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.

Stress Resilience: Call for papers for a JXB Special Issue!

GPC banner Without linkFollowing the recent Stress Resilience Symposium and Discussion Forum that we co-hosted in Brazil last month with the Society for Experimental Biology, we are pleased to announce a call for papers for a forthcoming Special Issue of the SEB’s Journal of Experimental Botany.

Achieving food security in a changing and unpredictable climate urgently requires a better understanding of the mechanisms by which plants interact with and respond to their environments. This special issue will bring together a collection of papers highlighting the best current research in stress resilience contributing to global efforts to develop crops and cropping systems that are better able to deal with fluctuating and stressful environmental conditions.

Proposals are invited for the submission of new and innovative research papers that contribute to this goal (submission before the end of January 2016 will guarantee inclusion in the special issue pending positive peer review). Confirmed contributors already include: Andrew Borrell (University of Queensland, Australia), Elizabete Carmo-Silva (Lancaster University, UK), Scott Chapman (CSIRO, Australia), Bill Davies (GPC President and Lancaster University, UK), Lyza Maron (Cornell University, USA), Jianbo Shen (China Agricultural University), and Roberto Tuberosa (University of Bologna, Italy).

If you would like to contribute a paper, please email a title and short abstract to Mary Traynor: [email protected].

Plant Biology Scandinavia 2015

Celia Knight and Saijaliisa Kangasjarvi at the conference dinner

Celia Knight and Saijaliisa Kangasjarvi at the conference dinner

The 26th Scandanavian Plant Physiology Society (SPPS) Congress took place from the 9th – 13th August at Stockholm University. Celia Knight attended the meeting and has written a report for the blog this week, so that those of you who couldn’t attend are up to speed!

A diversity of speakers and topics

Attending SPPS 2015 was a fantastic opportunity to hear about progress across a really broad spectrum of plant biology research. The program included sessions on development, epigenetics and gene regulations, high-throughput biology, photobiology, abiotic stress, education and outreach, and biotic interactions. There really was something for everyone! Additionally, the organizers had made a notable effort to include a good mix of both established and early career researchers, further adding to the diversity of talks on offer.

I was struck by the contributions from the various Society awards so will focus on these.

Beautiful Stockholm where the meeting was held

Beautiful Stockholm where the meeting was held

SPPS awards

Gunnar Öquist (Umeå University, Sweden) was given the SPPS Award in recognition of his outstanding merited contribution to the science of plant biology. His talk entitled “My view of how to foster more transformative research” provided a reminder that the dual aims of research, both to solve problems and to seek new knowledge, are very important if global challenges are to be met.

The SPPS early career award recognizes a highly talented scientist who has made a significant contribution to Scandinavian plant biology. This year two early career awards were given. The first recipient, Ari-Pekka Mähönen (University of Helsinki, Finland), received the award for his work on growth dynamics in Arabidopsis thaliana, and showed some amazing sections to follow cambium development. Nathaniel Street (Umeå University, Sweden) also received an award for his work “Applying next generation sequencing to genomic studies of Aspen species and Norway Spruce”. Both gave great talks including strong research in these areas; it was great to see upcoming researchers take the spotlight and give us a glimpse to the future of plant biology.

Torgny Näsholm (SLU, Umeå Sweden) was awarded the Physiologia Plantarum award. This award is given to a scientist that has made significant contribution to the areas of plant science covered by the journal Physiologia Plantarum. Torgny uses microdialysis, a technique currently used by neuroscientists, to investigate the availability of soil nitrogen to plants. Data generated using this technique are now bringing into question our current view of nitrogen availability measured using traditional methods.

Additional activities included a tour of the Bergius Botanic Garden

Additional activities included a tour of the Bergius Botanic Garden

The Popularisation prize, awarded to Stefan Jansson (Umeå University, Sweden), recognizes significant contributions to science communication and public engagement. Stefan’s work in public engagement has been wide-ranging. He has been involved with The Autumn Experiment, a citizen science project engaging schools in observation, data collection and real research. Recently Stefan published a book in Sweden, called ‘GMO’, which tackles the response of societies to genetically modified organisms.

At the congress, Stefan took over as the new President of the SPPS. This could lead to further emphasis and resources being placed on communicating science as the society moves forward.

Poster prizes

Prizes for the best posters are also awarded at the meeting. Five judges, including myself, assessed the posters, and the competition was fierce. It was impossible to split the top prize, so joint 1st prizes were awarded to Veli Vural Uslu (Heidelberg University, Germany) on “Elucidating early steps of sulfate sensing mechanisms by biosensors” and to Timo Engelsdorf (Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway) for “Plant cell wall integrity is maintained through cooperation of different sensing mechanisms”. Joint second prizes went to Zsofia Stangl (Umeå University, Sweden) on “Nutrient requirement of growth in different thermal environments” and to Annika Karusion (University of Tartu, Estonia) for “Circadian patterns of hydraulic and xylem sap properties: in situ study on hybrid aspen.”

