our agricultural practices accordingly.

2015 is International Year of Soils. Can you sum up in one sentence why soils are so important?

 Soils Sustain Life!

What inspired you to leave academia and move into science policy, strategy and administration?

At the time I was looking to graduate, I would have had to do multiple postdocs to be competitive for an academic position. I enjoyed the teaching and working with animals, but not the lab work or grant writing.  I pursued the Congressional Science Fellowship to open new doors and took advantages of the opportunities that followed.

Day to day, what is the most rewarding part of your job as CEO?

I enjoy connecting our sciences, and scientists, to address the global challenges that we face.

Interacting with the best and brightest minds who are collectively addressing these challenges is incredibly inspiring and fulfilling.

Ellen Bergfeld received her BSc in Animal Science from Ohio State University, going on to study reproductive physiology, first at masters then PhD level, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  After graduating she was awarded the Federation of Animal Science Societies Congressional Science Fellowship. This Fellowship provides an opportunity for highly skilled scientists to spend a year working in congress as special assistants in legislative areas. Following the fellowship Ellen became Executive Director of the American Society of Animal Science. Ellen is now CEO of ACSESS.

Get a new view: attend an interdisciplinary conference

When I first volunteered to write a blog about the Plant Wax 2015 conference, I thought I’d be writing about its relevance to the Global Plant Council’s stress resilience initiative. After all, the waxy coating (cuticle) that covers the aerial surfaces of plants is particularly important as a barrier against water loss and pathogens, while reflecting excess heat and UV radiation.

As it turns out, one of the most important lessons I learned from the meeting was a reminder of the powerful synergy that can happen when people with radically different goals and approaches get together to share ideas.

Water drops on a leaf

Plants are coated with a hydrophobic waxy covering known as a cuticle. Image credit: Adrian Scottow. Licensed under: CC BY-SA 2.0.

A meeting of two worlds

Biologists are from Venus, organic geochemists are from Mars

In the run up to the meeting, held 16–19 June 2015 in beautiful Ascona, Switzerland, I realized that the majority of speakers and delegates were organic geochemists, rather than plant scientists like myself. Other than brief discussions with the academics in the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry I hadn’t had much interaction with this area of research, so didn’t really know what to expect.

Plant biologists are interested in cuticular waxes because of their impact on the physiology of the plant. The cuticle is composed of many different types of compounds, including alkanes, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones and esters, to say nothing of the more complicated compounds I learnt about at the conference (triterpenoids, anyone?). Each compound gives the wax certain characteristics, making it more suited to a particular environment, or to enhancing a particular function. Many of these changes, however, are yet to be fully understood.

 

The structure of the cuticle

The cuticle is formed of hydrophobic wax compounds on a scaffold of cutin (a polyester polymer), topped with a layer comprising only wax. Image credit: Yeats and Rose, 2013. Plant Physiology.

 

Organic geochemists, on the other hand, extract plant waxes from soils, sediments and rocks and analyze them as an integrated signal to cleverly reconstruct past climates. They typically investigate n-alkanes, the simplest straight-chain compounds found in waxes, which are least likely to break down over time. Amazingly, they can look at the ratio of deuterium (heavy hydrogen, 2H) to normal hydrogen (1H) in the n-alkanes to work out the plants’ source of water, or the ratio of 13C to 12C to work out whether the majority of plants at that time were using C3 or C4 photosynthesis.

The Plant Wax conference was organized to try and bring these two very different groups together, encouraging communication and crossover between research fields, and specifically, to answer the question: what could we learn from each other?

 

Leaf fossil

Plant waxes can be preserved in fossils, but organic geochemists typically look at sediments and sedimentary rocks. Image credit: James St. John. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Interdisciplinary cooperation

At the start of the conference, I don’t think the majority of biologists had much knowledge of the finer details of organic geochemistry. Likewise, many geochemists said they only had a general overview understanding of wax biosynthesis and plant physiology. The two fields have very little crossover in the scientific literature.

Since geologists’ isotope studies are based on generalizations made from modern biological studies in a few plant species, the geologists had several requests for biologists. Firstly, to improve climate reconstructions, they asked for more biological data!

The geochemists asked the biologists whether there was anything they could help us with. It was quite hard for me to imagine how their methods – environmental reconstructions of the past based on biological studies – could help us with modern plant biology.

In fact, I felt a little smug. I’d been feeling decidedly ignorant while hearing about ingenious geochemistry research, so I almost felt vindicated: did they need us more than we needed them?

It wasn’t until the last day of the conference that I realized just how wrong I was.

