Now That’s What I Call Plant Science 2015

With another year nearly over we recently put out a call for nominations for the Most Influential Plant Science Research of 2015. Suggestions flooded in, and we also trawled through our social media feeds to see which stories inspired the most discussion and engagement. It was fantastic to read about so much amazing research from around the world. Below are our top five, selected based on impact for the plant science research community, engagement on social media, and importance for both policy and potential end product/application.

Choosing the most inspiring stories was not an easy job. If you think we’ve missed something, please let us know in the comments below, or via Twitter! In the coming weeks we’ll be posting a 2015 Plant Science Round Up, which will include other exciting research that didn’t quite make the top five, so watch this space!

  1. Sweet potato is a naturally occurring GM crop
Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop

Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop. Image from Mike Licht used under creative commons license 2.0

Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, found that 291 varieties of sweet potato actually contain bacterial genes. This technically means that sweet potato is a naturally occurring genetically modified crop! Alongside all the general discussion about GM regulations, particularly in parts of Europe where regulations about growing GM crops have been decentralized from Brussels to individual EU Member States, this story caused much discussion on social media when it was published in March of this year.

It is thought that ancestors of the modern sweet potato were genetically modified by bacteria in the soil some 8000 years ago. Scientists hypothesize that it was this modification that made consumption and domestication of the crop possible. Unlike the potato, sweet potato is not a tuber but a mere root. The bacteria genes are thought to be responsible for root swelling, giving it the fleshy appearance we recognize today.

This story is incredibly important, firstly because sweet potato is the world’s seventh most important food crop, so knowledge of its genetics and development are essential for future food supply. Secondly, Agrobacterium is frequently used by scientists to artificially genetically modify plants. Evidence that this process occurs in nature opens up the conversation about GM, the methods used in this technology, and the safety of these products for human consumption.

Read the original paper in PNAS here.

  1. RNA-guided Cas9 nuclease creates targetable heritable mutations in Barley and Brassica

Our number two on the list also relates to genetic modification, this time focusing on methods. Regardless of whether or not we want to have genetically modified crops in our food supply, GM is a valuable tool used by researchers to advance knowledge of gene function at the genetic and phenotypic level. Therefore, systems of modification that make the process faster, cheaper, and more accurate provide fantastic opportunities for the plant science community to progress its understanding.

The Cas9 system is a method of genome editing that can make precise changes at specific locations in the genome relatively cheaply. This novel system uses small non-coding RNA to direct Cas9 nuclease to the DNA target site. This type of RNA is small and easy to program, providing a flexible and easily accessible system for genome editing.

Barley in the field

Barley in the field. Image by Moldova_field used under creative commons license 2.0

Inheritance of genome modifications using Cas9 has previously been shown in the model plants, Arabidopsis and rice. However, the efficiency of this inheritance, and therefore potential application in crop plants has been questionable.

The breakthrough study published in November by researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory and John Innes Centre both in Norwich, UK, demonstrated the mutation of two commercial crop plants, Barley and Brassica oleracea, using the Cas9 system and subsequent inheritance mutations.

This is an incredibly exciting development in the plant sciences and opens up many options in the future in terms of genome editing and plant science research.

Read the full paper in Genome Biology here.

  1. Control of Striga growth

Striga is a parasitic plant that mainly affects parts of Africa. It is a major threat to food crops such as rice and corn, leading to yield losses worth over 10 billion US dollars, and affecting over 100 million people.

Striga infects the host crop plant through its roots, depriving them of their nutrients and water. The plant hormone strigolactone, which is released by host plants, is known to induce Striga germination when host plants are nearby.

In a study published in August of this year the Striga receptors for this hormone, and the proteins responsible for striga germination were identified.

Striga plants are known to wither and die if they cannot find a host plant upon germination. Induction of early germination using synthetic hormones could therefore remove Striga populations before crops are planted. This work is vital in terms of regulating Striga populations in areas where they are hugely damaging to crop plants and people’s livelihoods.

