Thinking outside the plant: Plant science with impact

Science with Impact session poster
Photo: Anne Osterrieder.

‘What is a plant?’ I imagine that none of the four speakers at the Society for Experimental Biology’s (SEB) ‘Science with Impact’ session had expected that question. Steven Cooke (Conservation Physiology), Christine Raines (Journal of Experimental Botany), Christoph Benning (The Plant Journal) and Henry Daniell (Plant Biotechnology Journal) each had fifteen minutes to talk about impactful and emerging research fields, their ‘babies’ and their role as Editor-in-Chief. As session chair Alun Anderson put it, journal editors get a ‘bigger and wiser view’ because they see so many papers – but they also have to face all these authors at meetings whose papers they rejected.

Conservation Physiology Cover
Conservation Physiology is an online only, fully open access journal published on behalf of the Society for Experimental Biology.

Steven Cooke opened the session with an overview over the newly launched journal ‘Conservation Physiology‘. What is conservation physiology? Steven and colleagues offer a detailed explanation in the first issue. It is ‘an integrative scientific discipline applying physiological concepts, tools, and knowledge to characterizing biological diversity and its ecological implications’. Importantly, this includes all taxa – microbes, animals and plants.Conservation physiology aims to looks at physiological processes at all levels, from cells to whole populations. Steven emphasised that while research often operates at lower levels, legal decisions about conservation are usually made at the population level. To increase the impact of their work, Steven encouraged scientists to think about ways to ‘scale up’ their research and to embrace multidisciplinary approaches.

How can we feed nine billion people with limited resources, and which challenges could plant biology address? Christine Raines summarised the most pressing points: An increasing global population using the same resources means that less land will be available to grow crops on. These crops will also need to produce higher yields with less water and nutrient supply. In order to address this yield gap we will need to make connections between existing research strands, but also reach out to other disciplines such as computational modelling. But it doesn’t stop with scientific progress. If we want to tackle big issues like food security or sustainable crop production and make plant science more impactful, we will also need to engage with international agencies, national systems, farmers and consumers to build bigger networks.

In the midst of algal growth tanks, researcher Brian Dwyer views a sample prior to a turbidity measurement.
Turning algae into energy: Photo Sandia Labs.

Christoph Benning picked up the issues of limited land and sustainability in his overview over biofuel production from algae and plants. Algae take up a lot less space than plants and so are a highly attractive – and potentially feasible – system. They do not compete with food production, as is the case for corn ethanol. But there are still big challenges which need to be overcome for biofuel production to be viable and sustainable. The carbon footprint needs to be neutral and more energy needs to be produced than is invested in the production. The process needs to be scalable to deliver sufficient amounts and at the same time needs to be cost-competitive. Some of these challenges might require genetically modified organisms and synthetic biology, both of which are controversial technologies and would need to be accepted. On a more basic level, we will need to understand fundamental biochemical and photosynthesis if we want to produce sustainable biofuels: “Understanding the conversion of sunlight into chemical energy is key to biofuel production”.

Henry Daniell finished the session with his talk about plant-made vaccines and pharmaceuticals (also known as ‘pharming’). Oral vaccine delivery via plants offers a number of advantages over  the current system. Plant vaccines need less infrastructure than traditional vaccines which require fermentation, purification and need to be transported and stored appropriately.  This reduces production and delivery costs. Henry, who presented his T-Shirt saying ‘Proud to be transgenic’ at the beginning of his talk, showed images of green fluorescent protein in lettuce leaves. ‘Bioencapsulating‘ vaccines in chloroplasts can help to protect them from the digestive system and deliver them safely to the immune or circulatory system.

So, what exactly is a plant and more importantly, what can be published in a plant journal? The consensus seemed to be: Photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms, including algae and possibly cyanobacteria. Or, according to a theory which emerged today during the conference, maybe even insects?!

Image:
Turning Algae into Energy by Sandia Labs. This image licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc licence.