19 April 2016
By Geraint Parry, GARNet Coordinator
Five years after the inaugural meeting of the UK Plant Science Federation took place at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in 2011, the UK PlantSci 2016 conference returned to this worldwide centre for plant biology.
A glance through the schedule for this two-day meeting highlights the enormous breadth of interests found within the UKPSF membership. The topic of the meeting was ‘Plants in a Changing World, from Molecular to Ecosystem‘, and it truly covered all bases with talks on topics as diverse as on the wheat epigenome through to ecological studies of chalk grasslands. Each session was supported by different member organisations.
Day one – big ideas and young talents
Opening the series of excellent talks was a keynote session by Professor Giles Oldroyd, from JIC. He described his laboratory’s involvement with Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA), an incredibly ambitious project that aims to ultimately move the components of the nitrogen fixation pathway into cereals. As Professor Oldroyd stated, even a moderate amount of nitrogen fixation could be life-changing technology for subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. This was an outstanding prelude to such a broad-based meeting, as the keynote spanned from large scale industrial molecular construction through to real world problems and solutions surrounding food insecurity.
The first session was chaired by Richard Flavell and sponsored by the Genetics Society, providing an excellent range of talks into a ‘hidden’ regulatory world that surrounds epigenetic genome regulation, the mechanisms that drive heterosis. It included an exciting talk from Sir Professor David Baulcombe who presented his laboratory’s recent findings on the biology of small RNA regulation. As reminded in the closing remarks by Professor Flavell, control of phenotype is far more complex than the linear information held within genome sequence!
The second session was chaired by Dr Daniel Gibbs, sponsored by the Biochemical Society and was entitled ‘The molecular basis of signal transduction in plants’. The session included descriptions of different aspects of cell signaling from younger faculty members include in Eirini Kaiserli and GARNet committee member Steven Spoel.
Arguably the most exciting hour was provided by the five excellent talks from the ‘Future Generations’ session, delivered on subjects including control of arsenic uptake (Emma Lindsay, University of York), the synthetic production of medicinal curry (Keir Bailey, University of York), exploring floral heteromorphy (Jonathan Cocker, JIC) and bioinformatic approaches to find resistant genes (Jan Bettgenhaeuser, JIC). However, in this case there had to be a winner so the secret audience ballot decided that Emily Hawkes from the JIC was the prize-winner for her talk describing non-coding RNAs in the control of flowering time. A well deserved victor!
Day two – Ecology, technology & communications
After a pleasing evening of food, wine and chat, the second day was kicked off with a keynote by Professor Phillip Poole from Oxford University, who has developed in vivo luminescent imaging of the interaction between roots and soil microorganisms. The first session of the day focused on the plant microbiome with Alison Bennett (James Hutton Institute) and Gabriele Berg (Graz University of Technology) explaining the particular types of microbe interact with plants. The session was ended by Nik Cunniffe (University of Cambridge) who documented his work modeling the transmission of Sudden Oak Death disease across California.
The British Ecological Society sponsored a session on ‘Ecological Resilience’ chaired by Dr Alan Jones, and featuring talks from Bangor Environment Centre, that looked at the impact of flooding on either the whole environment scale or in a lab context. Antonio Sanchez-Rodriguez from Bangor University described the effect of extreme flooding under different light conditions on plant-microbe interactions, showing that flooding in the dark favours the interaction with anaerobic bacteria. Sadly he also showed that earthworms don’t do so well in flood conditions, whether it is light or dark.
The final session focused on abiotic stress and was sponsored by SCI Agrisciences Group. The speakers gave a wider perspective into the translational aspects of plant science research and what is possible when academics interact with industry.
The topic of seed treatments was also discussed by Steve Adams from Plant Impact Inc who has worked with researchers at Lancaster University to develop stress resistance in plants following seed hormone treatments. During the Q&A Dr Adams explained that this type of translational interaction can have its genesis from either side and he added that companies do spend time searching the literature for new discoveries that may have translational applications.
Improving communication was a theme that ran through the meeting and included a lunchtime session led by Harriet Truscott from the Gatsby Plant Science Education team where participants were encouraged to discuss the strategies that they have used for public outreach, highlighting both what does and does not work! In that session Dawn Arnold (University of the West of England) gave an interesting insight into the benefits of working with a specialist science communicators, as those type of skills may not be as intuitive as many scientists feel they are! On that related topic, there was plenty of social media activity at the meeting so if you want to learn about what was ‘said’ in live time, please check out #PlantSci2016