Read the full study in Science here.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed. Image from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture used under creative commons license 2.0

  1. Resurrection plants genome harvesting

Resurrection plants are a unique group of flora that can survive extreme water shortages for months or even years. There are more than 130 varieties in the world, and many researchers believe that unlocking the genetic codes of drought-tolerant plants could help farmers working in increasingly hot and dry conditions.

During a drought, the plant acts like a seed, becoming so dry that it appears dead. But as soon as the rains come, the shriveled plant bursts ‘back to life’, turning green and robust in just a few hours.

In November, researchers from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre in Missouri, US, published the complete draft genome of Oropetium thomaeum, a resurrection grass species.

O. thomaeum is a small C4 grass species found in Africa and India. It is closely related to major food feed and bioenergy crops. Therefore this work represents a significant step in terms of understanding novel drought tolerance mechanisms that could be used in agriculture.

Read the full paper in Nature here.

  1. Supercomputing overcomes major ecological challenge

Currently, one of the greatest challenges for ecologists is to quantify plant diversity and understand how this affects plant survival. For the last 500 years independent research groups around the world have collected this diversity data, which has made organization and collaboration difficult in the past.

Over the last 500 years, independent research groups have collected a wealth of diversity data. The Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) are collecting and collating these data together for the Americas using high performance computing (HPC) and data resources, via the iPlant Collaborative and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). This will allow researchers to draw on data right from the earliest plant collections up to the modern day to understand plant diversity.

There are approximately 120,000 plant species in North and South America, but mapping and determining the hotspots of species richness requires computationally intensive geographic range estimates. With supercomputing the BIEN group could generate and store geographic range estimates for plant species in the Americas.

It also gives ecologists the ability to document continental scale patterns of species diversity, which show where any species of plant might be found. These novel maps could prove a fantastic resource for ecologists working on diversity and conservation.

Read more about this story on the TACC website, here.

How to create a successful crop research partnership: the Generation Challenge Programme

The Generation Challenge Programme (GCP – not to be confused with GPC!) was enthused about repeatedly during the three day GPC/SEB Stress Resilience Forum held in Iguassu Falls, Brazil. This 10-year program was created by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in 2003 as a collaborative approach to developing food crops with improved stress resilience, and is widely hailed as a very successful example of the benefits of international collaboration and practical targeted research funding.

Dr Jean-Marcel Ribault, director of the GCP, spoke at the meeting about the success of the $170 M program, and the key things that other projects should consider when designing collaborative partnerships.

Generation Challenge Programme

Research initiatives

During its second phase (2009–2014), the GCP focused on seven key research initiatives: improving cassava, rice and sorghum for Africa’s drought-prone environments; improving drought tolerance in maize and wheat for Asia; tackling tropical legume productivity in marginal land in Africa and Asia; and the use of comparative genomics to improve cereal yields in high aluminum and low phosphorus soils.

GCP Research Initiatives

The GCP acted as an international umbrella organization, distributing grants to fund research across different types of organizations (CG centers, universities and National Programs), either as commissioned projects or competitive funding calls. The aim was to bridge the gap between upstream research and applied crop science, enabling the development of markers and tools that could be of direct benefit to breeders and farmers in developing nations.

Ribault described one of the success stories of the GCP that highlighted the power of international collaborations working together on a problem to benefit people around the world. A team at Cornell University, working alongside Brazilian scientists, won a competitive grant to investigate aluminum (Al) tolerance in sorghum. They discovered a major gene responsible for Al tolerance by growing different accessions of sorghum in hydroponic systems, and began to breed tolerance into Brazilian sorghum cultivars through a commissioned project. The Brazilian team, with the support of scientists from Cornell, took on leadership to transfer these Al tolerant alleles to Africa, where they were also used to improve germplasm for Kenya and Niger.

