Registration open for GPC/SEB New Breeding Technologies Workshop!

New Breeding Technologies in the Plant Sciences – Applications and Implications in Genome Editing

Gothenburg, Sweden, 7-8th July 2017

REGISTRATION FOR THIS MEETING IS NOW OPEN!

Organised by: Dr Ruth Bastow (Global Plant Council), Dr Geraint Parry (GARNet), Professor Stefan Jansson (Umeå University, Sweden) and Professor Barry Pogson (Australian National University, Australia).

Targeted genome engineering has been described as a “game-changing technology” for fields as diverse as human genetics and plant biotechnology. Novel techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, Science’s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year, are revolutionizing scientific research, allowing the targeted and precise editing of genomes in ways that were not previously possible.

Used alongside other tools and strategies, gene-editing technologies have the potential to help combat food and nutritional insecurity and assist in the transition to more sustainable food production systems. The application and use of these technologies is therefore a hot topic for a wide range of stakeholders including scientists, funders, regulators, policy makers and the public. Despite its potential, there are a number of challenges in the adoption and uptake of genome editing, which we propose to highlight during this SEB satellite meeting.

One of the challenges that scientists face in applying technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 to their research is the technique itself. Although the theoretical framework for using these techniques is easy to follow, the reality is often not so simple. This meeting will therefore explain the principles of applying CRISPR-Cas9 from experts who have successfully used this system in a variety of plant species. We will explore the challenges they encountered as well as some of the solutions and systems they adopted to achieve stably transformed gene-edited plants.

The second challenge for these transformative technologies is how regulatory bodies will treat and asses them. In many countries gene editing technologies do not fit within current policies and guidelines regarding the genetic modification and breeding of plants, as it possible to generate phenotypic variation that is indistinguishable from that generated by traditional breeding methods. Dealing with the ambiguities that techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 have generated will be critical for the uptake and future use of new breeding technologies. This workshop will therefore outline the current regulatory environment in Europe surrounding gene editing, as well as the approaches being taken in other countries, and will discuss the potential implications and impacts of the use of genome engineering for crop improvement.

Overall this meeting will be of great interest to plant and crop scientists who are invested in the future of gene editing both on a practical and regulatory level. We will provide a forum for debate around the broader policy issues whilst include opportunities for in-depth discussion regarding the techniques required to make this technology work in your own research.

This meeting is being held as a satellite event to the Society for Experimental Biology’s Annual Main Meeting, which takes place in Gothenburg, Sweden, from the 3–6th July 2017.

Flipping the symposium

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Answers to the question: “Which crop species are most critical with regard to stress resilience?”

Lisa Martin, GPC Outreach & Communications Manager

GPC Executive Director Ruth Bastow and I recently travelled to Australia to hold the GPC’s annual general meeting – but we didn’t go all that way for a one-day meeting! We also took the opportunity to attend ComBio 2016, a large conference jointly hosted by the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Australia and New Zealand Society for Cell and Developmental Biology, and GPC Member Organization the Australian Society of Plant Scientists.

Sadly, one person was conspicuous by his absence – GPC President Bill Davies, who had been due to give more than one talk at the conference, was unable to fly out to Australia at very short notice. While Ruth and our Chair Professor Barry Pogson could cover his talk during the GPC’s own lunchtime symposium, this left Dr Rainer Hofmann’s ‘Abiotic Stress and Climate Change’ session one speaker short at the last minute!

Answers to the question, "Which challenges do these crops face?"

Answers to the question, “Which challenges do these crops face?”

Fortunately Rainer, who happens to be a representative to the GPC for the New Zealand Society of Plant Biology, found a quick solution to the hole in his program: it was time for a bit of audience participation!

The ‘flipped classroom’ is an approach I’d heard of, but was not overly familiar with – however, according to Rainer it is used quite extensively in New Zealand, where plant biologists can be geographically isolated. Unlike the traditional university lecture, in which the teacher gives a presentation and the students go away to consolidate what they have learned with revision notes or problems to solve, the flipped classroom turns this model on its head. Instead, students are given the subject content to learn in advance, then bring their own questions to the lecture.

Arguably, this approach makes better use of students’ contact time and the lecturer’s expertise, and provides a richer and more independent learning experience. This model also works very well in distance learning: topic notes and presentation slides can be emailed out in advance, then a video-linked webinar can be used to connect students and teachers, and a web-tool like Socrative Student can be used to ask and answer questions online.

