UK plant sciences answer real world challenges

By Charis Cook

During the UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF) AGM this month, vice-chair Sarah Perfect (Syngenta) chaired five short presentations on ‘good news’ stories from the UK plant science community.

Penny Maplestone, representing the British Society of Plant Breeders, began by highlighting that plant breeding is a success story in itself. She explained that with a research and development fund of £12m annually – wheat, barley, and forage maize alone are worth £1bn to the UK economy. She stressed however, that she would like to see real support for plant sciences to help strengthen this industry.

Harriet Truscott from Science and Plants for Schools presented some achievements in education and outreach, including a Nuffield Bursary student who started her placement at the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge determined to pursue studies in neuroscience, but came out of it trying to decide between becoming a plant scientist or an agricultural scientist.

Alan Jones, the British Ecological Society representative, described the remarkable sphagnum moss balls, called BeadaMoss, developed by Micropropagation Servies (EM) Ltd.  Distributing these robust little balls of moss on the Peak District’s eroded peatland moors has helped to re-establish a healthy ecosystem and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in this area.

Allan Downie from the Society for General Microbiology highlighted the work by George Lomonossoff, which exploits virus-like particles for the rapid production of vaccines and pharmaceutical proteins in plants. The technology has been licensed by the Canadian company, Medicago, and is now being used to make 10 million doses of influenza vaccine per month.

Freddie Theodoulou, the representative of the Biochemical Society, presented the discovery by Gibbs et al. (2011) of an oxygen sensor in plants. The researchers showed for the first time that the N-end rule pathway regulates the homeostatic response to oxygen deprivation (hypoxia), providing targets for breeding and biotech approaches to overcome water stress in crops.

During the meeting, many member organisation representatives raised concerns over declining skills, and the status of teaching and training in plant and agricultural sciences. But these good news stories, and the knowledge that there were many more successes that could have been presented, reminded everyone present about the valuable contributions that UK plant science is making to the real world.

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