Now That’s What I Call Plant Science 2015

With another year nearly over we recently put out a call for nominations for the Most Influential Plant Science Research of 2015. Suggestions flooded in, and we also trawled through our social media feeds to see which stories inspired the most discussion and engagement. It was fantastic to read about so much amazing research from around the world. Below are our top five, selected based on impact for the plant science research community, engagement on social media, and importance for both policy and potential end product/application.

Choosing the most inspiring stories was not an easy job. If you think we’ve missed something, please let us know in the comments below, or via Twitter! In the coming weeks we’ll be posting a 2015 Plant Science Round Up, which will include other exciting research that didn’t quite make the top five, so watch this space!

  1. Sweet potato is a naturally occurring GM crop
Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop

Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop. Image from Mike Licht used under creative commons license 2.0

Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, found that 291 varieties of sweet potato actually contain bacterial genes. This technically means that sweet potato is a naturally occurring genetically modified crop! Alongside all the general discussion about GM regulations, particularly in parts of Europe where regulations about growing GM crops have been decentralized from Brussels to individual EU Member States, this story caused much discussion on social media when it was published in March of this year.

It is thought that ancestors of the modern sweet potato were genetically modified by bacteria in the soil some 8000 years ago. Scientists hypothesize that it was this modification that made consumption and domestication of the crop possible. Unlike the potato, sweet potato is not a tuber but a mere root. The bacteria genes are thought to be responsible for root swelling, giving it the fleshy appearance we recognize today.

This story is incredibly important, firstly because sweet potato is the world’s seventh most important food crop, so knowledge of its genetics and development are essential for future food supply. Secondly, Agrobacterium is frequently used by scientists to artificially genetically modify plants. Evidence that this process occurs in nature opens up the conversation about GM, the methods used in this technology, and the safety of these products for human consumption.

Read the original paper in PNAS here.

  1. RNA-guided Cas9 nuclease creates targetable heritable mutations in Barley and Brassica

Our number two on the list also relates to genetic modification, this time focusing on methods. Regardless of whether or not we want to have genetically modified crops in our food supply, GM is a valuable tool used by researchers to advance knowledge of gene function at the genetic and phenotypic level. Therefore, systems of modification that make the process faster, cheaper, and more accurate provide fantastic opportunities for the plant science community to progress its understanding.

The Cas9 system is a method of genome editing that can make precise changes at specific locations in the genome relatively cheaply. This novel system uses small non-coding RNA to direct Cas9 nuclease to the DNA target site. This type of RNA is small and easy to program, providing a flexible and easily accessible system for genome editing.

Barley in the field

Barley in the field. Image by Moldova_field used under creative commons license 2.0

Inheritance of genome modifications using Cas9 has previously been shown in the model plants, Arabidopsis and rice. However, the efficiency of this inheritance, and therefore potential application in crop plants has been questionable.

The breakthrough study published in November by researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory and John Innes Centre both in Norwich, UK, demonstrated the mutation of two commercial crop plants, Barley and Brassica oleracea, using the Cas9 system and subsequent inheritance mutations.

This is an incredibly exciting development in the plant sciences and opens up many options in the future in terms of genome editing and plant science research.

Read the full paper in Genome Biology here.

  1. Control of Striga growth

Striga is a parasitic plant that mainly affects parts of Africa. It is a major threat to food crops such as rice and corn, leading to yield losses worth over 10 billion US dollars, and affecting over 100 million people.

Striga infects the host crop plant through its roots, depriving them of their nutrients and water. The plant hormone strigolactone, which is released by host plants, is known to induce Striga germination when host plants are nearby.

In a study published in August of this year the Striga receptors for this hormone, and the proteins responsible for striga germination were identified.

Striga plants are known to wither and die if they cannot find a host plant upon germination. Induction of early germination using synthetic hormones could therefore remove Striga populations before crops are planted. This work is vital in terms of regulating Striga populations in areas where they are hugely damaging to crop plants and people’s livelihoods.

Read the full study in Science here.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed. Image from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture used under creative commons license 2.0

  1. Resurrection plants genome harvesting

Resurrection plants are a unique group of flora that can survive extreme water shortages for months or even years. There are more than 130 varieties in the world, and many researchers believe that unlocking the genetic codes of drought-tolerant plants could help farmers working in increasingly hot and dry conditions.

During a drought, the plant acts like a seed, becoming so dry that it appears dead. But as soon as the rains come, the shriveled plant bursts ‘back to life’, turning green and robust in just a few hours.

In November, researchers from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre in Missouri, US, published the complete draft genome of Oropetium thomaeum, a resurrection grass species.

O. thomaeum is a small C4 grass species found in Africa and India. It is closely related to major food feed and bioenergy crops. Therefore this work represents a significant step in terms of understanding novel drought tolerance mechanisms that could be used in agriculture.

Read the full paper in Nature here.

  1. Supercomputing overcomes major ecological challenge

Currently, one of the greatest challenges for ecologists is to quantify plant diversity and understand how this affects plant survival. For the last 500 years independent research groups around the world have collected this diversity data, which has made organization and collaboration difficult in the past.

Over the last 500 years, independent research groups have collected a wealth of diversity data. The Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) are collecting and collating these data together for the Americas using high performance computing (HPC) and data resources, via the iPlant Collaborative and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). This will allow researchers to draw on data right from the earliest plant collections up to the modern day to understand plant diversity.

There are approximately 120,000 plant species in North and South America, but mapping and determining the hotspots of species richness requires computationally intensive geographic range estimates. With supercomputing the BIEN group could generate and store geographic range estimates for plant species in the Americas.