An ongoing legacy of knowledge

The research funded by the GCP yielded many major research outputs, including a huge variety of genetic and genomic resources, improved germplasm and new bioinformatic tools to aid data management, diversity studies and breeding.

One of the most important parts of the GCP program was its support service component, a key part of which was the development of the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), an amazing resource for crop breeders. The IBP was designed as a way to disseminate knowledge and technology, giving breeders in developing countries access to the latest modern plant breeding tools and services in a practical manner.

The IBP’s core product, the Breeding Management System (BMS), allows breeders to manage their breeding program, including lists of crop genetic stocks as well as pedigree and germplasm information and field designs. It provides functionality for electronic phenotypic data capture and statistical analysis, access to molecular markers, breeding design and decision-support tools, and more. Through the Platform, users can also access climate data, geographic information system (GIS) information, genotyping services at concessionary prices, training opportunities and other relevant breeding support services.

Integrated Breeding Platform

A legacy of the GCP, the IBP lives on for further development and deployment, thanks to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (phase II, 2014–2019). Ribault hinted that dissemination of the platform will be more difficult than its development; indeed it can be challenging to change a person’s behavior and work practices, even if breeders see the benefits of using the IBP!

The keys to success

Throughout his talk, Ribault described how the partnerships formed by and within the GCP were an important foundation to the success of the program. These dynamic networks were based on trust and on an evolution of responsibilities, and many of the partners have continued to work together after the GCP ended in 2014.

Working on projects around the world was not always easy, Ribault explained, but it meant that the results arising from the research were directly relevant to the agricultural practices in those countries, and therefore more likely to be used.

MYC students

Photo credit: IB-MYC Students – Ramzi Belkhodja/IAMZ

One of the most innovative approaches of the GCP was to dedicate around 15–20% of its budget each year to capacity development, which included holding workshops and training sessions, as well as funding studentships and fellowships to ensure future sustainability of the research projects. One novel practice was to run multi-year breeding courses, where participants were expected to bring along the outputs of their research each year. Anti-bottleneck funding was used to alleviate the problems that people were facing by providing much-needed resources or access to technology; Ribault highlighted this as one of the most important drivers of GCP’s success.

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If you’d like to read more about the Generation Challenge Programme, please visit the GCP website.

If you’d like to read more about the Integrated Breeding Platform, please visit the IBP website.

Making Plant Genomics Front Page News with an Emblematic Genome Project: The Bauhinia Flower

Keep Calm.

Bahunia is the national flower of Hong Kong, GigaScience is launching a crowdfunding campaign to learn more about the biological and genetic history of this flower.

By Scott Edmunds, Executive Editor, GigaScience Journal

‘Big Data’ is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in our lives, and we at GigaScience are big fans of approaches democratizing its utility through crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. With much mistrust and fear of genetic technologies there is also a huge need to educate and throw light on “what goes on under the hood” during the process of genomic sequencing and research.

After helping promote community genome and microbiome projects such as the Puerto Rican “peoples parrot”, Azolla Genome, Kittybiome, and the community cactus (previously highlighted in the Global Plant Council Blog), the team at GigaScience has finally decided to launch our own.

Inspired by our Hong Kong home, this month we’ve launched an exciting new crowdfunding project to help learn about the enigmatic biological and genetic history of the beautiful symbol of Hong Kong: the Bauhinia flower.

Hong Kong’s emblem is the beautiful flower of the Hong Kong Orchid Tree Bauhinia x blakeana: it is mysterious in origin, and lovely along the roadside and in any garden. Being used as a food crop in India and Nepal, Bauhinias are actually a legume rather than an orchid, and while a transcriptome has been sequenced as part of the 1KP project (Bauhinia tomentosa) no species of the genus has yet had its genome sequenced.

