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Decadal Plan for Plant Science Begins to Take Shape

26 September 2011 11:48 am
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U.S. Department of Agriculture

Sunflowers.

U.S. plant scientists have taken the first steps toward a 10-year plan to help improve global food supplies using sustainable practices and to make progress in understanding how plants work.

There is both a great need and great potential right now, says Gary Stacey, a plant scientist at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who chaired a closed meeting last week in Bethesda, Maryland, that was organized by the American Society of Plant Biologists. The meeting attracted 75 plant scientists from institutions around the country, as well as additional representatives from government, industry, and other professional societies.

Food prices and the demand for food are rising, says Stacey, climate change is affecting natural habitats as well as cropland, and there're increasing efforts to use plants for energy. But plant scientists have largely been on the sidelines in tackling these escalating problems. "They are not recognized for their potential [contributions], maybe not even within the plant community and certainly not outside of it," says Keith Yamamoto, a molecular biologist at University of California, San Francisco. In 2009, he led a panel from the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council whose report emphasized the potential role of plant science in meeting societal needs.

Workshop participants flagged food security and a need for a second, greener Green Revolution as critical issues. Progress will require new model systems, intensively studied species that provide insights useful both in basic and applied research. There should be more emphasis on describing genetic diversity, wherein genes for useful traits are tracked down in a wide range of species for potential transfer into economically useful plants. Toward that end, some participants called for expansion of transgenic technologies, such that value-added genes could be joined to a broad range of fruits, vegetables, and legumes.

Other scientists stressed that plants, whose environments can be tightly controlled because they don't move, might be better models than animals for understanding the relationship between genotype, phenotype and environment. "One of the major goals is to model and infer how plants really work, based on genomic information, in different environments," says Jim Carrington, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Major questions on the table include how genes dictate an individual's range of traits and how the environment affects the manifestation of those traits. New sensing technologies of scales from cells to ecosystems will be needed to explore these questions, the participants pointed out.

Learning how plants tolerate drought, heat, and flooding is useful not just for agriculture but also for predicting how wild species might cope with climate change, says Edward Buckler, a geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Ithaca, New York. He would like to see the creation of long-term monitoring sites for agricultural environments along the lines of what the National Ecological Observatory Network, a project funded by the National Science Foundation, is hoping to do for natural habitats.

Cheaper, faster genome sequencing is already revolutionizing all aspects of plant science, including the characterization of genetic diversity. Many more plant genomes should and will be sequenced, says Stacey. But sequencing will also be a boon for describing the microbiomes of plants to understand the full impact of the microbial world on plant function, particularly those that interact with roots.

Yamamoto would like to see the field move beyond plant breeding as the chief means of generating new varieties because current methods can take too long. Instead, he envisions using systems biology and synthetic biology to create designer plants that can withstand, say, extreme drought or improve a food's nutrition quality. But he's not sure that ambitious goal will make the report's final cut. "I didn't hear anything that rises to the level of a 10-year challenge," he said. "It's a steep hill to climb to get people to think 10 years [ahead] and really be bold about things, especially when they feel so uneasy about what's gong to happen tomorrow."

Yamamoto 's also not sure that a 10-year plan will lead to new funding, given the current tight budget situation. An 8-year-old estimate pegs annual federal funding for competitive plant science research at $350 million, and participants said that tripling that amount, to $1 billion, would not be unreasonable. "We can easily spend that on one telescope, so isn't feeding the world worth as much?" asks Tom Brutnell, a plant biologist at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in Ithaca, New York.

Organizers hope to circulate a draft report of the meeting for outside comments, with the ultimate goal of issuing a final report by March 2012 with the field's priorities. "If we can show that we made an effort to prioritize things," Stacey explains, "I would hope that would have more influence that just [being seen] as a clamor for funding."

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