1000 Plants

The 1000 plants initiative (1KP) is a multidisciplinary consortium aiming to generate large-scale gene sequencing data for over 1000 species of plants. Included in these species are those of interest to agriculture and medicines, as well as green algae, extremophytes and non-flowering plants. The project is funded by several supporters, and has already generated many published papers.

Gane Wong is a Professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta in Canada. Having previously worked on the Human Genome Project, he now leads the 1KP initiative. Dennis Stevenson, Vice President for Botanical Research, New York Botanical Garden, and Adjunct Professor, Cornell University (USA), studies the evolution and classification of the Cycadales. He became involved in the 1KP initiative as an opportunity to sample the breadth of green plant diversity.

We spoke to both Professor Stevenson (DS) and Professor Wong (GW) about the initiative. Professor Douglas Soltis from Florida Museum of Natural History also contributed to this blog post with input in editing the answers.

What do you think has been the biggest benefit of 1KP?

DS: This has been an unparalleled opportunity to reveal and understand the genes that have led to the plant diversity we see around us. We were able to study plants that were pivotal in terms of plant evolution but which have not previously been included in sequencing projects as they are not considered important economically

The 1KP project presented a fantastic opportunity to explore plant biodiversity. Photo by Bob Leckridge. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The 1KP project presented a fantastic opportunity to explore plant biodiversity. Photo by Bob Leckridge. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

GW: The project was funded by the Government of Alberta and the investment firm Musea Ventures to raise the profile of the University of Alberta. Notably there was no requirement by the funders to sequence any particular species. I was able to ask the plant science community what the best possible use of these resources would be. The community was in full agreement that the money should be used to sample plant diversity.

Hopefully our work will change the thinking at the funding agencies regarding the value of sequencing biodiversity.

What techniques were utilized in this project to carry out the research?

GW: Complete genomes were too expensive to sequence. Many plants have unusually large genomes and de novo assembly of a polyploid genome remains difficult. To overcome this problem, we sequenced transcriptomes. However, this made our sample collection more difficult as the tissue had to be fresh. In addition, when we started the project, the software to assemble de novo transcriptomes did not work particularly well. I simply made a bet that these problems would be solved by the time we collected the samples and extracted the RNA. For the most part that’s what happened, although we did end up developing our own assembly software as well!

The 1KP initiative is an international consortium. How has the group evolved over time and what benefits have you seen from having this diverse set of skills?

GW: 1KP would not be where it is today without the participation of scientists around the world from many different backgrounds. For example, plant systematists who defined species of interest and provided the tissue samples worked alongside bioinformaticians who analyzed the data, and gene family experts who are now publishing fascinating stories about particular genes.

 DS: One of the great things about this project is how it has evolved over time as new researchers became involved. There is no restriction on who can take part, which species can be studied or which questions can be asked of the data. This makes the 1KP initiative unique compared to more traditionally funded projects.

GW: We continually encouraged others to get involved and mine our data for interesting information. We did a lot of this through word of mouth and ended up with some highly interesting, unexpected discoveries. For example, an optogenetics group at MIT and Harvard used our data to develop new tools for mammalian neurosciences. This really highlights the importance of not restricting the species we study to those of known economic importance.

According to ISI outputs from this research, two of the most highly cited papers from 1KP are here and here.

You aimed to investigate a highly diverse array of plants. How many plants of the major phylogenetic groups have now been sequenced, and are you still working on expanding the data set?

DS: A lot of thought went into the species selection. We aimed for proportional representation (by number of species) of the major plant groups. We also aimed to represent the morphological diversity of those groups.

GW: Altogether, we generated 1345 transcriptomes from 1174 plant species.

Has this project lead to any breakthroughs in our understanding of the phylogeny of plants?

DS: This will be the first broad look at what the nuclear genome has to tell us, and the first meaningful comparison of large nuclear and plastid data sets. However, due to rapid evolution plus extinction, many parts of the plant evolutionary tree remain extremely difficult to solve.

Hornworts are non-vascular plants that grow in damp, humid places. Photo by Jason Hollinger. Used under Creative Commons License 2.0.

Hornworts are non-vascular plants that grow in damp, humid places. Photo by Jason Hollinger. Used under Creative Commons License 2.0.

