Plant Pathologists are heroes

Understanding an imaginary virus could have real consequences.

If you’re looking for a botanical drama, BBC Radio is repeating its dramatisation of The Death of Grass. Set in 1956, it follows the story of an apocalypse caused by a virus that is killing all forms of grass. Initially, it destroys the rice harvest in China, but spreads west to Europe. Gary Foster recommended it to me as something to read to understand plant pathology.

It’s not a real virus, so why does it matter?


I was half-connected to a physics department when The Big Bang Theory started. The initial reaction of a lot of the people there was to cringe. One or two people thought that it had no relation to physicists behave. Quite a few others were worried it did. As the series went on, it didn’t get any more accurate but the department noticed that there was a small but noticeable uptick in applications. While they would have liked to have thought their research was finally getting noticed, they had to admit The Big Bang Theory was having a positive effect. One of the messages that went out on a weekly basis was that physicists were basically well-meaning, likeable and usually up to something new. It wasn’t that people were any more knowledgeable about Physics. It was simply that they cared more.

This effect has been seen in other fields. Archaeology in the UK had a boost in recruitment from Time Team, a documentary following a small group of archaeologists who would excavate a small site in way similar to contract or rescue archaeology. While it would be nice to think it was a deeper appreciation of the complexities of Anglo-Saxon middens that helped bring in students, it was the characters that mattered. The excavators were good-humoured and happy to talk about their work, but they also built relationships that people cared about.

Plant pathology is a field that should be full of heroes. There’s the careful search for clues for interactions between pathogens and plants. Yet, away from the details, the overall story is one with immense human interest. A plant disease is a pitiless foe, and could crush the hopes of sending a child to school, or even drive a family from its home. It’s where hi-tech science meets very basic human needs for shelter, family and food. At the same time, the plant pathologists I’ve met have all been welcoming people who you could have a drink with. Plant pathology has the ingredients for a hugely sympathetic human-interest story.

You can listen to The Death of Grass at the BBC. It should be available worldwide. It’s interesting, but I can’t help thinking there are other plant pathology stories in the real world that are just as compelling right now.