It also gives ecologists the ability to document continental scale patterns of species diversity, which show where any species of plant might be found. These novel maps could prove a fantastic resource for ecologists working on diversity and conservation.

Read more about this story on the TACC website, here.


Approaches to biofortification

Biofortification is the improvement of the nutritional value of our crops through both traditional breeding and genetic engineering. Alongside DivSeek and Stress Resilience, biofortification is one of the Global Plant Council’s three main initiatives and will be central to addressing many of the challenges facing world health. However, biofortification doesn’t always involve changing our crops in some way. Often the nutrients we are lacking are present in pre-existing crops. We can biofortify our diets simply by identifying what’s missing and altering our life style accordingly.

Tackling undernourishment

The share

The share (%) of undernourished people per country. From: Max Roser (2015) -‘Hunger and Undernourishment’. Published online at

More often that not we intuitively link biofortification with tackling undernourishment in the developing world, and indeed improvements in the diets of deprived communities would be of enormous benefit to global health.

To do this, a key challenge is to increase the nutrient content of staple food crops such as rice in Asia and maize in sub-Saharan Africa. We need to do this in a sustainable and affordable way; ensuring foods are accessible to those who need it. Alongside the fortification of staple crops we need to identify economical crop species that will grow in harsh environments and provide nutrients currently absent from the diet.

Addressing obesity

It is easy to forget that malnutrition is also a problem in developed countries. Worldwide, at least 2.8 million people per year die from obesity-related illnesses, and in 2011 more than 40 million children under the age of five were overweight. Obesity and related health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, place enormous strain on health services, and are partly a function of poor diet lacking in fibre and key phytonutrients. Addressing this is as important as tackling undernourishment, and many of the same principles apply.

Simple lifestyle changes, such as encouraging the consumption of more fruits and vegetables, are clearly a priority. In addition to this dietary change, if we are going to biofortify foods, there should be an emphasis on crops that are already widely consumed.

Purple tomatoes

Professor Cathie Martin

Professor Cathie Martin works at the John Innes Centre researching the link  between diet and health, and how crops could be fortified to improve our diets and global health.

Tomatoes, are one crop plant already eaten widely in the West, commonly found in fast and convenience foods. For this reason they became the focus of the work of Professor Cathie Martin at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. Cathie’s lab has developed a genetically modified tomato that is rich in anthocyanins, making them purple in colour. Anthocyanins are an important dietary component that can have numerous health benefits, including a potentially significant role in the prevention of diseases such as cancer and diabetes. They are the compounds that give some foods, such as blueberries or eggplant, their distinctive blue or purple colouring. Consuming higher quantities could be highly beneficial to health.

“We focused on anthocyanins because of their huge potential health benefits. Pre-clinical studies show that introducing our purple tomatoes into the diet could be an incredibly effective way to protect against diseases such as cancer. Our next steps will be to confirm these findings in human trials,” says Cathie.

However, naturally occurring tomato varieties containing anthocyanins already exist. Wouldn’t it be better to increase consumption of these rather than creating new ones?

“Indeed purple tomatoes do occur naturally. However, these have anthocyanins only in the skin, in quantities too small to make a significant impact on health. Our genetically modified tomatoes have anthocyanins in all tissues,” explains Cathie.

Since developing the purple tomatoes, Cathie, in collaboration with Professor Jonathan Jones, has set up Norfolk Plant Sciences, the UK’s first GM crop company. However, resistance and uncertainty in Europe surrounding GM technology means that progress has been slow.

“The company was founded in 2007 and we are currently working towards the approval of our purple tomato juice in the USA. Producing just the juice rather than the entire fruit means there are no seeds in the final product. This eliminates environmental challenges without compromising health benefits. If the juice proves successful in the USA we may then work towards approval in the UK and Europe.”

It’s not all about Genetic Modification

Of course if we want to make drastic changes to our foods, such as increase anthocyanins in our tomatoes or carotenoids in our rice, GM technology will be a necessity. However, we can go some way to biofortifying our diets without the use of GM.

Golden rice

Golden rice, shown on the left, is a biofortified crop that accumulates high quantities of provitamin A in the grain. This could help tackle Vitamin A Deficiency in developing countries, from which 500,000 children become blind every year, and nine million will die of malnutrition. Photo credit: IRRI photos used under Creative Commons 2.0

Primarily we really need to focus on changing diet and lifestyle. Promoting plants rich in the nutritional components we need is essential, in addition to encouraging traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet rich in fish, fruits and vegetables. However, changing people’s behavior and relationship with food is a huge challenge. Cathie cites the UK 5-A-Day governmental campaign as an example.

This campaign was aimed at encouraging people to eat five portions of fruit or vegetables a day. At the end of this 25-year campaign only 3% more of the UK population was getting their five a day.”

In addition to dietary change, we could biofortify our crops through traditional breeding. For example, one answer to increasing anthocyanins in the diet could be red wheat. Red wheat is rich in anthocyanins, and furthermore less susceptible to pre-harvest sprouting, which causes large crop losses every year for farmers. However, we have so far resisted selecting for this trait in wheat breeding programs as it is not considered esthetically pleasing. To improve our diets we may need to change our expectations of what we want our plates to look like.

Next steps

Plant scientists alone cannot tackle biofortification of our diets! Cathie believes the key to a healthier future is interdisciplinary research:

“Everyone needs to come together: nutritionists, epidemiologists, plant breeders, and plant scientists. However, with such a diverse group of people it is hard to reach agreement on the next steps, and equally as difficult to secure funding for research projects. We really need to promote collaboration and interaction between all groups in order to move forwards.”

“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

2015-07-03 09.50.39

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, 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].