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Plant Science for Global Challenges

Category: Interviews (page 2 of 4)

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.


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!

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.


Uncovering the secrets of ancient barley

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

Nils Stein

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient barley

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

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

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


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

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

Modern barley

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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