Additional activities

Like any meeting, SPPS wasn’t all work and no play! Lisbeth Jonsson (Stockholm University, Sweden) and her team organized an excellent program. I feel very fortunate, on this short trip, to have had the opportunity to view Stockholm’s fine City Hall where Nobel laureates have dined, as well  as the incredibly preserved Vasa ship, which sank in Stockholm bay on its maiden voyage in 1628.

I very much look forward to seeing how the society progresses in the future, and nurturing new friendships and collaborations I made at the congress.

The Drinks reception at the City Hall, walking in the footsteps of Nobel Laureates

The Drinks reception at the City Hall, walking in the footsteps of Nobel Laureates

Plant Biology 2015: Introducing Plantae.org

Minneapolis skyline. Photo by 'zman z28', Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Minneapolis skyline. Photo by ‘zman z28’, Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Ruth and I recently flew out to Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, to attend the American Society of Plant Biologists’ (ASPB) annual conference, Plant Biology 2015.

Ruth did a sterling job of live-tweeting the scientific sessions she attended. She also spent some time stationed at the ASPB booth to talk to people about the Global Plant Council (GPC), as well as a big project we’re helping to bring to life: Plantae.org. I’ll talk more about what I did at the conference later… But first, what is Plantae.org?

The Evolution of Plantae.org

Some time ago, here at the GPC, we thought it would be a great idea if there was one, online location where plant scientists and teachers could go to look for and share new ideas, tools and resources for research and education. We tentatively called it the ‘Plant Knowledge Hub’, and set about looking for people or organizations that might be able to help us make it a reality.

In doing so, we discovered that the ASPB was interested in creating a kind of community networking and collaboration platform, for which they had the working title ‘Plant Science Exchange’. Joining forces, we decided to combine the two ideas into one big portal, now called ‘Plantae’. Extending beyond the ASPB membership, Plantae will be for plant scientists and educators all over the world. We hope it will become the leading plant science resource hub and community gathering place.

Lisa modeling her Plantae t-shirt!

Lisa modeling her Plantae t-shirt!

At this point, I should also mention the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB), without whose help the GPC would not have been able to move forward with this project. The SEB generously provided enough funding for my post! I joined the GPC in February as the Outreach & Communications Manager, so as well as looking after the GPC’s internal and external communications and helping to spread the word about the work of the GPC, one of my main duties is to identify and curate tools, resources and plant science information to upload to Plantae.

Building Plantae.org

I’ve made a few simple websites in the past, but nothing as complicated as an entire ‘digital ecosystem’ so taking the ‘Plant Science Knowledge Exchange Hub’ from an idea to the reality of Plantae.org was going to be a mammoth task. Fortunately we have had a lot of help!

Susan Cato, the ASPB’s Director of Member Services and Digital Marketing, and her team, have been doing a stellar job of pulling different stakeholder groups together to build and develop the Plantae platform. As well as a group of web architects to build the portal’s infrastructure, an agency called LookThink has been involved, with the unenviable task of optimizing the user experience. It’s no mean feat to take our ideas about what the platform should do, and the practicalities of how it can be built, to ensure that the final online product actually does what users want and need it to do in an intuitive, user-friendly way!

Ultimately, Plantae.org will have features such as Facebook or LinkedIn-style user profiles and groups, with the ability to ‘connect’, interact and send private messages. It will have public and private discussion boards where scientists can collaborate, talk about issues in science, or ask questions to the community and have them answered. It will eventually contain hundreds and thousands of pages of content including research papers, teaching resources, videos, posters and much more, some of which will be curated by groups like the GPC, and others uploaded directly by members. Underlying all of this, the portal needs a robust, intuitive search engine to allow users to find exactly the contact they are looking for.

User Testing the Beta Version

PlantBiology2015logoSo during the ASPB conference, I was to be found in a meeting room with Clare Torrans from LookThink, helping her to conduct some user experience analysis on an early beta version of the Plantae site. We recruited a range of potential Plantae users – from students through to senior professors – and asked them to tell us what they thought of the idea of Plantae, whether they would use it and find it useful, whether the icons, buttons and links on the screen did what they expected, and what else they would like Plantae to do.

I’d never consciously considered the ‘user experience’ of a website before, but having spent time with Clare, I now realize it’s a vital part of the build process – and now I’m analyzing every website I visit!

The feedback we received was varied: there were some clear patterns related to age, academic level, or previous experience with social media, some people pointed out elements of the site I hadn’t even noticed, or misinterpreted buttons I’d thought were obvious, but – positive or negative – all of the feedback we received was useful and will be fed back into the site development process.

When can I start using Plantae?