Dr Nikolai Pedentchouk

Dr Nikolai Pedentchouk

One of the last talks was by Dr Nikolai Pedentchouk, University of East Anglia, UK. He’s a collaborator of Amelia Frizell-Armitage, my fellow Global Plant Council New Media Fellow, and works on wheat waxes from an organic geochemist’s perspective.

Nikolai described his research into carbon and hydrogen isotopes in the waxy compounds of glaucous (dull blue-ish grey wax) versus non-glaucous (glossy green) wheat: “I used a field set-up to investigate several issues that are of interest to palaeoecologists and palaeoclimatologists and potentially to plant biochemists. We really wanted to know whether differences in leaf wax composition or amount resulted in differences in the isotope values of individual compound classes”.

How could this isotope research be useful to biologists? Amazingly, it could be used to elucidate the biosynthetic pathways for the different compounds in wheat wax – something that has so far not been possible using standard biological techniques.

“When plants synthesize organic compounds they fractionate stable isotopes, for example 13C vs. 12C and 2H vs. 1H. By measuring the isotopic composition of individual compound classes we could potentially reconstruct the order of reactions that could have led to the biosynthesis of a particular compound”, explained Nikolai.

Glaucous and non-glaucous wheat wax crystals

Wax crystals of glaucous (dull blue-ish grey) and non-glaucous (glossy) wheat wax crystals, taken on a scanning electron microscope. Image credit: Amelia Frizell-Armitage.

New perspectives

Nikolai’s application of geochemical techniques to solve a biological problem really opened my eyes to the innovations that can be made when people from vastly different research backgrounds work together and share ideas. Whether its using quantum mechanics to improve our understanding of photosynthesis, or chemical and computational modeling to advance synthetic biology, interdisciplinary collaboration is driving plant science research forwards, and I encourage you all to think outside your research box too!

“So what does the Global Plant Council actually do?” – SEB Prague 2015

Dobrý den!

 View across the Vltava river of Prague's Old Town and the Charles Bridge.


View across the Vltava river of Prague’s Old Town and the Charles Bridge.

Last week I attended the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB)’s Annual Main Meeting in the wonderful city of Prague in the Czech Republic.

Armed with a banner, a new batch of hot-off-the-press leaflets, some of our infamous GPC recycled paper pens, and a map of the world, the purpose of my trip was to staff an exhibitor’s booth at the conference to help raise awareness of the GPC and the projects and initiatives we are involved with.

2015-07-03 09.50.14To encourage delegates to speak to the exhibitors, there was a chance to win prizes in exchange for a ‘passport’ filled with stickers or stamps collected from each of the booths. This gave me a fantastic opportunity to meet people from all over the world and tell them about the Global Plant Council – even the SEB’s Animal and Cell biologists!

Many visitors to the booth were from Europe, but I also met people from as far away as Argentina, Australia, China and Vietnam. Thanks to everyone who visited the booth and gave me their email addresses to sign up for our monthly e-Bulletin newsletter!

“So what does the Global Plant Council actually do?”

This was the question I was most frequently asked at the conference. The answer is: many things! But to simplify matters, our overall remit falls into two main areas.

1) Enabling better plant science

2015-07-03 09.50.39

Visitors to our booth at SEB 2015 were asked to put their plant science on the map!

Plant science has a critical role to play in meeting global challenges such as food security, hunger and malnutrition. The GPC currently has 29 member organizations, including the SEB, representing over 55,000 plant, crop, agricultural and environmental scientists around the world. By bringing these professional organizations together under a united global banner, we have a stronger voice to help influence and shape policy and decision-making at the global level.  Our Executive Board and member organization representatives meet regularly and feed into international discussions and consultations.

The GPC also aims to facilitate more effective and efficient plant-based scientific research. Practically speaking, this means we organize, promote, provide support for, and assist with internationally collaborative projects and events. A good example is the Stress Resilience Symposium and Discussion Forum we are hosting, together with the SEB, in Brazil in October.

This meeting – which will be a satellite meeting of the International Plant Molecular Biology 2015 conference – will bring together scientists from across the world who are studying the mechanisms by which plants interact with and respond to their environments, particularly in the face of climate change. It will provide an excellent opportunity for researchers of all levels and from different regions to network and learn from each other, fostering new relationships and collaborations across borders. Registration and abstract submission is now open, so why not come along!

Importantly, as well as learning from researchers all over the world about the fantastic research they are doing, we also want to identify important research that is not being done, or which could be done better. Then, we can come together to discuss strategies to fund and fill these gaps.

You can find out more about our other current initiatives by going to our website.