Answers to the question, "What are key solutions to address these challenges, in the next 3 years and in the longer term?"

Answers to the question, “What are key solutions to address these challenges, in the next 3 years and in the longer term?”

Rainer used this idea to fill the gap in his symposium – and it was great! He asked three important questions, and members of the audience were invited to provide short answers via the Socrative Student platform using their computers, cell phones or tablets – answers were then displayed on a screen in real time. Thank goodness for WiFi! The questions and answers can be seen in the word clouds we’ve created here – the size of the word provides an indication of the frequency of that particular response, so it’s easy to see which were the most and least popular answers. These responses provided useful, engaging stimuli for audience-led discussion – I’d really like to see this model used at other meetings!

The three questions asked were:

  1. Which crop species are most critical with regard to stress resilience?
  2. Which challenges do these crops face?
  3. What are key solutions to address these challenges, a) in the next three years, and b) in the longer term?

What would your answers have been? Leave us a comment below!

Down Under: the Global Plant Council’s 2016 AGM

img_20161006_075356Lisa Martin, GPC Outreach & Communications Manager

As a truly global organization, the Global Plant Council hosts its annual general meeting (AGM) on a different continent each year, to give our members from far-flung corners of the globe the opportunity to come together to celebrate progress and discuss future strategies to develop plant science for global challenges.

With our current Chair Professor Barry Pogson hailing from ‘down under’, this year’s AGM was held in Brisbane, Australia, which made for a warm, sunny change from autumnal London for Ruth and I!

Starting bright and early at 8 am on Monday 3rd October, representatives from the GPC’s member societies joined the GPC’s Executive Board at a hotel in Brisbane’s central business district. After a welcome from the Chair, and a minute’s respectful silence to remember our former Board Member Professor Carl Douglas, who sadly passed away earlier this year, introductions were made and we got down to business. Ruth and myself first provided introductions to, and updates on, the main GPC initiatives and activities.

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While waiting for our Stress Resilience white paper to be published, why not read our Nutritional Security report? (Link opens PDF – right-click and save-as to download a copy to your computer!)

The DivSeek initiative continues to grow in strength and numbers, with 67 partner organizations now committed to working together to address genomic and phenomic data challenges in plant science. With funding from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Ruth has been providing essential coordination services specifically for this project, and with DivSeek Chair (Professor Susan McCouch) and a Steering Committee in place, the initiative is making real progress; a number of working groups have been launched to actively engage DivSeek partners and help the initiative advance its mission and aims.

Our other major, current initiative is in the area of Stress Resilience. As you may have read around this time last year, the GPC held a workshop and discussion forum on the subject of ‘Stress Resilient Cropping Systems for the Future’, in conjunction with our 2015 AGM in Brazil. This successful two-day event brought together experts in this area to share and showcase new research, tools and techniques. We are now turning our discussions from this meeting into a forthcoming white paper, and hopefully a commentary or two for publication in a high impact journal – we’ll let you know when these have been launched!

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Lisa talked to the Global Plant Council about our successful outreach and communications activities. Do you follow us on Twitter or Facebook?

Then it was my turn to speak on the subject of outreach and communication. With much help from our New Media Fellow (NMF) Sarah Jose (and our former NMF Amelia-Frizell Armitage, who left the GPC for a new job earlier this year), the GPC’s social media efforts have been tremendously successful this year. We now have nearly 3000 followers on Twitter, hundreds of ‘fans’ on Facebook, and over 1200 subscribers to our monthly e-Bulletin (though readership is much wider, thanks to many of our Member Organizations who also distribute this newsletter!). We were also pleased to welcome Current Plant Biology to our journal supporters; they join Journal of Experimental Botany, Nature Plants and New Phytologist in providing some financial sponsorship to support our outreach efforts.

In other activity updates, we discussed Plantae, the social media-cum-knowledge hub that the GPC has been working on developing with the American Society of Plant Biologists. Plantae is in beta testing mode to capture feedback on the design and user experience, but is growing and evolving all the time. We encourage you to register an account and sign up, if you haven’t already done so!