One significant breakthrough was the discovery of horizontal gene transfer from a hornwort to a group of ferns. This was unexpected and very interesting in terms of the ability of those ferns to be able to accommodate understory habitats.

GW: With regard to horizontal gene transfer, there are papers in the pipeline that will illustrate the discovery of even more of these events in other species. We have also studied gene duplications at the whole genome and gene family level. This is the most comprehensive survey ever undertaken, and people will be surprised at the scale of the discoveries. However, we will be releasing our findings shortly as part of a series and it would be unwise for us to give the story away here! Keep a look out for these!

A year at the Global Plant Council

Last April I joined the Global Plant Council as a New Media Fellow along with Sarah Jose from the University of Bristol. The GPC is a small organization with a big remit: to bring together stakeholders in the plant and crop sciences from around the world! As New Media Fellows, Sarah and I have have assisted in raising the online profile of the GPC through various social media platforms. We wrote about our experiences in growing this blog and the GPC Twitter and Facebook accounts in the The Global Plant Council Guide to Social Media, which details our successes and difficulties in creating a more established online presence.

 

Why do it?

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

I chose to apply for the fellowship during the third year of my PhD. Around this time I had started to consider that perhaps a job in research wasn’t for me. It was therefore important to gain experience outside of my daily life in the lab and field, explore possible careers outside of academia and of course to add vital lines to my CV. I still loved science, and found my work interesting, so knew I wanted to stay close to the scientific community. Furthermore, I had always enjoyed being active on Twitter, and following scientific blogs, so the GPC fellowship sounded like the perfect opportunity!

 

The experience

I think I can speak for both Sarah and myself when I say that this fellowship has been one of the best things I’ve done during my PhD. Managing this blog for a year has allowed me to speak to researchers working on diverse aspects of the plant sciences from around the world. My speed and writing efficiency have improved no end, and I can now write a decent 1000 word post in under an hour! I discovered the best places to find freely available photos, and best way to present a WordPress article. Assisting with Twitter gave me an excuse to spend hours reading interesting articles on the web – basically paid procrastination – and I got to use my creativity to come up with new ways of engaging our community.

Next career move, camera woman?

Filming interviews at the Stress Resilience Forum. Next career move, camera woman?

Of course going to Brazil for the Stress Resilience Symposium, GPC AGM and IPMB was a highlight of my year. I got to present to the international community both about my own PhD research and the work of the GPC, Sarah and I became expert camera women while making the Stress Resilience videos, and I saw the backstage workings of a conference giving out Plantae badges on the ASPB stand at IPMB. It didn’t hurt that I got to see Iguassu Falls, drink more than a few caipirinhas and spend a sneaky week in Rio de Janeiro!

Helping out on the ASPB stand

Helping out on the ASPB stand with Sarah

 

Thank you

Working with the GPC team has been fantastic. I learnt a lot about how scientific societies are run and the work they do by talking to the representatives from member societies at the AGM. The executive board have been highly supportive of our activities throughout. Last but not least, the lovely GPC ladies, Ruth, Lisa and Sarah have been an amazing team to work with – I cannot thank you enough!

I have now handed in my PhD, left the GPC, and moved on to a new career outside of academic research. I’m going into a job focused on public engagement and widening access to higher education, and have no doubt my GPC experiences have helped me get there. My advice if you’re unsure about where you want to end up after your PhD? Say “yes” to all new opportunities as you never know where they will take you.

Thank you the GPC! Hopefully I’ll be back one day!

 

Thank you! It's been amazing!

Thank you! It’s been amazing!

Plant Artificial Chromosome Technology

Established GM technologies are far from perfect

The first genetically modified (GM) crops were approved for commercial use in 1994, and GM crops are now grown on over 180 million hectares across 29 countries. The most used forms of genetic modification are systems that result in herbicide resistance or expression of the Bt toxin in maize and cotton to provide protection against pests such as the European corn borer. These systems both require few novel genes to be introduced to the plant, and allow more efficient use of herbicides and pesticides, both of which are harmful to the environment and human health. Current systems of genetic modification usually involve

Agrobacterium tumefaciens is used to genetically engineer plants in the lab. In nature this bacteria uses its ability to alter plant DNA to cause tumours.

