Does Australia hold the key to food security?

This article is reposted from the Devex blog with kind permission from the author, Lisa Cornish.

CIAT research

Plant samples in the genebank at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s Genetic Resources Unit, at the institution’s headquarters in Colombia. Credit: Neil Palmer / CIAT. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

It was too dry in the Australian region of Wimmera to produce crops last summer. This year, floods are set to wipe out yields again. Like a number of other regions across the planet, climate change is starting to be felt.

“It’s like this every year somewhere,” said Sally Norton, head of the Australian Grains Genebank, which stores diverse genetic material for plant breeding and research.

For Norton and many of her colleagues in agricultural genetics, the picture is increasingly clear: The variety of crops used today are not able to withstand the changing conditions and changes expected in the future.

Australia’s biodiversity may offer some help, according to discussions at the recent International Genebank Managers Annual General Meeting held in Horsham, Victoria. The gathering, which brings together 11 countries, focused on how to better conserve seeds, build databases to manage collections, boost capacity across the world and fill gaps in genebanks.

Researchers are particularly interested in crop wilds, “the ancestors of our domesticated crops,” Marie Haga, executive director of the The Crop Trust, explained to Devex. Australia is one of the richest sources of these seeds. “It’s like the wolf being the ancestor to our domesticated dogs. Crop wild relatives have traits that we have lost in the domestication process — they might need less water, might live in unfriendly conditions, may be resistant to pests and diseases.”

As climate change continues to batter agricultural yields, crop wild relatives could provide resilience. The seeds give breeders and farmers new options of plant varieties with traits to withstand a variety of conditions based on the harsh climates they are found — drought, fire, flood, poor soil, high salinity.

For Haga, crop wild relatives are a solution for food security. “The challenge is that many of the varieties widely used in modern agriculture are very vulnerable, because we have been breeding on the same line and they are adapted to very specific environment,” Haga said. Varieties that flourish today, she said, could wither as the climate fluctuates.

“Utilization of the natural diversity of crops is key to the future,” she said. “The climate is rapidly changing and we need to feed a growing population with more nutritious food. It is very hard to see how we can do this unless we go back to the building blocks of agriculture.”

Norton agreed: “Crop wild relatives have an amazing adaptability to changing conditions,” she told Devex. “When we talk about food security, we are talking about getting varieties in farm paddocks that have greater resilience to extreme conditions. It may not be the highest yield, but you are going to get something from this crop.”

Why have they been overlooked?

Crop wild relatives have so far been underutilized in the research and breeding process of crops.

“We have this fabulous natural diversity out there including 125,000 varieties of wheat and 200,000 varieties of rice.” Haga said. “We have not at all unlocked the potential of these crops.”

One reason is a dearth of research. “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives,” a 10-year project led by Haga to ensure long-term conservation of crop wild relatives, conducted a global survey of distribution and conservation and found that of 1,076 known wild relatives for 81 crops, more than 95 percent are insufficiently represented in genebanks and 29 percent are completely missing. They are missing purely due to the fact that they have yet to be collected.

“Genebank managers are generally open to include crop wild relatives in their collections.” Haga said. “It’s just quite simply that not enough work has been done in this area and the full potential is yet to be realized,” she said.

At the moment, seeds are being collected in 25 countries around the world as part of the crop wild relative project, but it is Australia that has been identified as one of the richest sources for crop wild relatives in the world. Because of the continent’s low population density and vast, undisturbed natural environment, a wide variety of species have been conserved, said Norton.

Australia holds significant diversity of wild relatives of rice, sorghum, pigeon pea, banana, sweet potato and eggplant currently missing from global collections, according to research by the Australian Seed Bank Partnership. Forty species have been prioritized for collection with high hopes that they will enable crops to withstand the harsh environmental conditions in which Australian species are found.

There are still many areas of Australia yet to be surveyed, and the full extent of its agricultural riches may yet to be tapped.

Australian researchers will play an important role in pre-breeding local species of wild relatives to improve their use in breeding programs. Crop wild relatives have historically been used in a variety of crops including synthetic wheat, but Australian native wild relatives have been harder to include in the breeding process.

“In the next 10 to 15 years it would be surprising if there is not something coming out that hasn’t got a component of Australian native wild relative in it,” Norton said who is currently involved in the collection of Australian crop wild relatives.

Collection of crop wild relatives is time sensitive

There is an urgency to collect crop wild relatives. Not only are wild species needed now to support changing environmental conditions affecting crops and farming, urbanization is putting crop wild relatives at risk of disappearing.

“We need to collect these sooner rather than later,” Norton told Devex. “Urbanization has a big impact on any native environment, let alone crop wild relatives. We know what species on our target list are more threatened than others — urbanization, flooding and fire are all risks to their security. We certainly have a priority list of species to collect and we need to make sure we target the ones that are under threat first.”

Once the varieties are conserved, breeders and farmers will need to be convinced to start using crop wild relatives. Many are already on board. “Most breeders understand these wild relatives have great potential,” Haga said.

Still, wild relatives can be difficult to work with and produce a lower yield. Haga expects there to be some reluctance, though limited.

“The understanding of the need is increasing and we feel very confident that this material will be used and some of them may be the game changer we are looking for,” she said.