A Brief History of Bauhinia blakeana

It was first discovered in the 1880’s by the famous horticulturist Father Jean-Marie Delavey

The Bahunia flower

The Bahunia flower is the symbol of Hong Kong

growing on a remote mountainside in Hong Kong, but how it got there is a mystery – especially since it is sterile. The missionary collector subsequently propagated it in the grounds of the nearby Pokfulam Sanatorium, and from there it was introduced to the Hong Kong Botanic Gardens and across the world. Originally described as a new species in 1908, it was subsequently named after the Hong Kong governor Sir Henry Blake, who had a strong interest in botany. We have an opportunity to get a glimpse into this fascinating history by carrying out a crowdfunding project to determine its entire genetic make up.

In addition, it’s a project we are trying to get everyone involved in: from gardeners to botanists, historians to photographers, university researchers to school children – really, anyone interested in being a part of Hong Kong’s First Emblematic Genome Project and understanding the biological secrets of this unique flower.

Plant Genomics for the Masses

Teaming up with BGI Hong Kong and scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, this new crowdfunding project will use one of the best techniques to help uncover the secrets of any living being: genomic sequencing. While the cost of sequencing has crashed a million fold since the human genome project, plant genomes are still challenging. While Bauhinia have a relatively small genome (0.6C), being a hybrid means it will be very challenging to assemble using current short-read technologies. To get around this we are having to sequence the two likely parents first, pushing the reagent costs that we need to cover through crowdfunding up to about $10,000. Studies using individual genetic markers have shown that the species is likely a hybrid of two local species, Bauhinia variegata and Bauhinia purpurea, but this has yet to be confirmed at a genomic scale.

Genome sequencing is also one of the key technologies defining the 21st century, and a field in which Hong Kong has made major advances (for example in BGI Hong Kong’s giant sequencing capacity, as well circulating DNA diagnostics), though more effort is needed to engage and inform the general public.

Through sequencing the genome of our emblem to better understand where it came from; this will help to train local students to assemble and analyze the data – crucial skills needed for this field to advance; and engage and educate the public through local pride. Outreach and awareness-building is key, and we have already managed to get plant genomics and Bauhinia onto the front cover of the SCMP Sunday Magazine and on Hong Kong radio.

 

You can also access the YouKu version of the above video here.

Get involved!

The project seeks a variety of things from the community: at its most basic level, help in the form of donations can be provided at the project’s website. As a community project no contribution is too small, so please contribute via the crowdfunding page.

Furthermore, we’ll be carrying out community engagement and citizen science in the form of Bauhinia Watch, where people in the community can inform researchers about sightings of the flower and its relatives, and look for the hypothesized very rare individual plants that may produce seeds. Photographs along with location information are especially desired, and can be shared with the global community on social media (use the #BauhiniaWatch hashtag).

Also, getting involved in educating the community is key. The project’s website, in addition to explaining the science behind the project, provides information for identifying the different Bauhinia species, which can be fun for curiosity driven individuals of any age. Now is the time! Bauhinia blakeana is in peak flowering season in Hong Kong from November to March.

Moreover, this is a great opportunity for creating school projects, to learn about botany, evolution, the latest scientific technologies, and to participate in the research or carry out fundraising to join the Bauhinia community.

This will be the first Hong Kong genome project: funded by the public; sequenced in Hong Kong; assembled and analyzed by local students; and directly shared with the community.

Being Open Data advocates, all data produced will immediately be shared with our GigaDB platform, and all methods, analyses and teaching materials will be captured and made open to empower others to carry out similar efforts around the world.

Bauhinia Genome welcomes contributions and interest from across the globe, hoping this serves as a model to inspire and inform other national genome projects, and aid the development of crucial genomic literacy and skills across the globe; inspiring and training a new generation of scientists to use these tools to tackle the biggest threats to mankind: climate change, disease and food security. We have already collected enough money to fund the transcriptome, and the next goal is to get enough funds to start sequencing the genomes of the family members. To enable us to do this support us through our crowdfunding site, like us on Facebook or twitter, and help spread the word.

