Conference report from UK PlantSci 2015

24th Apr 2015

UK PlantSci 2015 is the forth annual conference of the UK Plant Sciences Federation. This year it was held at Harper Adams; a location synonymous with agriculture, not only by location, but, for those who have been there, also by smell.

The meeting kicked off with an engaging overview by Guy Smith from the NFU, who holds the accolade of farming the driest farm in the UK. His talk not only covered the challenges associated with farming what can technically be described as a desert, but also the challenges of managing the public perception of farming in an ever changing industry.

The first session dealt with the usual suspects of plant breeding for higher yield in conjunction with arable crops (Chris Burt, Ragt) and horticulture (Jim Monaghan, Harper Adams). After lunch Mike Gooding (IBERS) gave on update on the challenges and opportunities in the breeding of perennial grassland for livestock, which accounts for 29% of UK land. Finally, Robin Allaby (Warwick) took a more retrospective look at cereal genetics going back 8000 years. Key findings from his study of an archaeological site off the Isle of White showed that wheat may have been in the UK 2000 years before previous estimates, as far back as 8000bc.

The second session discussed the topics of trees and climate change. An interesting point raised was the usefulness of crowdsourcing or citizen science in monitoring tree health. Forestry continues to receive a minute fraction of funding compared to other plant disciplines and therefore the ability for the Observatree project to enlist 200 knowledgeable volunteers represents a great achievement for both public outreach and budget stretching.

Day one ended with a panel discussion looking at how the shortage of young people in plant science should be addressed. Additionally, the need for a plant science roadmap was identified.

During the next day Caroline Dean (John Innes Centre) gave an opening keynote lecture on the epigenetic mechanism of plants in relation to the seasons. Following talks continued the theme of mechanisms of plant behavior, including talks on branching, organ growth and iridescence.

The next session consisted of a series of talks on the often ignored area due to the lack of visibility of soil and roots. A particular presentation of note was given by Emily Schofeild (Kew Gardens) on Orchids. For those unfamiliar with orchids, orchids are the only known higher plant whose seed doesn’t have an endosperm (a nutrient storage part of the seed) and their germination is instead facilitated by a symbiotic relation between the orchard and mycorrizal fungi. Emily has been working on exploring this relationship and how different lines of orchids need different strains of fungi to germinate and what determines this.

The penultimate session consisted of a series of very high standard talks by early career researchers, with a particularly interesting talk contributing to the ongoing debate about the health benefits of anthocyanins by Sebastian Achterfeldt (Institute of Food Research). Using genetically modified purple tomatoes from the John Innes Centre and mice, Sebastian had showed that anthocyanins can reduce atherosclerosis in mice; a risk factors of cardio vascular disease in humans. However, as with all murine studies, how applicable these results are to humans is yet to be conclusively determined.

The final session tackled ecology and included two talks on the importance of preserving landraces (wild ancestors) of food crops. Nigel Maxted (University of Birmingham) took a national approach and looked at cereals in the UK , while Tomasz Czechowshi (University of York)explored the pool of drought resistant genes in wild ancestors of rice.

Overall it was a great two days covering the entire scope of an important and varied field. If you didn’t attend this year I would strongly recommend attending next year.


By Tristan Eagling

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