The plans for crop wild relatives

Haga’s 10-year project on crop wild relatives is halfway complete. They are nearing the end of the collection phase and entering the pre-breeding process, before they are able to breed and deliver new species to farmers.

Australian support for the program includes an agreement for additional amount of $5 million. That comes on top of previous support of $21.2 million to the Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, which supports crop diversity globally and with a focus on the Indo-Pacific. Brazil, Chile, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the United States are among other supporters of the endowment fund that hopes to reach $850 million. In Australia, further resources are still required to fund and support better seed collection at home.

Globally, plans for crop wild relatives includes raising greater awareness of their potential and importance.

“We have a big job to do to create awareness of the important of crop diversity generally and crop wild relatives specifically,” Haga said. “We have been speaking for years about biodiversity in birds and fish and a range of other animals, but we have talked very little about conserving the diversity of crops. I will fight for all types of diversity, but especially plants.”


 

This article is reposted from the Devex blog with kind permission from the author, Lisa Cornish.

Temperate matters in agriculture

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Most of the world’s food is produced in temperate zones. The Global Food Security program’s Evangelia Kougioumoutzi reports on the TempAg network.

Agricultural production in temperate regions is highly productive with a significant proportion of global output originating from temperate (i.e. non-tropical) countries – 21% of global meat production and 20% of global cereal production [link opens PDF] originate from Europe alone. This proportion is very likely to increase in light of climate change.

Temperature zones

Little fluffy clouds: temperate zones are well suited to agricultural production. Image credit: connect11/Thinkstock

TempAg is an international research collaboration network that was established to increase the impact of agricultural research and inform policy making in the world’s temperate regions. Its work does not solely focus on research, but also provides insights into current thinking through mapping existing scientific findings and outstanding knowledge gaps. In this way, the network aspires to become a platform for the alignment of national agricultural research and food partnership programs (such as Global Food Security) that will enable the development of more effective agricultural policies with a long-term vision.

Since its official inauguration in Paris in April 2015, TempAg has been leading a series of on-going workstreams around:

  • Boosting resilience of agricultural production systems at multiple scales and levels
  • Optimising land management for ecosystem services and food production
  • Improving sustainability of food productivity in the farms & enterprise level

You can read more about these themes on the TempAg website: http://tempag.net/themes/.

Future foresights

After 18 months of existence, TempAg held a foresight workshop in London on 5–7 October to determine its future priorities.

Forty delegates took part in the workshop, coming from the 14 different countries in the temperate region, and from academia, policy, industry, and professionals at the science–policy interface. Through a series of presentations and interactive sessions, participants were invited to consider what the current and future challenges are in temperate agriculture, taking into account the needs of policy makers and industry in helping them to improve sustainable agriculture practices.

 

Temperate zones

Temperate zones cover much of the world’s major food-growing areas. Image from Wikipedia/CIA-Factbook

 

To tackle sustainability in temperate agriculture, there is a need to better manage risks and stresses (both biotic and abiotic), as well as finding ways to manage the restoration of natural capital, ecosystem services, and soils. During the workshop, it was noted that utilizing the diversity within different agricultural systems, via identifying the best practice and using the appropriate technological mix, may be a way forward in making production systems more sustainable.

Participants stressed the importance of taking a holistic view of the sustainability agenda within agriculture, without just focusing on environmental aspects. This means also taking into consideration socioeconomic factors, such as making food value chains (like turning milk into cheese), more equitable by identifying who gets the equity from the food commodities’ prices, or identifying what the optimum legal framework for sharing data might be.

The group also considered sustainable agriculture issues from a policy and industry needs angle. It was interesting to see that dealing with shocks (environmental, socioeconomic, and technological) featured highly in this discussion as well. It was suggested that increasing resilience to these shocks could be facilitated via the widespread diffusion of existing technologies. Engaging with farmers during this time would be necessary to identify technology uptake barriers.

Forward moves

Future-proofing agricultural resilience and enhancing the capacity to respond to shocks was deemed an urgent priority, so the development of a comprehensive map identifying the multiple shocks that could impact on farm resilience in temperate zones might be a future workstream for TempAg. Work in this area could help develop models to assess the flexibility within agricultural production systems.

 

What we eat is largely based on the types of food we produce. Therefore, healthy diets are intrinsically linked with our production systems. Another area of interest for TempAg could be to explore what the nutritional value of crops should be for better health, and what a nutritional diet will look like for sustainable temperate agriculture. Developing frameworks in this area could further inform future farming practices in temperate areas.

Since TempAg’s initiation, two major global policy agendas have been adopted by the international community: the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris COP21 agreement. Identifying what types of data and scientific evidence policy makers will need to achieve the agriculture-relevant targets was another area where TempAg could focus its activity moving forward.

Finally, delegates highlighted areas of work that could help to build more effective policies with a longer-term vision. These included developing economic tools for valuing natural capital and ecosystem services, as well as integrated assessment tools to monitor the performance and impact (environmental cost) of existing policies.

This article is cross-posted with the Global Food Security blog.


