Plant science: a growing field

Traditionally, a UK PhD student spends 3-4 years in the lab, researching their project. However, a recent drive to produce ‘well-rounded’ students has led to the development of internship schemes. This means that I’ve left my PhD mid-research for 3 months, and I’m currently six weeks into a placement working in the Centre for Science and Policy, at the University of Cambridge. This centre works in science and policy issues across all areas, from medicine, to physics, to social sciences. I always knew that plant sciences was an important field, and one that’s been booming recently. However, in the past six weeks I’ve been looking from a policy viewpoint and I’ve realised exactly how important it is, and how valuable plant science research will be for our future.

On my first day during my internship, I attended a food security workshop. Food security is an obvious application of plant science – if we can gain higher yields, we can make more food and feed more people. In areas of the 3rd world, this can mean a difference between starvation and survival. In the more developed world it can mean making more space for other land uses.

One alternative land use would be for biofuels. Climate change is a hot topic, and I’ve come across it a lot in the past month and a half. Next week we are hosting a lecture from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who served as US Secretary of State. Although his background is in physics, he has moved into molecular cell biology, and as part of this proposed the idea of a ‘glucose economy’ as a solution for our dependence on fossil fuels. This glucose economy relies on the growth of biofuel plants such as sugar cane. Plant research, naturally fits into this, both in improvement of the fuel-producing plants, but also, as mentioned before, freeing up space in order to grow these fuels.

Last week I attended a workshop discussing how to improve housing supply. Discussion moved to freeing up green-belt land for more housing – yet again, we need to improve yields if we are to make more land available.

Another agricultural issue faced by plant scientists is plant pathology. Protecting our plants from disease is extremely important – looking back in time we can see clear examples where a crop disease can lead to huge famines and loss of population, for example the Irish Potato Famine. Entire research centres work exclusively on trying to reduce the prevalence of disease through agriculture. It isn’t just agriculture that we think about either – our natural ecosystem can be just as threatened, with a modern day example being ash dieback disease, threatening Britain’s 80 million ash trees across the country. The response of the plant and horticulture community was amazing, jumping into action using modern scientific techniques, as well as crowdsourcing to try and stop the spread.

The most surprising mention of plant science so far has to be within a discussion on ageing. The discussions turned to the evolution of new technologies and how older generations need training. Future generations will be used to the electronics that have been developed right now, such as tablets and smart TVs. The technologies that will evolve over the next half century are much more likely to be biological in nature – led by the growing area of synthetic biology. Plant science is at the forefront of synthetic biology, with projects such as OpenPlant leading interdisciplinary research between plant scientists and others. A evolving technology that has to be mentioned is also genetic modification (GM). We are currently at the point where GM is being held back by regulation. If regulation allows GM to be planted, this will drive huge research with no doubt huge benefits.

At the annual reception for the centre I work at, we had several speeches. One of these speeches, talking about the general need for evidence based policy and the importance of science, specifically highlighted plant scientists as one of the most important for the future (I was extremely happy with this). Having spent six weeks working in policy, I am certain this is true. Plant science affects people more than they may initially realise, and we need to encourage more students to move into this area of research. Things may have changed since I was at school, but I recall biology teachers trying to rush through plants as fast as they could, and there was no enthusiasm or discussion of the importance of understanding them. Plant science is a growing field, and if we are to plant the seeds of future research, we need to spark the imagination of young scientists as early as possible.

By Isabel Webb, a 3rd year PhD student in the lab of Prof Phil Poole

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