Agrobacterium tumefaciens is used to genetically engineer plants in the lab. In nature this bacteria uses its ability to alter plant DNA to cause tumours. Image by Jacinta Lluch Valero used under Creative Commons 2.0.

the use of Agrobacterium vectors, direct transformation by DNA uptake into the plant protoplast, or bombardment with gold particles covered in DNA. However, current systems of transformation are far from perfect. Many beneficial traits such as disease resistance require stacking of multiple genes, something that is difficult with current transformation systems. Furthermore, it is essential that transgenes are positioned correctly within the host genome. Current systems of genetic modification can insert genes into the ‘wrong’ place, disrupting function of endogenous genes or having implications for down or upstream processes. An additional problem is that transfer of transgenes from one line to another requires several generations of backcrossing. However, the past two decades have seen great developments in microbiology. Many new tools and resources are now available that could greatly enhance the biotechnology of the future.

 

New technologies

Many new and emerging technologies are now available that could transform plant genetic engineering. For example, high throughput sequencing and the wide availability of bioinformatics tools now make identifying target genes and traits easier than ever. Technologies such as site-specific recombination (SSR) and genome editing allow specific regions of the genome to be precisely targeted in order to add or remove genes. Artificial chromosome technology is also part of this emerging group that could be of benefit to plant science. Synthetic chromosomes have already been used in yeast, and widely studied in mammalian systems due to their potential use in gene therapy. Although there have so far been no definitive examples in plants, work has been done in maize that shows the potential of the technology for use in GM crops.

 

Building an artificial chromosome

A minichromosomes is a small, synthetic chromosome with no genes of its own. It can be programmed to express any desirable DNA sequence that could encode for one, or a number, of genes. An ideal minichromosome would be small and only contain essential elements such as a centromere, telomeres and origin of replication. Once introduced into the plant the minichromosomes should be designed such that interference with host growth and development is minimal. A key requirement is that the chromosome is stable during both meiosis and mitosis. This would ensure introduced genes do not become disrupted or mutated during cell division and reproduction. Gene expression would therefore remain the same for many generations. Finally, the DNA sequence on the minichromosomes could be designed such that it is amenable to SSR or gene editing systems. This would allow re-design and addition of new traits further down the line.

 

Potential advantages of artificial chromosomes

Plant artificial chromosomes (PACs) have many advantages over traditional transformation systems. For example, to confer complex traits such as disease resistance and tolerance to abiotic stresses such as heat and drought, multiple genes are required. This is not easy with current methods of modification.

PACs could offer a new way to introduce beneficial traits to our crops plants and feed a growing population.

PACs could offer a new way to introduce beneficial traits to our crops plants and feed a growing population.Image by Seattle.Romer. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

However, PACs allow an almost unlimited number of genes to be integrated into the host system. A further possibility that comes from being able to add multiple genes is the addition of new metabolic pathways into the plant. This could allow us to change the nutrients produced by a plant to benefit our diets. Additionally, in a contained environment, plants could be used as a cheap, sustainable way to produce pharmaceuticals. A second major benefit of PACs is that they avoid linkage drag. This is when a desirable gene is closely linked to a deleterious gene that acts to reduce plant fitness. Where this linkage is very tight even repeated backcrossing cannot separate out the genes. Design of new DNA sequences completely avoids this problem, and could allow us to select out detrimental traits from out crop plants.

 

Regulations for novel biotechnology

Emerging technologies pose new questions to policy makers regarding GM regulation. For example, the use of genome editing, whereby specific sites in the genome are targeted and modified, produces an end product with a phenotype almost identical to one that could be achieved through conventional breeding. This sets genome-edited crops apart from other transgene-containing GM material. For this reason many now argue that genome-edited crops ought not to come under current GM regulations. Much of this argument centres on whether or not to regulate the scientific technique used to produce a crop, or to regulate the end product in the field. For more information on genome editing including current regulations and consensus, see the links at the end of this article.