About Evangelia Kougioumoutzi

Evangelia is International Coordinator & Programme Manager for the Global Food Security program (GFS). Before joining GFS, Evangelia worked as an Innovation Manager for GFS partners BBSRC. She holds a PhD in plant development and genetics from the University of Oxford.

 

Using plants to convert explosives to fertilizers: an interview with Neil Bruce

Neil Bruce

Professor Neil Bruce

This week we spoke to Professor Neil Bruce, whose research at the University of York (UK) focuses on metabolic pathways. His insights into the detoxification of pollutants by plants and microorganisms has led to promising new solutions to help clean up polluting explosives from military testing.

 

Could you begin by telling us a little about your research interests?

I have very broad research interests that often revolve around finding enzymes for biotechnological applications. A particular focus of my lab is the biochemistry and molecular genetics of plant and microbial metabolism of xenobiotic (foreign) compounds, such as environmental pollutants. Elucidating these metabolic pathways often results in the discovery of new enzymes that catalyze interesting chemistries. Being a biologist at heart, I’m interested in the evolutionary origin of these enzymes, but also by studying their structure and function I’m exploring how these enzymes can be engineered to further improve their properties for a particular application, such as environmental remediation or biocatalysis.

 

 

You spoke at the GARNet 2016 meeting about engineering plants to remediate explosives pollution. Could you explain what this problem is and how it affects both people and the environment?

Explosive compounds used in munitions are highly toxic and the potential for progressive accumulation of such compounds in soil, plants, and groundwater is a significant concern at military sites. It is estimated that in the US alone, 10 million hectares of military land is contaminated with components of munitions. The explosives mainly used in artillery, mortars and bombs are 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT) and Composition B (containing TNT and hexahydro-1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine (RDX)). The US Department of Defense estimated that the clean-up of unexploded ordnance, discarded military munitions and munition constituents on its active ranges would cost between $16 billion and $165 billion. Explosives pollution is, however, a global problem, with large amounts of land and groundwater contaminated by TNT and RDX, including polluted sites in the UK that date back to the First and Second World Wars. Explosives pollution will continue to be a pressing issue while there is a requirement for military to train and the existence of armed conflict requires munitions to be manufactured. There is an urgent need to develop sustainable in situ technologies to contain and treat these pollutants.

 

TNT toxicity in plants

TNT is toxic to plants because of the actions of an enzyme called monodehydroascorbate reductase, which breaks TNT down into a toxic form. Plants lacking this enzyme, such as the mdhar6 mutant plants on the right, can grow very well on TNT-polluted soil. Credit: Johnston et al. (2015).

 

How did you develop the idea of using plants to remove explosives pollution? What benefits do plants have over the microorganisms from which the enzymes are obtained?

We have worked closely with the UK Ministry of Defence and US Army to understand the fate of explosives in the environment. Knowledge of their effects on biological systems is important, as this information can be used to support the management of contaminated sites. We have, therefore, been uncovering the molecular mechanisms behind these detoxification processes in plants, and have used this knowledge, in combination with studies on the bacterial degradation of pollutants, to successfully engineer transgenic plants able to remediate toxic explosive pollutants in a process called ‘phytoremediation’.

An innovative aspect of our work has been the use of genetic engineering to combine the biodegradative capabilities of explosives-degrading bacteria with the high biomass, stability and detoxification systems inherent in plants. While it is possible to find explosives-degrading bacteria on polluted land, they do not degrade the explosives fast enough to prevent leaching into the groundwater. Our engineered transgenic plant systems, however, can efficiently remove toxic levels of TNT and RDX from contaminated soil and water.

 

You mentioned that you are currently testing transgenic switchgrass to remove RDX and TNT pollution in the US. Why did you choose this species and have you considered developing other species suited to different environments?

Plants appropriate for the phytoremediation of explosives need to be adaptable to conditions on military ranges, for example, they need good fire tolerance, and to be able to grow over a wide geographical range. Switchgrass meets these criteria, and is also deep-rooting, can be grown on marginal lands, and researchers can benefit from established methods for genetically engineering switchgrass. We have also been engineering other grass species and have considered fast-growing deep-rooting trees such as poplar.

 

Turning explosives into fertilizers

In a poetic twist, rather than turning fertilizers into explosives, Professor Bruce’s phytoremediating plants convert explosives into fertilizer. Credit: Neil Bruce.

 

How quickly can engineered plants remove this pollution?

In the lab these plants can remove levels of explosives pollution found in the environment within a matter of days. We are currently carrying out field trials with our transgenic plants on a military site in the US, to observe their phytoremediation effectiveness in the real world. If these trials are successful, a number of demonstration studies on contaminated sites will be required to convince end users of the benefits of phytoremediation for remediating and maintaining military land. These demonstration studies will also allow us to evaluate any risks, which will be important to obtain further approval from the US Department of Agriculture to be able to use these plants on a larger scale.

 

What other projects are you working on? Could you elaborate on any recent discoveries?

As well as explosives, we are also working on the use of plants to extract platinum group metals (PGMs) from mining waste. PGMs are used in an ever-expanding array of technologies and demand is spiralling upwards; however, these are rare and expensive to mine. It is essential that these metal reserves are utilized and recycled responsibly, not dispersed and lost into the environment. Plants can take up metals from their environment and, in the case of PGMs, can deposit them as nanoparticles within their tissues. Importantly, we have recently shown that plants containing palladium nanoparticles can also be used to make efficient biocatalysts, and we are currently using synthetic biology in plants to improve palladium uptake and nanoparticle formation.