2) Enabling better plant scientists

2015-07-03 12.42.41As well as physically bringing people together at meetings and events, the Global Plant Council aims to better connect plant scientists from around the world, promote plant research and funding opportunities, share knowledge and best practice, and identify reports, research tools, and educational resources.

Plant scientists have created an amazing diversity of assets for research and education, so by facilitating access to and encouraging use of these resources, we hope that a desperately needed new generation of plant researchers will be inspired to continue working towards alleviating some of the world’s most pressing problems. For example, we’re translating plant science teaching materials into languages other than English, and are helping the American Society of Plant Biologists to curate content for Plantae.org, an online resource hub and gathering place for the plant science community that will be launched later this year – stay tuned!

My #SEBSelfie! Other updates from the meeting can be found by following the hashtag #SEBAMM on Twitter.

My #SEBSelfie! Other updates from the meeting can be found by following the hashtag #SEBAMM on Twitter.

In addition, the GPC website is full of useful information including research and funding news, an events calendar, reports and white papers, fellowships and awards. We operate a Twitter account (@GlobalPlantGPC) for up-to-the-minute news and views, and a Spanish version @GPC_EnEspanol. We also have a blog (obviously!) that is regularly updated with interesting and informative articles written by the GPC staff, our two New Media Fellows, and plant scientists from across our member network. A Facebook page will be coming soon!

If you would like any more information about the projects and initiatives mentioned here, or more details about the GPC’s work, please do contact me (Lisa Martin, Outreach & Communications Manager): [email protected].

 

Increasing Food Production in a Changing World

The fifth report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published last year announced that climate change is already negatively affecting our food supply and this problem is only going to be amplified in coming decades.

Our climate is projected to warm by 5ºC by 2050, with increased incidence of extreme weather events. Coinciding with this is a rapidly rising global population, predicted to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. Feeding all these extra mouths is challenge enough. Doing this under changing weather and climate conditions becomes even more difficult.

Food shortages resulting from population growth or unusual weather events can lead to rising food prices and political instability. A global rice shortage in 2008 saw prices rise by over 50%, resulting in riots in Asia and Africa. We might expect events such as this to become more common in the future as the food supply becomes more and more affected by climate change.

Not surprisingly food security is currently a buzz word in the research community, and many resources are being poured into trying to ensure a stable food supply for future generations.

Some climate skeptics argue that increases in carbon dioxide could boost plant growth, resulting in higher yielding plants under climate change. However, the reality is that any positive effect the increased CO2 could have on plant growth is likely to be outweighed by higher temperatures and extreme weather events.

Since the IPCC report there have been a number of studies focussed on the staple food crop wheat, and how yields could be affected in the future.

Wheat

Wheat was first domesticated 10,000 years ago and is now grown more widely than any other crop. Photo by jayneandd used under CC BY 2.0.

Wheat yields are sensitive to temperature, and are predicted to fall by around 6% for every 1ºC rise in temperature. If we do not cut down current emissions, the earth could warm by 5ºC by 2050, equating to a 30% reduction in wheat yields due to temperature increases alone.

This 30% reduction in yield is only the tip of the iceberg. Yields could be further reduced by increased instances of disease epidemics. For example, Fusarium Ear Blight is a wheat disease that causes spikelet bleaching and enhanced senescence. A severe epidemic can wipe out 60% of a wheat crop. In order to take effect, the disease requires wet weather at flowering, something which we can expect to happen more often in the future according to climate models.

Extreme weather events, such as flooding, are predicted to increase over the coming decades, and will cause unavoidable crop losses. This will exacerbate problems with declining yields, further increasing the difficulty of feeding a growing population.

What can we do?

Primarily, we should be trying to limit the extent of climate change, and to do so we need to act now. Reducing emissions and moving to sustainable energy sources should be at the top of the agenda.  However, most climate scientists agree that even if we act now to reduce our emissions, there will be at least 2ºC of warming, which is already impacting on food production.

We therefore need to make our food sources more resilient to climate change. In terms of wheat this means breeding varieties that are tolerant to higher temperatures and diseases. Additionally, we will need to adapt our farming methods, to be more intensive yet sustainable, and perhaps alter our diets.

Stress Resilience Forum, 23–25 October, Iguassu Falls, Brazil

In October the Global Plant Council, in collaboration with the Society of Experimental Biology, will bring together experts from around the world to discuss current research efforts in plant stress resilience. Abstract submission and registration for the Stress Resilience Forum is now open, and we welcome researchers at all levels to take part.

The meeting takes place immediately before the International Plant Molecular Biology Conference (25–30 October), also at Iguassu Falls, and which also includes several scientific sessions on plant stresses.