Year after year, delegates at the UK PlantSci conference remark on the sheer breadth and diversity of topics covered. It looks as though 2015 will be no exception, with seven jam-packed sessions taking place over two days in April at Harper Adams University.
The meeting will open with some tough questions posed by Guy Smith, Vice President of the National Farmers’ Union, in his keynote talk ‘Crop production – agronomics, economics or politics?’ This will set the scene for the first session, ‘Plants and agriculture – Breeding the next green revolution,’ which will highlight some of the latest innovations for maximizing crop yields. These include the combination of classical genetics with a ‘phenomics’ approach, as explained by Dr Jim Monaghan in his talk ‘Growing better fresh produce: the link from genotype to crop phenotype.’
Meanwhile, with ash dieback receiving prominent news coverage over recent years, it is fitting that this disease features in the next session, ‘Trees and forests – Creating resilience under the canopy.’ Dr Richard Buggs will speak about the achievements of the British Ash Tree Genome Project in providing a reference genome for Fraxinus excelsior. According to Dr Buggs, “It seems that ash dieback is here to stay in the UK, and our only hope lies with trees that have low susceptibility.” The reference genome could help to reveal invaluable resistance genes to assist breeding programmes.
In the same session, Professor David Beerling will introduce a novel strategy to combat global warming, in his talk ‘Harnessing trees and biofuels for climate change mitigation through enhanced weathering.’ “Global carbon cycling models suggest that trees and biofuel crops could be used over the next century to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by their ability to weather silicate rocks,” he says. “This talk will present a set of simulations showing the extent to which this might be achieved and the collateral benefits to coral reefs through reduced ocean acidification.”
The session will also include a presentation on Observatree, an exciting new collaborative project which aims to train volunteers and encourage the public to report sightings of damaging tree pests and diseases.
These talks should provide plenty of fuel for the afternoon’s panel and open floor discussion session, ‘Building a roadmap for UK plant science.’ With panellists representing a range of plant science interests, and audience participation strongly encouraged, we can expect a lively and stimulating debate about how we can work together to tackle some of the biggest challenges in plant science education, policy and communications.
Later in the evening, you can practice your networking skills at the poster session, drinks reception and informal dinner (all of which are included in your registration fee).
The second day of the meeting will be opened by an honoured keynote speaker, Professor Caroline Dean OBE, recent recipient of the FEBS/EMBO Women in Science Award. Her talk ‘Epigenetic switches underlying seasonal timing’ will focus on how prolonged cold temperatures accelerate flowering during the process of vernalisation. Her investigations have established that epigenetic silencing of the floral repressor FLC is critical for this process and revealed the mechanism that restores FLC activity, and hence the requirement for vernalisation, in the next generation.
The following session, ‘Cells – Examining life under the microscope’, will keep the focus at the smaller end of the scale. During this, Dr George Bassel will demonstrate how the latest computational 3D models are helping to establish the relationship between gene expression and growth, as part of his talk, ‘An interdisciplinary approach to engineering plant development.’
The next session, ‘Roots and soil – Finding riches in the dirt’ is a perfect complement to the United Nations’ International Year of Soils 2015. During this, Dr Carly Stevens will present evidence that atmospheric nitrogen pollution is impacting on ecosystems in the UK and further afield. “Globally, nitrogen pollution is a very serious environmental problem that can be quite damaging to ecosystems, leading to reductions in species richness,” Dr Stevens says.
Nitrogen can also have a critical role in root development, as described by Dr Miriam Gifford in her talk ‘Using cell-specific genomics to understand the scale of symbiosis.’ “Our work seeks to understand how plasticity of gene expression responses and gene networks underlies plant root responses to nitrogen in the environment,” she says. “This talk will present new data from single cell type analysis of roots as they respond dynamically to environmental perturbations.”
After lunch, the stage will be handed over to early career researchers in the session ‘Future generations – Sowing the seeds.’ This will include two finalists from SET for BRITAIN 2015, a prestigious annual scientific poster competition hosted by the House of Commons.
The final session, ‘Ecology, environment and biodiversity – Exploring the wild side’ will cover some of the key issues in safeguarding future food security and biodiversity. These include the importance of using wild relatives to maintain crop genetic diversity, as presented by Dr Nigel Maxted in his talk ‘Conserving crop wild relative diversity in the United Kingdom as a step toward food and nutritional security.’ According to Dr Maxted, “The UK has a surprisingly valuable wealth of wild plant species, which are closely related to crops and to which they can contribute breeder-required traits, given our relatively impoverished flora and our intensely managed natural environment.”
Dr Mike Garratt will close the day by presenting findings from his Sustainable Pollination Services for UK Crops Project, on the value of insect crop pollinators and how these can be managed best in the future.
So with all this to look forward to, now is the time to register if you haven’t already done so!
By Caroline Wood
Caroline is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, investigating host defence mechanism against the agricultural weeds Striga hermonthica and Striga gesnerioides. You can read more about her research and scientific interests at http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/