 


More information:

Johnston, E.J., Rylott, E.L., Beynon, E., Lorenz, A, Chechik, V. and Bruce, N.C. (2015) Monodehydroascorbate reductase mediates TNT toxicity in plants. Science. 349: 1072-1075.

Gunning, V., Tzafestas, K., Sparrow, H., et al. (2014) Arabidopsis glutathione transferases U24 and U25 exhibit a range of detoxification activities with the environmental pollutant and explosive, 2,4,6-trinitrotoluenePlant Physiol. 165: 854-865.

Rylott, E.L.. Budarina, M.V., Barker, A., Lorenz, A., Strand, S.E. and Bruce, N.C. (2011) Engineering plants for the phytoremediation of RDX in the presence of the co-contaminating explosive TNT. New Phytologist, 192: 405-413.

Farming Futures: integrating plant research and industry in the agri-food supply chain

This week we speak to Tim Williams, the Business Manager of Farming Futures and Research Fund Development Manager at Aberystwyth University, UK.

Could you give a brief introduction to Farming Futures and its mission?

Farming Futures is an independent, UK-based, inclusive agri-food supply chains alliance. Our mission is to work with researchers and industry to share knowledge, with the aim of improving the sustainability and productive efficiency of agriculture, all within the context of healthy, high-quality food.

 

What is the history of the organization?

Farming Futures started with an idea by Professor Wayne Powell in 2009 (then the director of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth) in discussion with Mark Price, who was the Managing Director of British supermarket chain Waitrose. It was launched in 2010, starting out as the Centre of Excellence for UK Farming (CEUKF). Waitrose seed-funded Farming Futures, and since then we have received support from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and Innovate UK.

 

Farming Futures

The inauguration meeting of Farming Futures in 2009, then known as the Centre of Excellence for UK Farming. Left-Right: Tim Williams, Wayne Powell, Heather Jenkins, David Davies, Philip Morgan, Jamie Newbold.

 

How has plant and crop research been integrated into the recommendations presented by Farming Futures?

Plant science is the fundamental driver for agri-food development. We work closely with industry, as well as the AHDB and other farm advisory bodies across the UK to inform them about new developments. Accelerated, directed breeding programs using genomic and phenomic technologies are helping us to develop new varieties that offer more productive, more resilient, environmentally friendly plants – not just as food crops, but also for soil quality, nutrient retention, flood reduction, energy biomass, renewable chemistry, and a host of other desirable characteristics.

Historically, to paraphrase a fellow botanist, we have bred ‘needy, greedy plants’ that deplete resources and need lots of nasty chemicals to keep them growing. Now scientists are mining the genomes of crop ancestors to rediscover the genetic traits we unwittingly threw away on the route to increased yield.

 

What roles do research partners such as universities play?

We work together in a pre-competitive way to enable research, and to represent farming within agri-food policy – researchers from different organizations can collaborate thanks to our partners’ trusting relationships with each other. Collaborations in science are vital because the problems our global society faces are multi-factorial, non-linear and multi-disciplinary. They are far too complex for the typical university research team, working alone, to address efficiently. We need the equivalent of the CERN Large Hadron Collider project for agri-food.

In addition to helping researchers to bring in millions of pounds worth of applied research projects (at least £12 million, but it is notoriously difficult to find out what industry is funding), Farming Futures helped to establish the government-funded Agri-Food Tech Centres of Innovation for a total of around £90 million, bringing in industry to co-fund and support three of the four: the Agrimetrics Centre, Agri-Epi-Centre and Centre of Innovation Excellence in Livestock. In time, these Centres will catalyze a lot of collaborative research and will help stimulate innovation and technology uptake by industry.

 

What climate change challenges will farmers face? Are there any specific challenges that Farming Futures can address?

Farming Futures and its network brings together scientists from different disciplines to discuss these problems and potential solutions. For instance, people from the UK’s national weather service (the Met Office) and some of the biggest food retailers and processors in the world come together at our conferences and workshops to think through scenarios and solutions. These solutions include breeding crops for increased resilience, not just peak yield. We are running out of fungicides that work efficiently, in the same way that we are running out of antibiotics; however, some very clever scientists have worked out some potential solutions that are more environmentally sound, so I am an optimist.

This problem solving is best done at the supply-chain level as it brings in a wider expertise. As I repeat often, a colleague once said to the board of one of the world’s biggest brewers, “No barley = no beer = no business”, inferring the question, “What are you doing to ensure that barley growers are going to be able to supply you in the future?”

 

Your website has an interesting study from 2011 highlighting six potential jobs of the future, including geoengineer, energy farming, web 3.0 farm host, pharmer, etc. How can students direct their skill development to meet the needs of the future?

There are many emerging jobs and skills, but each of these named jobs from 2011 are actually in practice now. The web 3.0 has now become web 4.0, which is the “internet of things”, with data collection from lots of devices including drones for precision agriculture and robots for weeding and picking crops.

