Botanists and plants solving the problems of the world at #IBC18

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18th International Botanical Congress Melbourne 2011
18th International Botanical Congress Melbourne 2011

The programme  at #IBC18 shows how botanical science has moved forward at an unprecedented rate since IBC17 in 2005. Not only has the science advanced, but the critical importance of plants to the world has been seen and recognized so much more widely. As Simon McKeon, an investment banker, Chair of the CSIRO Australian science research council, and winner of the Australian of the Year 2011, said in his opening address, “Never before has botany been so needed by our species”. To me, it is clear that solutions to the vast majority of the problems facing the planet and the human species will come from research into plant biology, whether that is in terms of ecosystems and biodiversity loss, food security, population health, or fuel and climate change. I expect the more than 2000 delegates from 73 countries share these views, and we will hear much more with 951 talks left, 20 parallel sessions and many posters, both paper and electronic. Although Simon was critical of the press and their science coverage, I really see positive changes in the last decade, coming in both directions: from the scientists who now recognize that their role includes telling the public about their work, and the reporters who are certainly better and more responsible in presenting accurate and interesting botany to a wide audience. There is a lot of work still to be done on both sides, but a real problem I see, already discussed here on AoBBlog, is the poor visibility of plant science in schools.

The re-scoping of the traditional fields of botany is clear in the programme here, grouped into six science ‘Themes’ as fashionable in the early 21st century, along with “Plants and society”. Given that these themes are used to divide the 1000 odd talks, it seems worthwhile to consider what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ in our subject today.

The first two themes, “Ecology” and “Economic botany” have currency with their subtitles “environmental change and conservation” and “biotechnology, agriculture and plant breeding” – exactly the challenges I set out for botanists above. The “Genetics” theme included “genomics and bioinformatics”, and the first talks I have been to, in the plenary session and the speciation session where I am writing this (and no doubt the parallel food security session) certainly had much on genetics and genomics. To me, one of the most unexpected outcomes of the DNA sequencing data is the understanding of the most deep evolutionary branches in the plant tree of life. Morphology is effective at dividing species, and mostly genera and families, allowing monophyletic groups to be defined, but higher taxonomic levels are harder to understand by morphological characters. The DNA studies of genes went deeper still, but now that whole genome sequencing is feasible across thousands of plants, we can really identify monophyly, hybridity and relationships with unprecedented precision. The many symposia here dedicated to individual plant groups show the impact these methods are having in so many groups. I’ve talked about how the analysis of the nature of the rearrangements using whole genome sequence comparisons is enabling the history of genome evolution to be reconstructed with unprecedented accuracy (http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-313X.2011.04544.x). For plant breeders, knowledge of the nature of the changes shows the types of changes which might be introduced in the future, and suggests strategies and candidate accessions for crossing programmes.

I’m slightly more doubtful about including ‘bioinformatics’ as part of the Genetics theme, and ‘informatics’ under Systematics. Do these terms say anything other than “We analyse and publish data using appropriate methods”? Taxonomists have understood the nature of data collection, preservation, sharing and accessibility for 300, if not 1000, years – computerization and the web, while of course novel in scale and ease, is evolution not revolution. At least the themes of ‘Physiology and biochemistry’ and ‘Structure, development and cellular biology’ do not add in ‘molecular biology’ – another appropriate and essential technique which underpins so many of the talks in these themes, but is not fundamental to the biology. Will the newly-founded University Departments of Bioinformatics still be there in a decade?

I’m interested that ‘Evolution’ comes under the “Systematics” theme. Now, I’m a believer in Theodosius Dobzhansky’s maxim that “Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution”. Charles Darwin ended The Origin of Species with the sentence, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” (Incidentally, the only use of the word ‘evolution’ or ‘evolved’ in the whole of The Origin of Species.) So it is hard for me to see how Evolution can be isolated from the other seven themes! More broadly – perhaps a topic for discussion in ‘Science and society’, the lack of integration of comparative and evolutionary studies is to me the single major constraint in modern medical research. At a recent meeting, a speaker on human diseases didn’t even understand my question about evolutionary parallels occurring during domestication processes. But from the talks so far, it is clear that our unprecedented ability to see how plants have evolved is giving new understanding to botany!

Once more, Darwin, 152 years ago, sums up what I am learning at IBC: reflecting on plants of many kinds, he wrote “that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” Ecology, economic botany, genetics, physiology, developmental biology and systematics all have their laws which we are investigating and understanding their impact and importance in increasing detail.


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