Sadly our President Bill Davies was unable to attend the AGM, but Ruth and Barry explained the premise of a new GPC Knowledge Exchange initiative that Bill is working hard to get off the ground. If successful in securing funding to progress this project, we hope to be involved with the development of an online training platform to transfer knowledge from the laboratory to the field – an exciting idea that will, we hope, be of invaluable benefit to communities in developing regions.

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-14-37-18As with many research networks and non-profit organizations, securing long term funding for the GPC is a continual challenge. The GPC’s main source of income is its member organizations; a revised membership fee structure was agreed at last year’s AGM, but further refinement and additional sources of funding will be required to ensure the continued sustainability of the GPC. As such we are actively seeking donations to help us continue the work of GPC so if you would like to make a contribution to support our efforts, you can do so via our PayPal giving link here: http://globalplantcouncil.org/donate.

Happily, we are pleased to welcome three new affiliate members to our ranks – the Center for Plant Aging Research in Korea, the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology in Germany, and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology in Australia.

Before discussing the GPC’s vision for the future, we took the opportunity to hear from our Member Organizations about what they would like the GPC to do for them, and what they can do for us. Lots of excellent suggestions for cross-collaborations, outreach, and novel funding sources were made, and we will be eagerly following up on these in the coming months – watch this space!

Aside from plant science, we found some time to familiarize ourselves with the local wildlife!

Aside from plant science, we found some time to familiarize ourselves with the local wildlife!

In addition to the AGM GPC also hosted a lunchtime symposium during the ComBio 2016 meeting, entitled, “Addressing Global Challenges in Plant Science: the Importance of Co-operation beyond National Boundaries”. During this session, we showcased exemplar projects involving multi-national stakeholders, stressing that global challenges need global solutions, and highlighting the unique and essential role that GPC plays.

Ruth spoke about DivSeek, GPC Treasurer Vicky Buchanan-Wollaston spoke about our Stress Resilience initiative, and Barry provided an overview of the Nutritional Security Initiative and also filled in for Bill by talking about our proposed plans for the knowledge exchange platform mentioned above. Professor Andy Borrell from the University of Queensland also gave an engaging and insightful talk about why a transnational approach to plant, crop and agricultural science is needed, highlighting some of the real-world scenarios where the GPC might offer practical, proactive support for research across borders.

It was fantastic to see over 70 plant scientists who gave up their lunchtime to attend our symposium – there were plenty of questions and very positive feedback at the end that we hope this will spark new ideas, interactions and collaborations. We felt very encouraged by the interest in and support for the GPC and its initiatives, and look forward to being able to continue serving the global plant science community.

Interview with Laura Lagomarsino, winner of the Ernst Mayr award at Evolution 2016

This week’s post is reproduced with permission from the New Phytologist blog.

Written by Mike Whitfield

 

During Evolution 2016, I spoke to Laura LagomarsinoNew Phytologist author and one of the winners of the Ernst Mayr Award. Awarded each year by the Society of Systematic Biologists, the Ernst Mayr Award celebrates the quality and creativity of the research conducted by a PhD student in the field of systematic biology. Read more about Laura’s research career and the Ernst Mayr Award in the interview below.

 

Hi Laura, please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your career

I am an evolutionary biologist and botanist who studies the evolution and systematics of Neotropical bellflowers in the family Campanulaceae, and the Andean flora more broadly. I am currently an NSF postdoctoral fellow. I spend most my time at the Missouri Botanical Garden and University of Missouri- St. Louis, but am also affiliated with the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Before that, I finished my Ph.D. at Harvard University, and next year I will begin my own lab as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University.

 

Burmeistera_Panama

Image courtesy of Laura Lagomarsino

Tell me a bit more about the Ernst Mayr Award

The Ernst Mayr Award is given by the Society of Systematic Biologists to graduate students and recent grads for the creativity and breadth of their doctoral research, as presented in a talk at the annual Evolution conference. This year there were two awardees: Michael Landis and myself. It’s an immense honour to receive the award, and it is one of the more important, humbling events of my professional life to date. Much of the research I presented was recently published in New Phytologist.

 

What inspired your interest in plant science?

I grew up camping in the redwood forests of northern California every summer. Being surrounded by such extraordinary plants — the tallest trees in the world — really jumpstarted my interest in the natural world. My very specific interest in Neotropical plant diversity was cultivated when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, studying heliconias, a group of very colourful hummingbird pollinated plants that I fell in love with immediately. Since then I haven’t turned away from trying to understand relationships between species in large evolutionary radiations in Latin America.