The site isn’t quite ready yet, but taking into account all of the data we obtained from the user testing sessions at Plant Biology 15, we will hopefully be ready for launch in the Autumn. Watch this space for more news!

Get a new view: attend an interdisciplinary conference

When I first volunteered to write a blog about the Plant Wax 2015 conference, I thought I’d be writing about its relevance to the Global Plant Council’s stress resilience initiative. After all, the waxy coating (cuticle) that covers the aerial surfaces of plants is particularly important as a barrier against water loss and pathogens, while reflecting excess heat and UV radiation.

As it turns out, one of the most important lessons I learned from the meeting was a reminder of the powerful synergy that can happen when people with radically different goals and approaches get together to share ideas.

Water drops on a leaf

Plants are coated with a hydrophobic waxy covering known as a cuticle. Image credit: Adrian Scottow. Licensed under: CC BY-SA 2.0.

A meeting of two worlds

Biologists are from Venus, organic geochemists are from Mars

In the run up to the meeting, held 16–19 June 2015 in beautiful Ascona, Switzerland, I realized that the majority of speakers and delegates were organic geochemists, rather than plant scientists like myself. Other than brief discussions with the academics in the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry I hadn’t had much interaction with this area of research, so didn’t really know what to expect.

Plant biologists are interested in cuticular waxes because of their impact on the physiology of the plant. The cuticle is composed of many different types of compounds, including alkanes, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones and esters, to say nothing of the more complicated compounds I learnt about at the conference (triterpenoids, anyone?). Each compound gives the wax certain characteristics, making it more suited to a particular environment, or to enhancing a particular function. Many of these changes, however, are yet to be fully understood.

 

The structure of the cuticle

The cuticle is formed of hydrophobic wax compounds on a scaffold of cutin (a polyester polymer), topped with a layer comprising only wax. Image credit: Yeats and Rose, 2013. Plant Physiology.

 

Organic geochemists, on the other hand, extract plant waxes from soils, sediments and rocks and analyze them as an integrated signal to cleverly reconstruct past climates. They typically investigate n-alkanes, the simplest straight-chain compounds found in waxes, which are least likely to break down over time. Amazingly, they can look at the ratio of deuterium (heavy hydrogen, 2H) to normal hydrogen (1H) in the n-alkanes to work out the plants’ source of water, or the ratio of 13C to 12C to work out whether the majority of plants at that time were using C3 or C4 photosynthesis.

The Plant Wax conference was organized to try and bring these two very different groups together, encouraging communication and crossover between research fields, and specifically, to answer the question: what could we learn from each other?

 

Leaf fossil

Plant waxes can be preserved in fossils, but organic geochemists typically look at sediments and sedimentary rocks. Image credit: James St. John. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Interdisciplinary cooperation

At the start of the conference, I don’t think the majority of biologists had much knowledge of the finer details of organic geochemistry. Likewise, many geochemists said they only had a general overview understanding of wax biosynthesis and plant physiology. The two fields have very little crossover in the scientific literature.

Since geologists’ isotope studies are based on generalizations made from modern biological studies in a few plant species, the geologists had several requests for biologists. Firstly, to improve climate reconstructions, they asked for more biological data!

The geochemists asked the biologists whether there was anything they could help us with. It was quite hard for me to imagine how their methods – environmental reconstructions of the past based on biological studies – could help us with modern plant biology.

In fact, I felt a little smug. I’d been feeling decidedly ignorant while hearing about ingenious geochemistry research, so I almost felt vindicated: did they need us more than we needed them?

It wasn’t until the last day of the conference that I realized just how wrong I was.

Dr Nikolai Pedentchouk

Dr Nikolai Pedentchouk

One of the last talks was by Dr Nikolai Pedentchouk, University of East Anglia, UK. He’s a collaborator of Amelia Frizell-Armitage, my fellow Global Plant Council New Media Fellow, and works on wheat waxes from an organic geochemist’s perspective.

Nikolai described his research into carbon and hydrogen isotopes in the waxy compounds of glaucous (dull blue-ish grey wax) versus non-glaucous (glossy green) wheat: “I used a field set-up to investigate several issues that are of interest to palaeoecologists and palaeoclimatologists and potentially to plant biochemists. We really wanted to know whether differences in leaf wax composition or amount resulted in differences in the isotope values of individual compound classes”.

How could this isotope research be useful to biologists? Amazingly, it could be used to elucidate the biosynthetic pathways for the different compounds in wheat wax – something that has so far not been possible using standard biological techniques.

“When plants synthesize organic compounds they fractionate stable isotopes, for example 13C vs. 12C and 2H vs. 1H. By measuring the isotopic composition of individual compound classes we could potentially reconstruct the order of reactions that could have led to the biosynthesis of a particular compound”, explained Nikolai.