 

PACs pose a different set of problems entirely. Minichromosomes would be foreign bodies in the plant, and gene stacking within these introduces even more foreign genes than is possible with current technologies. This would require extensive assessment of both environmental and health effects prior to commercialization. Currently regulatory approval costs around $1-15 million per insertion into the genome. These heavy charges may discourage the further development of minichromosomes technology. However, with PACs it is possible that a particular package of genes could be assessed once, and then transferred into numerous cultivars. This would eliminate the requirement to individually engineer and test every cultivar, so perhaps saving time and money in the long term.

 

More information on genome editing:

Sense about science genome editing Q & A

The regulatory status of genome-edited crops

The Guardian article on genome editing regulation

A proposed regulatory network for genome edited crops in Nature

A recent workshop on the CRISPR-CAS system of genome editing was held in September 2015 by GARNet and OpenPlant at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. You can read the full meeting report here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Integrated Pest Management Systems

Herbivorous pests can devastate crops, with huge economic and social impacts that threaten global food security. In 2011 scientists warned that biological threats, including pests and pathogens, account for a 40% loss in global production and have the potential for even higher losses in the future.

A farmer sprays pesticides on her crop

A farmer sprays pesticides on her crop. From IFPRI – IMAGES. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

In the 1950s and 1960s huge amounts of pesticides were being used in agriculture, with negative effects on both humans and ecology. Pests and pathogens were developing resistance to pesticides, and to counteract this chemical companies were developing ever stronger, more expensive chemicals.

Perry Adkisson and Ray Smith, both entomologists, noted the harmful effects on the economy and environment of the overuse of synthetic pesticides. Working together they identified practical approaches to pest control that minimized pesticide use. They developed and popularized integrated pest management (IPM) systems, for which they won the World Food prize in 1997.

 

“Integrated Pest Management (IPM) means the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimize risks to human health and the environment. IPM emphasizes the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agro-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms.” FAO definition

 

What is IPM?

IPM is an approach to crop production that considers the whole ecosystem, integrating a number of management techniques, rather than focusing all resources on a single practice such as pesticide use. Adkisson and Smith identified a number of principals around which successful IPM should be based:

Firstly, crop varieties should be selected that are appropriate to the culture and local environment. This would ensure the crop species is already adapted to local conditions, and may have some defense mechanisms to protect itself from biotic and abiotic stresses.

Secondly, IPM is based around pest control rather than complete eradication. Therefore, maximum tolerable levels of the pest that still enable good crop yields should be identified and the pests should be allowed to survive at this threshold level, although allowing a number of pests to exist within the crop requires continual monitoring. Good knowledge of pest behavior and lifecycle enables the prediction of where more or less controls are required.

Finally, when choosing a method of control, both mechanical methods, such as traps or barriers, or appropriate biological control are preferential. However, pesticides can be integrated into the plan if necessary, providing use is responsible and not in excess of requirements. Some really cool practices are now emerging that can be used as part of an IPM system around the world.

 

Enhancing biological control

Simply reducing pesticide use can actually lead to increased yields, as farmers in Vietnam discovered when scientists convinced them to try it for themselves. Their nemesis, the brown planthopper (Nilaparvata lugens), is increasingly resistant to insecticides, with devastating outbreaks becoming more common. Rice farmers found that by stopping their typical regular insecticide sprays, the planthopper’s natural predators such as frogs, spiders, wasps and dragonflies were able to survive and remove the pests, giving farmers a 10% increase in harvest income. This improved biological control is a key component of IPM.

Brown Planthopper

The Brown Planthopper (Nilaparvata lumens) on a rice stem. From IRRI photos. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

 

Push-pull technology

Push-pull agriculture has been very successful in Kenya, where stemborer moths can cause vast yield losses in maize with estimated economic impacts of up to US$ 40.8 million per year. Push-pull technology uses selected species as intercrops between the main crops of interest. Intercrops work in two ways, by pushing pests away from the economically valuable crop, and pulling them towards a less valuable intercrop. The stemborer moth push-pull system uses Desmodium (Desmodium uncinatum) to repel stemborer moths. Desmodium species are small flowering plants that produce secondary metabolites that repel insects. Moths are then attracted to the surrounding napier grass instead.