 

What are the current hot topics and big questions in your field?

Phylogenetics is making huge strides in methodology right now. I’d say improved phylogenetic inference, especially via methods that incorporate gene tree-species tree incongruence on genomic-scale datasets, combined with advances in molecular dating are rapidly pushing the field forward. These methods and others coming on board increasingly allow us to really tackle the large questions in a more thorough, explicit manner than previously possible. These large questions are what motivate my own empirical research: What explains global biodiversity patterns, and, in particular, why are the Andes home to a disproportionately large number of species? Why are some groups (such as Neotropical bellflowers) so morphologically and ecologically diverse, while others seem to not vary nearly as much?

 

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Image courtesy of Laura Lagomarsino

How do you think your research benefits society?

As a systematist, I both describe new biodiversity via species description and attempt to explain biodiversity patterns. My research focuses on the tropical Andes, one of the world’s richest biodiversity hotspots, but also one of the most threatened by climate change and deforestation. In addition to uncovering basic information about poorly studied species, I hope that my research will provide insights in how to best protect this stunning biodiversity for generations to come. It helps that the group of plants that I study is attractive and has such charismatic pollinators (hummingbirds and nectar bats); it makes it that much easier to communicate my research to the general public.

 

Who (scientist or not) do you see as your role model(s)?

I was incredibly lucky to conduct undergraduate research with Dr. Chelsea Specht at UC Berkeley. Chelsea was a great mentor then — providing me with the tools necessary to independently conduct research and helping me apply to fellowships, grants, and eventually graduate school — and she continues to be a great mentor and role model today. I hope that I can remain as enthusiastic about my research and generate as many well-trained, passionate scientists as she has.

 

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

I love working in herbaria, where I can be transported to any part of the world by opening a cabinet and catching a glimpse of the flora of some faraway country in an herbarium specimen. There’s so much botanical diversity that most people, even many plant biologists, are unaware of — and it’s all at my fingertips in these collections! After years studying plant diversity, it’s so rewarding to see a plant, whether a specimen, a photo, or in real life, and think, “Hey, I know you!”

 

… and your least favourite?

It’s perhaps a cliché response, but it can be so challenging to put work aside as an early career scientist. There is the guilt when I shut down my laptop for the evening that I could have worked one more hour, or that I need to work weekends after returning from vacation. I’m not sure there’s an easy way to get around these feelings, but I do my best to regularly carve out unplugged time.

 

What advice would you give to early career researchers?

Be prepared for things to change quickly! It’s hard to predict where you’re going to be in a year until you land a permanent job. It’s also important to maintain your professional relationships with current and previous advisors and collaborators; they can provide insights into your next steps based on what they know about you and from their own hard-earned experiences. But of course, also continue to forge friendships with peers: it’s so important to have a wide social net as you manoeuvre this often-scary, but also very exciting career stage.

 

Aside from science, what other passions do you have?

I love traveling frequently with my husband, whether we’re visiting his family in Costa Rica, getting to know the Midwest a little better, or hopping on a plane to somewhere further afield. We are both botanists, so wherever we go, our hand lenses and portable plant press come along. But most calm weekends at home involve lots of cooking and baking, maybe a good Netflix binge, and at least one puzzle (usually jigsaw or crossword).

SantaTeresa_Peru

Image courtesy of Laura Lagomarsino

 

Follow Laura on Twitter: @lagomarsino_l.

Watch a video of the award presentation at Evolution 2016 here.

Read Laura’s recent New Phytologist paper, ‘The abiotic and biotic drivers of rapid diversification in Andean bellflowers (Campanulaceae)‘ and its associated Commentary by Colin E. Hughes: ‘The tropical Andean plant diversity powerhouse‘.

 

This article was originally posted on the New Phytologist blog. This material was republished with permission.

How do you grow a plant scientist?

This week’s blog post is written by Sarah Blackford.

Plant scientists are generally very good at growing their plants, taking good care of them and making sure they’re well fed and watered. But what about their own development? Who’s growing them?

In a recent survey, Principal Investigators (PIs) were asked to rate areas of their work they perceived to be the most important. Research-related activities were valued the highest (Vitae, 2011), while conversely, “providing career development advice” and “continuing professional development” were rated as two of their lowest priorities, at around 5% (see figure). This, perhaps, is not surprising when you consider PIs need to prioritize a multitude of responsibilities on their ‘to do’ list.