Glaucous and non-glaucous wheat wax crystals

Wax crystals of glaucous (dull blue-ish grey) and non-glaucous (glossy) wheat wax crystals, taken on a scanning electron microscope. Image credit: Amelia Frizell-Armitage.

New perspectives

Nikolai’s application of geochemical techniques to solve a biological problem really opened my eyes to the innovations that can be made when people from vastly different research backgrounds work together and share ideas. Whether its using quantum mechanics to improve our understanding of photosynthesis, or chemical and computational modeling to advance synthetic biology, interdisciplinary collaboration is driving plant science research forwards, and I encourage you all to think outside your research box too!

“So what does the Global Plant Council actually do?” – SEB Prague 2015

Dobrý den!

 View across the Vltava river of Prague's Old Town and the Charles Bridge.


View across the Vltava river of Prague’s Old Town and the Charles Bridge.

Last week I attended the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB)’s Annual Main Meeting in the wonderful city of Prague in the Czech Republic.

Armed with a banner, a new batch of hot-off-the-press leaflets, some of our infamous GPC recycled paper pens, and a map of the world, the purpose of my trip was to staff an exhibitor’s booth at the conference to help raise awareness of the GPC and the projects and initiatives we are involved with.

2015-07-03 09.50.14To encourage delegates to speak to the exhibitors, there was a chance to win prizes in exchange for a ‘passport’ filled with stickers or stamps collected from each of the booths. This gave me a fantastic opportunity to meet people from all over the world and tell them about the Global Plant Council – even the SEB’s Animal and Cell biologists!

Many visitors to the booth were from Europe, but I also met people from as far away as Argentina, Australia, China and Vietnam. Thanks to everyone who visited the booth and gave me their email addresses to sign up for our monthly e-Bulletin newsletter!

“So what does the Global Plant Council actually do?”

This was the question I was most frequently asked at the conference. The answer is: many things! But to simplify matters, our overall remit falls into two main areas.

1) Enabling better plant science

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Visitors to our booth at SEB 2015 were asked to put their plant science on the map!

Plant science has a critical role to play in meeting global challenges such as food security, hunger and malnutrition. The GPC currently has 29 member organizations, including the SEB, representing over 55,000 plant, crop, agricultural and environmental scientists around the world. By bringing these professional organizations together under a united global banner, we have a stronger voice to help influence and shape policy and decision-making at the global level.  Our Executive Board and member organization representatives meet regularly and feed into international discussions and consultations.

The GPC also aims to facilitate more effective and efficient plant-based scientific research. Practically speaking, this means we organize, promote, provide support for, and assist with internationally collaborative projects and events. A good example is the Stress Resilience Symposium and Discussion Forum we are hosting, together with the SEB, in Brazil in October.

This meeting – which will be a satellite meeting of the International Plant Molecular Biology 2015 conference – will bring together scientists from across the world who are studying the mechanisms by which plants interact with and respond to their environments, particularly in the face of climate change. It will provide an excellent opportunity for researchers of all levels and from different regions to network and learn from each other, fostering new relationships and collaborations across borders. Registration and abstract submission is now open, so why not come along!

Importantly, as well as learning from researchers all over the world about the fantastic research they are doing, we also want to identify important research that is not being done, or which could be done better. Then, we can come together to discuss strategies to fund and fill these gaps.

You can find out more about our other current initiatives by going to our website.

2) Enabling better plant scientists

2015-07-03 12.42.41As well as physically bringing people together at meetings and events, the Global Plant Council aims to better connect plant scientists from around the world, promote plant research and funding opportunities, share knowledge and best practice, and identify reports, research tools, and educational resources.

Plant scientists have created an amazing diversity of assets for research and education, so by facilitating access to and encouraging use of these resources, we hope that a desperately needed new generation of plant researchers will be inspired to continue working towards alleviating some of the world’s most pressing problems. For example, we’re translating plant science teaching materials into languages other than English, and are helping the American Society of Plant Biologists to curate content for Plantae.org, an online resource hub and gathering place for the plant science community that will be launched later this year – stay tuned!

My #SEBSelfie! Other updates from the meeting can be found by following the hashtag #SEBAMM on Twitter.

My #SEBSelfie! Other updates from the meeting can be found by following the hashtag #SEBAMM on Twitter.

In addition, the GPC website is full of useful information including research and funding news, an events calendar, reports and white papers, fellowships and awards. We operate a Twitter account (@GlobalPlantGPC) for up-to-the-minute news and views, and a Spanish version @GPC_EnEspanol. We also have a blog (obviously!) that is regularly updated with interesting and informative articles written by the GPC staff, our two New Media Fellows, and plant scientists from across our member network. A Facebook page will be coming soon!

If you would like any more information about the projects and initiatives mentioned here, or more details about the GPC’s work, please do contact me (Lisa Martin, Outreach & Communications Manager): [email protected].