The future of agri-food is in big data, including consumer behavior, weather forecasting, genomics, phenomics, and real-time analysis of the growth progress of plants and animals on-farm. We need more electronic and mechanical engineers with an understanding of biology, as well as more biologists who work within the agri-food industries and in government policy development.

 

Farming Future exhibition

The Farming Futures exhibition stand at the Livestock Event, NEC Birmingham, 2012.

 

What are you currently working on?

We are currently working with partners on a number of projects across the Agri-Food Tech Centres and trying to form more research collaborations. One of our big projects is The National Library for Agri-Food. I am currently working with web developers and experts from Jisc and the British Library to scope the requirements and to build a demonstration web site.

Finally, I would just like to add that we are open to collaborations across agri-food supply chains and will work to foster them, either openly or privately as appropriate.

 


In addition to IBERS, Farming Futures has four founding members (Northern Ireland’s Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Harper Adams University (HAU), NIAB with East Malling Research (NIAB-EMR), and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC)) and an influential Steering Board, chaired by Lord Curry of Kirkharle, who is very well known and respected in UK government and farming.

 

Cassava brown streak: lessons from the field

This week’s post was written by Katie Tomlinson, a PhD student at the University of Bristol, UK, who spent three months as an intern at the National Crops Resource Research Institute in Uganda. She fills us in on the important research underway at the Institute, and how they communicate their important results to local farmers and benefit rural communities.  

Over the summer, I had a great time at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Uganda. I’m currently in the second year of my PhD at the University of Bristol, UK, where I’m researching how the cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) viruses are able to cause symptoms, replicate and move inside plants. I was lucky enough to be given a placement at NaCRRI as part of the South West Doctoral Training Partnership Professional Internship for PhD Students (PIPS) scheme, to experience the problem for myself, see the disease in the field, meet the farmers affected and investigate the possible solutions.

 

Cassava brown streak disease

Cassava brown streak disease symptoms on tubers. Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.

 

Cassava is a staple food crop for approximately 300 million people in Africa. It is resilient to seasonal drought, can be grown on poor soils and harvested when needed. However, cassava production is seriously threatened by CBSD, which causes yellow patches (chlorosis) to form on leaves and areas of tubers to die (necrosis), rot and become inedible.

Despite being identified in coastal Tanzania 80 years ago, CBSD has only been a serious problem for Uganda in the last 10 years, where it was the most important crop disease in 2014–2015. The disease has since spread across East Africa and threatens the food security of millions of people.

NaCRRI is a government institute, which carries out research to protect and improve the production of key crops, including cassava. The focus is on involving farmers in this process so that the best possible crop varieties and practices are available to them. Communication between researchers and farmers is therefore vital, and it was this that I wanted to assist with.

 

Scoring cassava brown streak disease

Scoring cassava plants for Cassava brown streak symptoms. Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.

 

When I arrived I was welcomed warmly into the root crop team by the team leader Dr Titus Alicai, who came up with a whole series of activities to give me a real insight into CBSD. I was invited to field sites across Uganda, where I got to see CBSD symptoms in the flesh! I helped to collect data for the 5CP project, which is screening different cassava varieties from five East and Southern African countries for CBSD and cassava mosaic disease (CMD) resistance. I helped to score plants for symptoms and was fascinated by the variability of disease severity in different varieties. The main insight I gained is that the situation is both complex and dynamic, with some plants appearing to be disease-free while others were heavily infected. There are also different viral strains found across different areas, and viral populations are also continually adapting. The symptoms also depend on environmental conditions, which are unpredictable.

I also got to see super-abundant whiteflies, which transmit viruses, and understand how their populations are affected by environmental conditions. These vectors are also complex; they are expanding into new areas and responding to changing environmental conditions.

It has been fascinating to learn how NaCRRI is tackling the CBSD problem through screening different varieties in the 5CP project, breeding new varieties in the NEXTGEN cassava project, providing clean planting material and developing GM cassava.

 

Tagging cassava plants

Tagging cassava plants free from Cassava brown streak disease for breeding. Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.

 

And there’s the human element…

In each of these projects, communication with local farmers is crucial. I’ve had the opportunity to meet farmers directly affected, some of whom have all but given up on growing cassava.

 

Challenging communications

Communicating has not been easy, as there are over 40 local languages. I had to adapt and learn from those around me. For example, in the UK we have a habit of emailing everything, whereas in Uganda I had to talk to people to hear about what was going on. This is all part of the experience and something I’ll definitely be brining back to the UK! I’ve had some funny moments too… during harvesting the Ugandans couldn’t believe how weak I was; I couldn’t even cut one cassava open!

 

Real world reflections

I’m going to treasure my experiences at NaCRRI. The insights into CBSD are already helping me to plan experiments, with more real-world applications. I can now see how all the different elements (plant–virus–vector–environment–human) interact, which is something you can’t learn from reading papers alone!

Working with the NaCRRI team has given me the desire and confidence to collaborate with an international team. I’ve formed some very strong connections and hope to have discussions about CBSD with them throughout my PhD and beyond. It’s really helped to strengthen collaborations between our lab work in Bristol and researchers working in the field on the disease frontline. This will help our research to be relevant to the current situation and what is happening in the field.