Aside from controlling the stemborer moth, this system has a number of additional benefits. Desmodium suppresses the growth of Striga grass (a devastating weed that you can read about here) via a number of mechanisms, primarily through interfering with root growth. Additionally, the intercrop species can be used for animal fodder and improve soil fertility. The multiple benefits and success of this system has meant push pull has now been adopted by over 80,000 small-holdings in Kenya and is being rolled out to Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

 

Stem borer larva feeding on a maize stem.

Stem borer larva feeding on a maize stem. From International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

Abrasive weeding

Abrasive weeding is a relatively new technique that involves firing air-propelled grit at a crop to physically kill any weeds growing between crop rows. One issue with this method is that it indiscriminately damages the stem and leaf tissue of both crops and weeds, but grit applicator nozzles are available to more directly target the base of the stem to minimize collateral damage. A recent study found abrasive weed control reduced weed density by up to 80% in tomato and pepper fields, with 33-44% increases in yield.

Maize cob or walnut shells are currently the most frequently used grits, but the technique offers the exciting possibility of combining fertilization and weed control in one step, which could reduce time and cost to the farmer. For example, soybean meal is able to destroy plant tissues when fired from the gun, and has high nitrogen content that is released slowly into the soil over a period of at least three months, making it an ideal source of fertilizer.

 

Flowers of the Global Plant Council

A while ago we published a blog post about the sequencing of the Bauhinia genome. Bauhinia x blakeana is the national flower of Hong Kong, so naturally this sparked our interest in the global importance of flowers as national symbols, such as the English rose. Here we list just a few of the more interesting and unusual plants that are the national symbols of countries hosting GPC member organizations.

India       Indian Society for Plant Physiology

Nelumbo nucifera

The Lotus Plant

The Lotus Plant (Nelumbo nucifera) is an aquatic plant in the Nelumbonaceae family, and is the national flower of India and Vietnam. Image by alterna used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The lotus plant (Nelumbo nucifera) is considered sacred in the Buddhist and Hindu religions, and been used for over 7000 years in Asia as a source of food, herbal remedy and fibers for clothing. In 2013 its genome was sequenced, allowing its phylogenetic history and adaptations for the aquatic environment to be more fully understood.  For example, the plant has a number of genes enabling its adaptation to the nutrient poor soils in waterways, altering its novel root growth, iron regulation and phosphate starvation.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide, Australia, showed that the lotus actually has the ability to regulate the temperature of its flowers, maintaining them between 30 and 36 °C even when air temperature dropped below this. Quite how or why it does this is still unknown, but warmer flowers could play a role in attracting cold-blooded insects and increasing their activity once on the flowers to enhance pollination. An alternative explanation could be that warmer temperatures are required for pollen production.

Another fantastic fact about the lotus is seed viability. A 1300 year old lotus fruit found in a dry lakebed in China was successfully germinated, providing an insight into the aging process of fruits and other organisms

Australia      Australian Society of Plant Scientists

Acacia pycnantha

Acacia

The golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha) is a member of the Fabaceae family. The plant is a small tree that can grow up to 12 meters high! In Australia the 1st September is National Wattle Day. Image by Sydney Oats used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The Australian national flower is the Acacia pycnantha, or wattle, first described in 1942. Its name comes from the Greek pyknos (dense) and anthos (flowers) describing the dense groups of flowers that form on the tree. The wattle is an important source of tannins, and as such has been introduced to parts of southern Europe such as Italy and Portugal in addition to India and New Zealand. The wattle is also found in South Africa where it has now become an invasive pest, and various methods of biological control such as gall forming wasps (Trichilogaster signiventris) are being used to control populations.

Galls on Acacia

Galls on a wattle tree from T. signiventris. Eggs are laid by the wasp in the buds of flower heads and the hatched larvae induce gall formation which prevents flower development. This in turn prevents pollination and continued propagation of the Wattle population. Image by Sydney Oats used under Creative Commons 2.0.

Japan      The Japanese Society of Plant Physiologists

Yellow Chrysanthemum

Yellow Chrysanthemum

The yellow Chrysanthemum is a member of the Asteraceae family. Species of the Chrysanthemum enus are popular ornamental plants, and as such many hybrids and thousands of cultivars in a variety of colors and shapes can be found. Image by Joe deSousa used under Creative Commons 1.0.