PI Leaders report 2011

Figure reproduced from Principal investigators and research leaders survey, Vitae (2011) showing the importance of activities and functions for the development of research leaders, against their own confidence in those activities

 

From small shoots

Like the plant, overlooking the growth of the person could lead to plant scientists being held back from a flourishing career. So, taking responsibility for your own development is vital, especially since programs of professional and personal development are not always readily available to PhD students and researchers in many institutes and universities. Even if they are, the content and timing is not always relevant or convenient. I’ve been delivering bespoke career development workshops for bioscientists, including plant scientists, for over 10 years now and one of the main aims is to help people to help themselves. As well as providing practical information and advice on bioscience-related careers, job seeking strategies and career transition planning, I use interactive exercises and discussions to raise self-awareness. This involves recognizing the range of skills acquired through research, appreciating work values, linking interests with career choice and showing how personality plays a crucial role in effective communication and leadership. During the workshops, the participants complete a personal action plan identifying what they need to do to grow their own careers.

Firmly planted

Most people need to update and improve their CVs (even me!), hone their interview technique and perfect their self-presentation skills. But personal and professional development requires a range of different actions depending on career goals and intentions. Some PhD students want to continue on to do at least one postdoc and then decide whether to carry on after that. With quite a good number of posts available, and with some industry recruiters saying they prefer researchers with postdoc experience, this can be an excellent first step – but be careful to ensure you’re moving forward and building on your experience. Look at the career stories of early career researchers who were awarded this year’s prestigious SEB president’s medal – they relate strategies they have used to fill gaps in their expertise and to position themselves favorably to secure a permanent research leadership position. For researchers who are aspiring academics, their plans may include actions such as submitting an abstract to give a talk at a forthcoming conference, doing some strategic networking or finding a mentor to help them to apply for a fellowship.

Branching out

For those considering a non-academic career, their personal development will depend on which career sector they plan to move into. For example, arranging work shadowing or doing voluntary work can help shift your career towards your desired destination. I helped out at the career service during my job as assistant editor when I was based at Southampton University, giving me enough experience and a reference to break into this career. Internships can provide opportunities to spend time working in areas such as policy, outreach and publishing, and if you’re a budding science writer you can simply start up your own blog, or write on someone else’s – like this one! Everyone would benefit from setting up or improving their presence on social media, whether it’s Researchgate, LinkedIn or Twitter. These global networks help to raise your profile, provide information about companies and careers of interest, build relationships and even advertise jobs. Generic training in communication, networking, self-awareness and other personal effectiveness can help to improve everyone’s self-reliance and confidence.

A fertile future

So in answer to the question, “how do you grow a plant scientist?” I would say it depends on their field of interest and direction of growth. Never think of your PhD as the end of your learning – it’s another new beginning. Even PIs lack confidence in some important aspects of their work, such as securing research funding (see figure) and would likely benefit from training in this area, not to mention management and leadership. Growing plants is your business; without them you would make no progress, nor generate results on which to write your publications and build a career. Ignore your own personal growth and you might be in danger of going to seed!

This blog is a summary of the career workshop, organized and delivered by Sarah Blackford, at the recent FESPB/EPSO Congress 2016 in Prague.


Sarah Blackford

Dr Sarah Blackford

 

Sarah Blackford started her career in plant science research at York University, moved into journal publishing with the Journal of Experimental Botany and then trained to be a professional higher education careers adviser. She is currently the Head of Education and Public Affairs at the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) and writes a regular blog for bioscience PhD students and postdocs: www.biosciencecareers.org

Resilient cropping systems for the future

Dr John Kirkegaard

Dr John Kirkegaard, CSIRO, Australia

Last year Dr John Kirkegaard (CSIRO, Australia) gave a fantastic presentation to the Stress Resilience Forum hosted by the Society for Experimental Biology and the Global Plant Council. He discussed the need for resilient cropping systems to enhance yields, and described the success of the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative (2009-2013) in discovering the synergies between new crop varieties and better crop management.

Here, Dr Kirkegaard, who was recently elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, describes the work of the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative and the exciting new discoveries made by farmers and scientists already being used to shape resilient cropping systems for the future.

 

Could you begin by explaining how and why the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative was established?