 

Some of the NaCRRI team

Saying goodbye to new friends: Dr. Titus Alicai (NaCRRI root crops team leader), Phillip Abidrabo (CBSD MSc student) and Dr. Esuma Williams (cassava breeder). Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.

 

In Nature Plants: Come together

This post is republished with permission from Nature Plants.

Science is not a solo endeavour but a social one, and the most social part is conference attendance. Regardless of their other strengths and weaknesses, scientific meetings are critical for encouraging researchers early in their careers.

Conference

Image credit: Dion Hinchcliffe. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

Unquestionably, one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a journal editor is the opportunity to attend conferences. While the average scientist may get to one or two scientific meetings a year, we try to get to many more — and so are in a good position to compare the different styles of meeting, and to try to understand what makes a conference not just good, but great.

Mainly, it is the people who are attending. Meetings are exactly what the name implies: an opportunity to meet colleagues and discuss science. But there are many factors that determine who will attend a conference, and whether they will get to talk constructively while they are there. Location is important. Many scientific conferences are held in places well worth visiting in their own right. Last year’s International Plant Molecular Biology Congress, for example, was held near Iguazú Falls, Brazil; the XIV Cell Wall Meeting was held this year on the Greek island of Crete; and, next year, the Plant Biology 2017 conference of the American Society of Plant Biology (ASPB) will be in Honolulu, Hawaii. However, as much as exotic locations may be a draw for participants, the long and expensive journeys can be a deterrent.

Conference

Image credit: Dimitris Kalogeropoylos. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

An additional factor is the breadth, or narrowness, of focus of a meeting, which affects both its size and atmosphere. Larger meetings with a broad range of topics guarantee that there will be something of interest to everyone. These can be superb at giving a broad view of the important questions currently being addressed in a field, and usually have presentations by impressive well-known and well-practiced speakers. However, it can be difficult to meet all the people with whom you want to chat without considerable dedication and forward planning.

You often see a reluctance in speakers to present new and unpublished work at larger meetings. For that, smaller meetings come into their own, where a more tightly defined community makes it more appealing to share confidences in a room perceived to be full of ‘friends’. If the location is remote, so much the better, as it forces that community closer together. The summertime masters of such meetings are the Gordon Research Conferences, which are often (though not exclusively) held in out-of-season New England boarding schools — two of which, this year, are the Plant Molecular Biology and Plant & Microbial Cytoskeleton meetings. In the winter, there are the Keystone Symposia, which have the added attraction of afternoons left free for skiing. In fact, the conversations had while trapped on a ski lift can often be the most scientifically productive of the whole event.

Presentation

Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

More focused meetings will usually give attendees the opportunity to attend every talk, but larger conferences frequently host parallel sessions to allow many more topics to be discussed. Successfully presenting parallel sessions is hard. Ideally the topics covered should overlap so little that every attendee would wish to attend one session, and one session only — a goal never fully achieved, and rarely even approached. Instead, attendees must pick the talks that they most want to see, which are often presented in different sessions, leading to a lot of distracting crowd movement between talks. For sessions to remain synchronized, speakers must keep strictly to their allotted time — again something so difficult to achieve that it rarely, if ever, happens.

At its heart, the main point of a scientific conference is not to visit interesting places, to catch up with old friends, to party with colleagues (although much partying does occur), or even to listen to high-profile scientists lecture on their work. All these are important aspects of a successful conference, but its central function is to bring people together to discuss their own studies. Where this happens most is at the poster sessions — the great equalizer of any scientific conference..

Poster

GPC New Media Fellow Sarah Jose presents a poster at a conference

However lofty the professor or junior the student, with a poster everyone can present their work on an equal level, open to the criticism of all. They are the soul of any good conference, but they are the most difficult aspect to organize successfully. Ideally the posters should all be in one place rather than spread out over a number of rooms, to avoid some groups getting ignored. The posters need to be arranged close enough together that when the session is in full swing there is a throng and hubbub of chatter, but not so closely packed that posters are blocked by people reading the next one over. It is also vital that there is enough space to move freely between posters without having to squeeze past huddles of scientists talking with the presenters. Above all, posters must be available for long enough that conference-goers can read all that are relevant to them. Therefore poster rooms need to be open throughout the conference, not just during designated sessions, and all posters should be available for the whole conference, not taken down halfway through to make way for a second batch.

Posters provide some of the first opportunities that early-career scientists have to present their research. It is therefore always good to see conferences enhancing their status in some way. The simplest is the awarding of prizes for the ‘best’ posters, judged as much for the clarity of presentation as for the story being told. Some conferences have started to schedule ‘flash talks’, selecting presenters to give a short description of their work, and serving as an advert for their posters. This commonly takes the format of five-minute presentations with no more than three slides — but ‘slam’ sessions are also possible, where a single minute is allocated to each speaker. A variation of this occurred at the recent ASPB Plant Biology 2016 meeting in Austin, Texas: early-stage researchers were helped to video ‘elevator pitches’ about their work, which can now be seen on the Plantae YouTube channel. It is also encouraging to see that the New Phytologist Trust will again be holding a Next Generation Scientists symposium next year, following on from the successful inaugural meeting in 2014.