For more information and to support the project visit the website and crowdfunding page. follow us on Twitter @BauhiniaGenome, or on Facebook, and include the hashtag #BauhiniaWatch for any news or pictures you’d like to share on social media.

 

Bauhinia Postcard

GPC/SEB Stress Resilience Symposium: online tools for stress resilience research

© Lisa Martin

Iguaçu Falls © Lisa Martin

Lisa Martin reports on the GPC’s recent Stress Resilience Symposium and Discussion Forum in Brazil, and highlights some of the brilliant online tools that are available to scientists working in this area.

It’s a strange thing to be packing for 38ºC weather while the temperature at home in England steadily plummets towards 0ºC. Nevertheless, leaving a cold and rainy London behind, Team GPC took to the skies on 21st October and touched down in tropical Foz do Iguaçu, a resort town on the Brazil/Argentina/Paraguay border.

Iguaçu is best known for its spectacular UNESCO World Heritage waterfalls, but we – that is myself, Executive Director Ruth Bastow, and our two New Media Fellows Amelia and Sarah – were in town for three different reasons. As well as attending the International Plant Molecular Biology conference, followed by the GPC’s Annual General Meeting, we were also running a Stress Resilience Symposium in collaboration with the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB), on 23rd and 24th October.

The intention of this Symposium was to bring together experts from around the world to discuss current research efforts in developing plant stress resilience, to showcase new approaches and technologies, and build new networks and collaborations. Our goal is to help contribute to global efforts to develop crops and cropping systems that are better able to deal with fluctuating and stressful environmental conditions.

Food Security Challenges

After a welcome from the new GPC President Professor Bill Davies (Lancaster University, UK), the Symposium got started with a session focused on how scientists are helping to overcome existing and emerging barriers to food security.

Speakers included Matthew Reynolds, who gave an overview of the crops and climate change research at CIMMYT in Mexico; Lancaster’s Martin Parry, who described his group’s work to translate findings in Arabidopsis to capture more carbon and improve the water and nutrient use efficiency of crops; and Bob Sharp from the University of Missouri (USA), who spoke about trying to understand root responses to drought.

As well as hearing from Matthew Gilliham (University of Adelaide, Australia), and Sarah Harvey (University of Warwick, UK), Jean-Marcel Ribault from CGIAR in Mexico described the collaborative approach to developing food crops, with stress resilience in mind, being taken by partners involved in the Generation Challenge Program (GCP, not to be confused with GPC!).

The ultimate aim of this program, Jean-Marcel said, is to improve the germplasm in farmers’ fields, focusing on research on six staple crops, the integration of data management, and building capacity for the future.

IBPnewlogo_0To help with the ‘integration of data management’ arm of the project, the GCP consortium has developed the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP). As well as providing access to many different germplasm resources and diagnostic markers, central to the IBP’s offering is the Breeding Management System, “a suite of interconnected software specifically designed to help breeders manage their day-to-day activities through all phases of their breeding programs. From straightforward phenotyping to complex genotyping, it provides all the tools you need to conduct modern breeding in one comprehensive package”.

iplant_logoThe IBP is hosted on the cyberinfrastructure provided by the iPlant Collaborative, which, in case you’ve never heard of it, provides free and open access not only to high performance computing power via virtual machines, but also to a huge range of user-friendly, largely user-generated software for biological data analysis. Quick plug: you can find out more about it by reading this JXB paper I wrote with my former colleagues at the UK Arabidopsis research network GARNet…:-)

Improving stress tolerance in variable environments

shutterstock_65739844The session after lunch took a closer look at some specific stress-related challenges. Drought tolerance was a popular topic, with Andrew Borrell of the University of Queensland (Australia), Vincent Vadez from ICRISAT, and INRA’s François Tardieu all presenting work in this area. Scott Chapman also provided some insights into the modeling work going on at Australia’s CSIRO, which is helping crop breeders to decide which traits to focus on to adapt to different sources of stress. He mentioned QuGene, a tool available via the Integrated Breeding Platform, which is simulation software to investigate the characteristics of genetic material undergoing repeated cycles of selection and molecular marking.

