International Botanical Congress #IBC2017 and the big picture from Shenzhen

Sometimes confusing & contradictory, but also energetic & innovative. Pat Heslop-Harrison looks for the key themes from the International Botanical Congress.

Here in Shenzhen, I’ve learnt about nearly every aspect of botany, and in this overview, I will consider where are the paradigm shifts I’ll be telling people about. Often, the ‘big issue’ is obvious right from the beginning of a conference: my blog posts from previous conferences try to bring out my own message from a meeting. But what is it here? The need for the greening of cities with plants; every species is amenable to genomic analysis and there are no longer orphans; big-data analysis answering real questions; polyploidy and whole genome duplication as the major force shaping plant genome evolution; new applications of robotics, phenotyping, new genetics and automation in agriculture? Perhaps it needs reflection for a few weeks to synthesise what I’ve heard, but all these are things I will be discussing with my lab and more widely. The new papers I’ve heard and my conversations at #IBC2017 will certainly be influencing my research in the next years.

Maybe less positively, several papers and conversations have a rather depressing view that are no solutions to the crises facing the environment, and things are getting worse. The Shenzhen Declaration on Plant Sciences to build a green, sustainable earth and its call for action, is certainly something to take home and live by, even if there is a little too much fatherhood-and-apple-pie or armchair-and-slippers (not that I have much time for any of these). And as I pointed out in my first IBC2017 blog, it misses the critical teaching and education about plants that we need to teach, inspire and support the next generation to do better things than us.

Looking back, I find it easy to remember the shifts in botany which have been marked by most previous Congresses. I’ve been going to IBCs through most of the Anthropocene – this is my sixth. In Berlin (1987), I recognized the extraordinary detrimental effect that people are having on the planet. Up to then, most changes were reversible and small-scale, but the huge and unsustainable resource use by people was then coming clear, not least in a talk I well remember from Peter Raven. Sadly, these warnings are still needed, and Peter presented the inspirational opening lecture here in Shenzhen, 30 years later showing how undervaluing plants and the environment is leading the challenges we face.

Tokyo in 1993 partly marked the start of thinking deeply about DNA sequences and genes in a new and experimentally tractable and approachable manner, but most importantly, I think it recognized for the first time a truly global community of plant scientists. It was the first IBC to be held outside Europe or North America (plus Sydney in 1981). Since then, botanists from across the world have worked together in partnerships ever more closely, and we expect our labs and fieldwork to always involve partners from multiple continents.

At St Louis in 1999, it became clear to me for the first time that phylogeny would be ‘solved’ by molecular genetics methods. There were major surprises emerging at that time, not least the separation of basal angiosperms (Amborella and Nuphar) being sister to all other angiosperms. Following that recognition, all plant families are robustly separated and contribute to a phylogeny with exclusively monophyletic origin. St Louis was soon after APG I (the first paper of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, 1998, which reduced the number of plant orders to 40, one fifth of previous estimates, but had minimal resolution of relationships). Tidying of is still going on of course, particularly outside the flowering plants, and the role of hybridity, whole genome duplication, and polyploidy is not yet understood.

Melbourne in 2011 perhaps was the first conference where the impact of the internet on botany was becoming clear – whether from databases and web-based information resources, or even social media (it was a very early exposure of the then-new AoBBlog – see Day 1 IBC18 report). Electronic publication of new plant names was one of the allowed by a vote of the conference (as discussed in my second blog report) albeit with still problems in the definition: at Annals of Botany, our few naming papers are still held back and do not appear on-line before print publication. Here in Shenzhen, the progress to internet resources continues: Peter Wyse Jackson released the “An on-line flora of all known plants”. Accessibility improvements and the emphasis on improved and interoperable web platforms is notable at all the publisher’s stands too here.

The stunning organization of the conference as put on by our hosts and the city of Shenzhen is clear for everyone to see: 7000 people efficiently organized, no glitches from the projection and minimal from the sound, plenty of space and water provided everywhere. But it is interesting to see the multiple attitudes of Westerners to China. I seem to recognize four distinct groups with equal numbers: 25% are scared stiff (“throw away your contaminated USB stick” was a quote I heard); 25% treat everything as perfectly normal; 25% are astonished at every turn; and 25% accept what-turns-up, turns-up and go along with the flow. I’ll admit to being solidly in the latter camp. Sweet, sour, or sweet-and-sour is only the start of it. A fully kitted riot team with shields, long-arm truncheons, and more, marching through the conference hall; part of a day at a botany meeting. Ready for bed after wining (well, Mao Tai-ing) and dining?; well, then it’s time for a boat trip on an illuminated river. The answer to ‘what type of electricity socket is there?’ is an emphatic ‘Yes’: they differ completely even between rooms in one hotel! Not allowed to take a water bottle from one part of the conference to another?; obviously a security risk. Are green-walls the most popular thing to make your venue cool?; plants are a nuisance to water and prune, so let’s have a wall made of plastic plants.

There are not so many remnants of the ‘old China’ to be seen that I remember from my first trips. Then, Shenzhen was a town with a population of 30,000; now it is 30,000,000! But there are a few. As well as a number plate, all trucks and buses used to have a crudely stencilled huge number on the back, although the crudeness given the ‘working’ paint (rust) job, dents, scratches and repairs elsewhere was not obvious. Now, you are in an air-conditioned, seat-belted, glossy, bus which would fit anywhere in the UK, only it includes, next to fancy logos, the number as crudely stencilled as ever on the back.

So back to the paradigm shifts we’re seeing from IBC2017; I’ve asked around and had support for some without prompting, support for all with prompting (and my ‘four attitudes to China also holds up to audience questioning). The need for the greening of cities with plants is a major topic in talks, exhibition and, clearly, in the city of Shenzhen itself. This is not without a research need – how to ensure plants can provide the ecosystem services of water retention and weather-buffering, and use native flora, without huge maintenance costs and problems of leaves and insects? Not least the presence of BGI as the world’s biggest DNA sequencing organization, and the strong support for plant research coming from their Founder in his public lecture, it is clear that every plant species is amenable to genomic analysis and there are no longer orphans, and this knowledge can be used to explain plant behaviour and responses. Building and using new technologies and big data platforms to increase exploration and understanding of nature is Priority 4 of the Shenzhen Declaration, and several sessions ranging from genetic to global ecology show how millions of data points from dozens of people can answer real questions, whether about forest diversity and tree distribution, or the genetic basis of types of photosynthesis. Although I am biased, having co-edited the latest Annals of Botany Special Issue on “Polyploidy in Ecology and Evolution”, the impact of whole genome duplication and polyploidy as the major force shaping plant genome evolution seems to be pervasive in multiple plenary talks and sessions, whether taxonomic, evolutionary, ecological or crop-oriented. Finally, we can’t feed the 7.5 billion people on the planet now, nor meet the aspirations for a better lifestyle of the 9 billion in 2050 (and that is only 33 harvests away, less time than I have been going to International Botanical Congresses) with the unsustainable approaches to agriculture – growing plants and removing energy for our own human needs. We are seeing and hearing here at IBC2017 how the trajectory to destruction can be changed through the exploitation of genetics and biodiversity, combined with new applications of robotics, phenotyping, automation, disease control, nutrition and water usage, all based on plant science and research.