The planning, organization and execution of a scientific meeting requires as much skill, enthusiasm and innovation as any other part of the scientific endeavour. After all, a good conference brings scientists together to discuss ideas, initiate collaborations and forge friendships that can last for entire careers, and sometimes longer.

Interview with Dr. Winfried Peters: Bringing forgotten ideas on plant biomechanics into the 21st century

This week we spoke to Dr. Winfried S. Peters from Indiana University/Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). His research mainly focuses on the biomechanics of plant cells, which led him to take a second look at some of the ideas of botanists in the 19th and early 20th century and use modern techniques to make exciting new discoveries.

Winfried Peters

Dr Winfried S. Peters, Indiana University/Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), next to several tons of land-plant sieve elements!

 

Could you begin by describing your research interests?
I am interested in the biophysical aspects of the physiology of plants and animals. In plants, my research focuses on the mechanics of growth and morphogenesis, and on the cell biology of long-distance transport in the phloem. For both topics, a solid background in the history of the field can be quite helpful – I love studying the old literature to reconstruct the ideas botanists had a century or two ago regarding the functioning of plants.

At the recent New Phytologist Symposium, entitled “Colonization of the terrestrial environment 2016”, you presented fascinating work on the sieve tubes of kelp, which resemble the phloem tubes of vascular plants. What is the purpose of these tubes?
In large photosynthetic organisms, not all parts of the body are truly autototrophic. Some tissues produce more material by photosynthesis than they need, while others produce less than they require or none at all– think of green leaves and growing root tips. Over-producing tissues can act as sources and export photoassimilates to needy sink tissues. Sieve tubes are arrays of tubular cells that mediate this exchange, enabling the rapid movement of photosynthate-rich cytoplasm between sources and sinks.

What techniques did you utilize to investigate the function of these tubes, and what did this reveal?
During my recent sabbatical, I became involved in this project in the lab of my friend and long-term collaborator, Professor Michael Knoblauch. Michael heads the Franceschi Microscopy and Imaging Center at Washington State University, where we studied sieve tubes of the Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) using a variety of state-of-the-art microscopy techniques. Most importantly, we employed fluorescent dyes to visualize transport in sieve tube networks. To do this, one needs to work with intact kelp, which is demanding given a thallus size of 12 meters and more. So we moved to Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island, where Bull Kelp is a ‘common weed’.

A particularly important result was the pressure-induced reversal of the flow direction in sieve tubes and across sieve plates. This was in line with Ernst Münch’s (1876-1946) theory, who suggested that sieve tube transport was driven by osmotically generated pressure gradients.

 

Nereocystis wounding

An intact Nereocystis luetkeana is kept in a tank (right) while sieve tube transport is studied using a fluorescence microscope. Photo credit: Michael Knoblauch.

How do the biomechanics of the kelp sieve tubes differ from the phloem tubes of higher plants?
Regarding cytoplasmic translocation, there doesn’t seem to be a difference – in higher plants as in kelps, the contents of the sieve tubes move in bulk flow – but wounding responses differ drastically. After wounding, we found that kelps have a massive swelling of the walls, which reduced the sieve tube diameter by more than 70%. By injecting silicon oil into severed kelp sieve tubes we demonstrated that wall swelling was fully reversible, and that the swelling state of the walls depended on intracellular pressure.

Wounding response in kelp

Sieve wall tubes swell after wounding due to changes in intracellular pressure. (Images taken from video below).

Have reversible wall-swelling reactions been observed in other species, and what are the implications of this finding?
We have observed the wall-swelling response in all kelp species examined. Ironically, there is no shortage of drawings and photographs of kelp sieve tubes with swollen walls in the literature over the last 130 years; however, the dynamics of cell behavior remained hidden in plain sight because fixed tissue samples rather than fully functional, whole organisms were studied. Consequently, sieve tubes with swollen walls were misinterpreted as senescent cells. There also are publications on turgor-dependent cell wall swelling in red and green algae, but these ceased around 1930.

Afterwards, wall swelling was completely forgotten, judging from the textbooks. This is remarkable, as Wilhelm Hofmeister (1824-1877), often celebrated as a founding father of plant biomechanics, denied a significant role for osmotic processes in the generation of turgor, the hydrostatic pressure within plant cells. Rather, he maintained that living cells were pressurized by the swelling of their walls. The example of the kelp sieve tube shows how easy it is to remain unaware of wall swelling when it happens right before our eyes. Maybe we should take Hofmeister’s idea seriously once again?

What are the evolutionary implications of your work?
Brown algae and vascular (land) plants are only remotely related, and their sieve tube networks certainly evolved independently of each other. It seems surprising that such sophisticated structures, which serve a complex function that integrates the physiology of the entire organism, have evolved at least twice, but think again. Real cells are not embedded in a totally homogeneous environment, and neither is the cytoplasm within the cell a homogeneous solution. Thus every cell experiences gradients of solute concentrations along its inner and/or outer surface. As a consequence, differential water fluxes across the plasma membrane will occur, resulting in movements of the cell contents. In other words, Münch flow, the cytoplasmic bulk flow driven by osmotically generated pressure gradients, is not a peculiar process operating specifically in sieve tubes, but a ubiquitous phenomenon. Sieve tubes consist of cells that simply do the things cells do, just a little more efficiently as usual. In this view, the repeated convergent evolution of sieve tube networks is not really unexpected.