Although cherry blossom is often the flower most associated with Japan, yellow Chrysanthemum flowers are equally as important. The flower is used as the Imperial Seal of Japan and on the cover of Japanese passports. Species of the genus Chrysanthemum are members of the Asteraceae (daisy) family.

Two species of the Chrysanthemum genus, C. cinerariifolium and C. coccineum, synthesize pyrethrum compounds, which attack insect nervous systems. As such these species make good companion plants in the field, repelling insects from economically valuable neighboring plants that do not have their own defense mechanisms. The naturally produced toxins are widely used in organic farming, and many synthetic versions are also available commercially.

South Africa      African Crop Science Society

Protea cynaroides

King Protea

The king protea (Protea cynaroides)  is a member of the Proteaceae family and the national flower of South Africa. The South African cricket team has the nickname the Proteas, after the flower. Image by Virginia Manso, used under Creative Commonds 2.0.

The king protea (Protea cynaroides) can grow up to 2 meters in height and comes in several colors and varieties. The plant grows in harsh, dry regions prone to wildfire, and as such has a number of adaptations for the environment. For example, a long tap-root is used for accessing deep water, and tough leathery leaves are resilient to both biotic and abiotic stress. The protea has a thick underground stem with many dormant buds. After a wildfire these dormant buds can become active, forming new stems allowing the plant to survive!

The king protea is only one species within the large Proteaceae family, 120 species of which are now endangered listed on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. The Protea Atlas Project aims to map the geographical location of proteas through Southern Africa in order to help preserve the family. In addition to protea, Southern Africa is home to around 24 000 plant taxa, 80% of which occur no where else in the world. A wider objective of the Protea Atlas Project is to map species-richness patterns in Southern Africa. The distribution of Protea plants within the region largely seems to match the species-richness patterns of other plant species, and therefore proteas are being used as surrogates for plant diversity. Find out more about the project and get involved here.

Germany and Estonia      EUCARPIA, EPSO, FESPB, SPPS

Centaurea cyanus

Cornflower

The cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) is a member of the Asteraceae family, like the Chrysanthemum. Image by Anita used under Creative Commons 2.0.

We have a large number of European and Scandinavian member groups, and choosing one flower to represent all of those was a challenge. However, the humble Cornflower seemed an appropriate choice to represent our European societies. This member of the daisy family is not only the national flower of Germany and Estonia, but has a place in many Scandinavian cultures being the symbol for a number of political parties in Finland and Sweden.

In the past this beautiful flower was regarded as a weed, but now due to intensive agricultural practices has become endangered. Cornflowers have many uses in addition to being an ornamental plant. The plant is used in many blends of herbal tea, flowers are edible in salads, and the blue coloring can be used as a clothes dye.

Canada           Canadian Society of Plant Biologists

Acer 

Although not technically a flower, the leaf of the maple tree  is such an iconic symbol on the Canadian flag we just had to include it (we are the Global Plant Council after all). There are many species of maple tree in the genus Acer, which can be distinguished from other genus of trees by their distinctive leaf shape. The most important species of maple in Canada is probably Acer saccharum, the sugar maple. The sap of this species is the major source of maple syrup, and its hard wood is popular for use in flooring and furniture.

Maple

Acer saccharum, the sugar maple, in Autumn. Image by Mark K. used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The sugar maple grows throughout the USA and Canada, favoring cooler climates and is a very shade tolerant species.  Despite this, the sugar maple is now in decline in many regions. It is highly susceptible to increased levels of air pollution and changes to salt levels. As such the species is now being replaced in many regions by the hardier Norway Maple.

Argentina                  Argentinian Society of Plant Physiology

Erythrina crista-galli 

E. crista-galli, the cockspur coral tree, is the national tree in Argentina. Also known in Argentina as the ceibo, the bright red flower of this tree is also the national flower of Argentina and Uruguay.

Cockspur

The bright red flowers of E.crista-galli are the national flowers of Argentina and Uruguay. Image by Gabriella F.Ruellan used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The small tree is a legume from the family Fabaceae. Characteristically of species from this family, the fruit of the cockspur coral tree are dry pods, and the roots have nodules containing nitrogen fixing bacteria making them important for increasing the available nitrogen in the soil. Although native to South America, the tree is also naturalized in Australia, where it is becoming an emerging environmental weed. The tree is invading waterways and wetlands displacing native species, and its spread is now being controlled in New South Wales.