Despite the semi-arid conditions, rain-fed agriculture is by far the most common form of farming in Australia, especially for grain crops such as wheat and canola. The National Water Use Efficiency Initiative was established in 2009 by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), a research-funding organization that collects levies from farmers to support agricultural research. They provided $17 million over five years to growers and research organizations to tackle the challenge of increasing water use efficiency (the amount of grain produced per mm of rainfall) of grain farming systems by 10%.

Wheat in Australia

Wheat is New South Wales, Australia. Image credit: Tim J. Keegan. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

Growers could suggest ways in which they believed this could be achieved and CSIRO scientists provided farming systems research assistance to test and validate the ideas and ensure a consistent and scientific approach was taken.

 

How has modeling been used to guide the research?

Pre-experimental modeling was used to determine which interventions looked most promising. This early modelling suggested there were huge opportunities to catch and store summer rainfall in better ways, and to sow crops earlier to utilize water more efficiently.  Experiments were then designed to test and validate those ideas on-farm, in experiments run by the farmers in their own fields.

 

What synergies have you found between management practices in semi-arid agriculture?

Canola in Australia

Canola growing in New South Wales, Australia. Image credit: Jan Smith. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

In wheat farming, we found that adopting a good crop rotation, controlling summer weeds, maintaining stubble cover and sowing earlier at lower crop densities was very successful. Capturing and storing water in the summer facilitates early sowing because crops can be planted without waiting for rain, and choosing a wheat variety that flowers at the right time makes best use of the seasonal rainfall. This combination of management and variety was very powerful, leading to a doubling in yield.

We are now investigating similar interactions in canola. Sowing canola early helps the plant to avoid heat and water stress at the end of the season, increasing its biomass production and grain yield potential, and improving its water use efficiency.

 

Poppy and wheat

Vigorous wheat varieties may be able to choke out weeds, like this field poppy. Image credit: Tony Smith. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

Have you discovered any other genotype x management (G x M) relationships, where a particular cultivar contributes to crop management?

Vigorous wheat varieties can have beneficial interactions with management. For example, more vigorous crops cover the ground quickly and reduce the direct loss of soil water through evaporation, and can improve water use efficiency. In addition, vigor can also make the wheat more competitive with weeds and provide a non-chemical form of weed control to reduce the overreliance on herbicides as part of an integrated weed management approach.

 

What advice do you have for researchers or breeders developing a new cultivar? How can they test its interaction with crop management?

In some cases, depending on the genetic change that is present in a new variety, there may be little interaction with management. However, large and obvious changes in crop traits, such as changes in crop vigor or root and shoot architecture, may interact strongly with numerous aspects of management (e.g. sowing date, sowing density, nutrient management, weed management). It would be wise to test some of these interactions before crop release, so that the new variety is released WITH a package of sound management strategies to maximize productivity.

 

Stubble cover

Leaving stubble on a field maintains water and increases soil organic matter. Image credit: USDA NRCS South Dakota. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

How will the findings of the National Water Use Efficiency Initiative be built upon in the future?

I believe we have had an impact on the way research is approached. Rather than assume that a single intervention or new variety will have a large impact, people are now more interested in what packages of management and varieties will be most successful. It’s like always asking “what else do I need to add to my innovation to get the most out of it?” Testing some of the G x M interactions experimentally during the pre-breeding process may be a fruitful area to identify likely synergies well ahead of cultivar release.

Large increases in system productivity rarely come from a single transformational change; they arise when several interacting factors combine, such as in the first agricultural revolution in Europe, or the Green Revolution in India and Asia. New crop types combined with management packages to fulfil the higher potential is what made the difference. We need to envisage what combination might provide those synergies for the crops of the future and be sure we organize ourselves and capture those possibilities by NOT staying in comfortable discipline siloes.

 

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:

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

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

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

Generation Challenge Programme

Research initiatives

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

GCP Research Initiatives

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

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

An ongoing legacy of knowledge

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

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

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

Integrated Breeding Platform

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

The keys to success

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

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

MYC students

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

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

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

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

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

© Lisa Martin

Iguaçu Falls © Lisa Martin

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

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

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

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

Food Security Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving stress tolerance in variable environments

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

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

Innovating for Stress Resilience

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

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

Short poster talks

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

Day 2 – the discussion forum

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

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

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

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