But kelps resemble land plants in other ways too. As in land plants, kelp cell walls are made of cellulose (at least partly), kelp cells are connected through plasmodesmata, and the kelp life-cycle is a sporophyte-dominated alternation of generations. Evidently, none of these features represents a specific adaptation to life on dry land.


Wound responses including wall swelling in a sieve tube of Nereocystis luetkeana. (Watch for the rapid cell wall swelling between 11 and 14 seconds in!) This video was taken by Professor Michael Knoblauch in collaboration with Dr Winfried S. Peters.
 


If you’d like to know more about this fascinating work, it was been published in the following articles:

Knoblauch, J., Peters, W.S. and Knoblauch, M., 2016. The gelatinous extracellular matrix facilitates transport studies in kelp: visualization of pressure-induced flow reversal across sieve platesAnnals of Botany117(4), pp.599-606.

Knoblauch, J., Drobnitch, S.T., Peters, W.S. and Knoblauch, M., 2016. In situ microscopy reveals reversible cell wall swelling in kelp sieve tubes: one mechanism for turgor generation and flow control? Plant, Cell and Environment39(8), pp.1727-1736.

 

Feeding the world with virtual crops

This week’s blog comes from Rachel Shekar, the project manager for the “Crops in silico” project.

Researchers watch a field of soybean emerge, grow, and abruptly die in the span of one minute — on their computer screens. These virtual crops will help them understand how crops will respond to climate change – an ever-growing threat to worldwide food production – and could lead to overcoming its threat to global food security.

Food security

Image credit: Kate Holt. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

It is estimated that, by 2050, food production will need to increase by 70% to meet the demands of a growing global population. According to the latest UN projections, the world’s population will rise from 6.8 billion today to 9.1 billion in 2050 – a third more mouths to feed than there are today. Nearly all of the population growth will occur in developing countries.

At the same time as demand for food is increasing, the world will also be facing fresh water scarcity and climate change.

Climate change is expected to bring warmer temperatures, changes to rainfall patterns, and increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events. Although projections vary, it is clear that crop yields will decrease as climate change increases. Furthermore, the countries that most need food – such as sub-Saharan Africa – are the very places that will be most severely affected by climate change. Growing water use and rising temperatures are expected to further increase water stress in many agricultural areas by 2025.

Soy field

Soy field. Image credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT). Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

Can crop yields be increased in time?

The introduction of new crop varieties that produce higher and more stable yields in the face of drought, heat, diseases, and other stresses will allow farmers to grow crops that are adapted to climate change.

Plant models can be used to rapidly identify genes that will improve yields and utilize resources more efficiently, which will provide targets for developing productive varieties of food crops more quickly than ever before.

Because many traits, such as yield, are controlled by interactions between genetics, the environment, and the ecosystem, the most accurate results can be obtained by incorporating information across different biological scales—from molecular and cellular up to the organ, plant, and community levels.

Understanding the whole plant

Soy trials

Data for the system-level model was derived from soybean trials at University of Illinois South Farms. Image credit: Haley Ahlers.

The Crops in silico team at the University of Illinois and National Center for Supercomputing Applications is developing and linking models across different biological scales to more accurately simulate plant responses to a changing environment.

The team is developing models from the molecular to field, and root to leaf levels. Once the models are linked, an entire virtual crop canopy can be created and used to identify target genes for yield improvement under a range of environments. Other researchers can then use this information to develop crops that will thrive in tomorrow’s climate.

Crops in silico is currently focusing on soybean plants. The wealth of data from SoyFACE, an open-air experiment at the University of Illinois where soybean is grown in future climate conditions (e.g. elevated carbon dioxide, temperature, and drought), is facilitating model development and validation.

Soy render

Rendered plant- and canopy-level data from the system-level model. Image credit: Crops in silico.

Future work by Crops in silico will target staple food crops in developing countries including rice, legumes, and cassava.

Crops in silico aims to create an open-source teaching and training tool for students. A user-friendly web interface will allow non-modelers to visualize model outputs as easy-to-interpret graphs, tables, animated simulations of plant growth and ecosystem interactions.

Building a research community

Plants In Silico Meeting

Photograph from the Plants in silico Symposium & Workshop held in Urbana, Illinois in 2016. Image credit: Rachel Shekar (Crops in silico).

The success of this effort is dependent on a connected Crops in silico community that can take full advantage of advances in computational science, and our mechanistic understanding of plant processes and their responses to the environment. The first step in creating the community was taken this summer when a group of international scientists met at the first Plants in silico Symposium & Workshop in Illinois. Workshop participants identified specific challenges to integrative and multi-scale modeling in plants, and their solutions.

Together, this community will create the most complete models of staple food crops, to identify varieties that will ensure food security around the world in the face of climate change.


For more information on the Plants in silico project, read the recent paper in Plant, Cell and Environment (open access): Plants in silico: why, why now and what?—an integrative platform for plant systems biology research.