Global Plant Council stress resilience commentaries published in Food and Energy Security

In October 2015, researchers from around the world came together in Iguassu Falls, Brazil, for the Stress Resilience Symposium, organized by the Global Plant Council and the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB), to discuss the current research efforts in developing plants resistant to the changing climate. (See our blog by GPC’s Lisa Martin for more on this meeting!)

Building on the success of the meeting, the Global Plant Council team and attendees compiled a set of papers to provide a powerful call to action for stress resilience scientists around the world to come together to tackle some of the biggest challenges we will face in the future. These four papers were published in the Open Access journal Food and Energy Security alongside an editorial about the Global Plant Council.

In the editorial, the Global Plant Council team (Lisa Martin, Sarah Jose, and Ruth Bastow) introduce readers to the Global Plant Council mission, and describe the Stress Resilience initiative, the meeting, and introduce the papers that came from it.

In the first of the commentaries, Matthew Gilliham (University of Adelaide), Scott Chapman (CSIRO), Lisa Martin, Sarah Jose, and Ruth Bastow discuss ‘The case for evidence-based policy to support stress-resilient cropping systems‘, commenting on the important relationships between research and policy and how each must influence the other.

Global Plant Council President Bill Davies (Lancaster University) and CIMMYT‘s Jean-Marcel Ribaut outline the ways in which research can be translated into locally adapted agricultural best practices in their article, ‘Stress resilience in crop plants: strategic thinking to address local food production problems‘.

In the next paper, ‘Harnessing diversity from ecosystems to crops to genes‘, Vicky Buchanan-Wollaston (University of Warwick), Zoe Wilson (University of Nottingham), François Tardieu (INRA), Jim Beynon (University of Warwick), and Katherine Denby (University of York) describe the challenges that must be overcome to promote effective and efficient international research collaboration to develop new solutions and stress resilience plants to enhance food security in the future.

University of Queensland‘s Andrew Borrell and CIMMYT‘s Matthew Reynolds discuss how best to bring together researchers from different disciplines, highlighting great examples of this in their paper, ‘Integrating islands of knowledge for greater synergy and efficiency in crop research‘.

In all of these papers, the authors suggest practical short- and long-term action steps and highlight ways in which the Global Plant Council could help to bring researchers together to coordinate these changes most effectively.

Read the papers in Food and Energy Security here.

In Nature Plants: Come together

This post is republished with permission from Nature Plants.

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

Conference

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

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

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

Conference

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

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

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

Presentation

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

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

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

Poster

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

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

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

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

Interview with 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?

 

Sipho_retorsus_CDB241__COL_4141

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.

A postcard from the Spanish Society of Plant Physiology

SEFV logoThe Spanish Society of Plant Physiology (Sociedad Española de Fisiología Vegetal; SEFV) is a society for scientific professionals with an interest in how plant organs, tissues, cells, organelles, genes, and molecules function, not only individually but also through their interaction with the natural environment.

The society was founded in 1974, and currently has approximately 600 members distributed across the seven groups that constitute the SEFV, namely; Phytohormones, Maturation and Postharvest, Carbohydrates, Nitrogen Metabolism, Water Relations, Mineral Nutrition, and Biotechnology and Forestry Genomics.

One of the main objectives of the society is to organize meetings, which are held every two years in collaboration with fellow GPC Member Organization, the Portuguese Society of Plant Physiology (Sociedade Portuguesa de Fisiologia Vegetal; SPFV). In the alternate years between SEFV conferences, the different SEFV groups hold individual biannual meetings.

SEFV 2015 Biannual Meeting

XXI Reunión de la Sociedad Española de Fisiología Vegetal/ XIV Congreso Hispano-Luso de Fisiología Vegetal. Photograph from the combined biannual meeting of the SEFV and SPFV held in Toledo, Spain in 2015

 

Each week the SEFV distributes a newsletter to its members containing information on courses, conference announcements around the world, jobs, student scholarship opportunities, and some current news. Twice a year the SEFV issues a bulletin that comprises a scientific review, interviews with leading figures in plant physiology, information on different research groups, abstracts of doctoral theses presented in the last 6 months, as well as news on science policy.

The SEFV is a member of the Scientific Societies Confederation of Spain (Confederacíon de Sociedades Científica de España; COSCE), which aims to contribute to scientific and technological development, act as a qualified and unified interlocutor to represent government in matters affecting science, promote the role of science in society, and contribute to the dissemination of science as a necessary and indispensable cultural ingredient.

The SEFV is also part of another GPC Member Organization, the Federation of European Societies of Plant Biology (FESPB) and has links with the Argentine Society of Plant Physiology (SAFV). (You can read a Postcard from the SAFV here.)

We sponsor student attendance at the SEFV and FESPB conferences and encourage their active participation by awarding poster and oral presentation prizes. Additionally, the SEFV convenes biannually (coinciding with the SEFV Congress) to award the Sabater Prize for young researchers.

The SEFV website, Facebook page and Twitter (@NewsSEFV) account provide information to SEFV members and general readers with an interest in plant physiology.

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.

——

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.

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

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 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].