downloadIn presenting her work on understanding aluminium toxicity and tolerance in rice, Lyza Maron from Cornell University (USA) introduced us to the Rice Diversity Project, a collaborative effort to explore the genetic basis of variation in rice and its wild ancestors. The Rice Diversity Project website (www.ricediversity.org) hosts a large number of freely available data sets for different rice lines, and a number of tools developed during the project are also made freely available, including a genome browser, a genome subpopulation browser, a seed photo library viewer, and other pieces of analysis software that you can download.

Innovating for Stress Resilience

In the next session, we heard about some exciting projects being carried out across the globe that are advancing our understanding of stress resilience in plants. Chile’s Ariel Orellana gave a fascinating talk about mining the genome of Cystanthe longiscapa, a flowering plant native to the extremely barren and dry Atacama desert; Elizabete Carmo Silva from Lancaster University talked about high-throughput phenotyping in the field, China’s Xinguang Zhu demonstrated some quite stunning 3D models simulating cell structures, water and metabolite movement in the leaf; and potato root architecture was the theme of the presentation made by Awais Khan from the International Potato Center in Peru.

Speaking about the part her lab played in the PRESTA project, Warwick’s Katherine Denby showed us some of the complex, intricate transcriptional network models used to predict, test and reveal interactions between genes involved in Arabidopsis’ defence against Botrytis cinerea. Source code for the WIGWAMS tool, which was specially created to help analyse multiple gene expression time series data, is available here.

Short poster talks

At the end of a fascinating day of fantastic science, we heard some short talks from up and coming researchers whose posters had been selected for an oral presentation: make sure to look up the awesome work of rising stars Elizabeth Neilson from the University of Copenhagen, Nicolas Franck from Universidad de Chile, Cristina Barrero-Sicilia from Rothamsted, and our very own Amelia Frizell-Armitage from the John Innes Centre!

Day 2 – the discussion forum

StressResAttendeesBut the Stress Resilience Symposium didn’t end there… The next day a smaller group of invited experts returned to the meeting venue for some in depth discussion and debate. The aim of the day was to prepare the ground for a forthcoming GPC report, which will highlight the specific challenges facing plant science in terms of developing stress resilient crops and cropping systems, and outline some potential solutions that the plant science community – and those beyond it – can initiate to meet these challenges.

After hearing some presentations about successful large-scale, international projects such as DROPS, IDuWUE, IWYP and others, attendees split off into breakout groups to discuss what they felt to be the key challenges facing stress resilience research today, and the areas in which plant scientists around the world need to come together to mitigate these challenges. Unsurprisingly, this session was lively and animated, with several differences of opinion, but each thought was a valuable and useful contribution to the assessment of the global landscape. Participants talked about the current regulatory climate, particularly surrounding GM and gene edited crops; the need for silos of knowledge to be linked and shared, and for effective technology transfer to make sure that the science we do in the lab has impact in the field – and in the fields where that science is most needed.

After a long but fruitful two days of great science, effective knowledge and ideas sharing, the Stress Resilience Symposium ended with a team photo and further opportunities for “networking” by the hotel pool (or for the Australian participants among us, the Argentina vs. Australia Rugby World Cup Semi Final!). The GPC is now compiling an official report, based on the discussions at the meeting, which we hope will provide a powerful and realistic call to action for stress resilience scientists across the globe to come together. Watch this space!

Thanks to Oliver Kingham and Paul Hutchinson from the SEB, Professors Vicky Buchanan-Wollaston and Jim Beynon from the University of Warwick, Professor Bill Davies from Lancaster University and Andrew Borrell from the University of Queensland for their help in making this symposium possible.