If your country has a particularly interesting national flower that we have missed let us know! Perhaps we can include it in a future blog post.

Connecting Plant Science Researchers, Entrepreneurs and Industry Professionals

From Lab Bench to Boardroom

From Lab Bench to Boardroom workshop at Botany 2015

This blog post was written by Amanda Gregoris and R. Glen Uhrig who organized a workshop entitled “Lab Bench to Boardroom” at the Botany 2015 meeting in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Our motivation behind holding this workshop was to engage graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to consider the science behind biotechnology. We designed this workshop to be an opportunity to expose students and post-doctoral fellows to how industry experts and entrepreneurs develop ideas, and how they refine those ideas to make them attractive business opportunities for investors. We created an environment where students and post-doctoral fellows could ‘pitch’ their own plant science business ideas to a panel of industry experts. Through cooperative idea development with the panel and audience members, presenters were able to learn how to evolve their ideas, as well as how their peers viewed their proposed ideas.

Workshops such as Lab Bench to Boardroom are of central importance given the limited availability of academic positions. In light of this fact, students and post-doctoral fellows alike need to consider career options outside of academia prior to completion of their degrees, contracts or fellowships. It is imperative that early career researchers invest time to maximize long-term career outcomes. Workshops like ours and others assist in this by developing a thorough understanding of the non-academic opportunities available.

If you are an early career researcher looking to move away from academia, some industry positions for graduates and post-doctoral fellows may include:

  • research and development,
  • quality control,
  • marketing,
  • market research analyst,
  • business development manager,
  • competitive intelligence analyst,
  • product manager, and
  • management consulting.

Notice that these opportunities are not only based at the lab bench, but can be in more managerial or consulting positions. Your experiences as a researcher have given you highly valued skills, so don’t limit your options! Of course, industry is not the only option, and other opportunities may include working in a government lab, public policy, science writing, herbarium curation or patent agent.

The question of whether enough is being done to inform graduate students and post-doctoral fellows of alternative, non-academic career paths is one often asked, and is one that varies by institution. In our experience, universities have taken a largely standard approach, offering lectures by professionals from industry, as well as informal social gatherings aimed at connecting students to industry. Although these are good opportunities, they represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what could be done to inspire entrepreneurship amongst the upcoming generation of plant scientists, and better assist them with the transition from an academic focus to an industry focus.

Workshop concepts similar to Lab Bench to Boardroom could be developed at the departmental level, or by university career centers, to allow graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to gain an elevated understanding of non-academic career opportunities. Some universities have made great strides in this area, creating internship resources for current graduate students in the areas of biotechnology and public policy. Along these lines, university career centers will usually have databases of current job postings that can assist students in the search for life after grad school.

In the end, it is imperative that universities, governments and industry continue to work to develop strategies that assist graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the transition from academics to successful non-academic careers. This can be accomplished either individually, or through partnerships between these groups. We believe that developing these strategies is undoubtedly essential to the sustainable development of new ideas and technologies in the plant sciences that will be required to address the current and future needs of society.

 

Amanda Gregoris is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, Canada and Dr. R. Glen Uhrig is a post-doctoral fellow at the ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Both are members of the Canadian Society of Plant Biologists

Glen Uhrig

Glen Uhrig

Amanda Gregoris

Amanda Gregoris

Creating stress resilient agricultural systems: Video interviews

The global population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, and to accommodate this, crop production must increase by 60% in the next 35 years. Furthermore, our global climate is rapidly changing, putting our cropping systems under more strain than ever before. Agriculture will need to adapt to accommodate more extreme weather events and changing conditions that may mean increased instance of drought, heatwaves or flooding. The Global Plant Council Stress Resilience initiative, was created to address these issues.

Back in October the Global Plant Council, in collaboration with the Society for Experimental Biology brought together experts from around the world at a Stress Resilience Forum to identify gaps in current research, and decide how best the plant science community can move forwards in terms of developing more resilient agricultural systems. We interviewed a number of researchers throughout the meeting, asking about their current work and priorities for the future.  Watch the best bits in the video below:

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.

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