The first UK PlantSci Conference helps realise the potential of basic plant science

19th Apr 2012

Academic research and large scientific businesses are sometimes seen as opposites, but together they are key to ensuring the economy gets maximum benefit from Government-funded research. On 18th-19th April the first UK PlantSci conference, held at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, helped to cross the gulf between pure research and the commercial world.

The UK PlantSci conference is organised by the newly-founded UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF), a Special Interest Group of the Society of Biology.

Dr Mark Downs, Chief Executive of the Society of Biology, says: “The ultimate goal of plant science undertaken in universities and research institutes is that this work should benefit the wider community, and realising this goal often requires integration between academia and industry.”

Basic research can yield huge economic rewards, but the applications generally can’t be foreseen and often results take a long time. Many of the plant scientists at the conference embarked upon academic research without knowing the extent of its potential, so this chance to bring commercial and academic scientists together helps ensure society reaps the rewards of the basic research it funds.

The economic potential of plant science was clear when three PlantSci 2012 delegates were amongst the nine finalists of the recent BBSRC Innovator awards: Professor George Lomonossoff, John Innes Centre, Professor Richard Mithen, Institute of Food Research, and Professor Jim Murray, Cardiff University and chair of GARNet. Vince Cable presented Dr George Lomonossoff with the overall prizeand Professor Jim Murray with the award for the best commercial innovation.

A first vaccine completed the second phase of clinical trials last year, only four years after the technology was invented. And the invention has already generated licensing income. If a vaccine comes to market the returns on publicly funded research could run into millions of pounds. Added to the economic benefits, this research has the potential to benefit human and animal health worldwide, including in developing countries.

“When you try to apply some of your basic knowledge, you often find that it doesn’t work in quite the way that you think,” said Professor Lomonossoff. “The fundamental and the applied are not divorced from each other. They reinforce each other.”

Science from the John Innes Centre was estimated in 2010 to contribute £170 million annually to the UK economy alone. This is over five times more than the public funds it receives.

Dr Matthew Hannah, a Research Program Manager at Bayer CropScience, works at the interface between industry and academia and will be speaking at the conference about how ‘translational research’ is needed to tackle food security.

He says: “Academics have lots of examples of plants with increased tolerance to stresses such as drought, but actually translating these technologies into crops is challenging. My role is to help build the bridge between academic ideas and new crops. Academia and industry can set up win-win partnerships. These relationships can lead to basic research in universities being used to create solutions for farmers. Companies such as Bayer CropScience are set-up to conduct the large-scale agricultural trials needed to translate research from the lab into the field. By comparing test varieties with our commercial varieties we can make sure the improved yield in the lab is also present when they’re grown on farms.”

The challenge facing agriculture is to secure the supply of food and energy crops in light of increasing world population, competition for arable land, water scarcity and climate change. If we want to meet these challenges we need to improve crop varieties. Dr Hannah says: “There is some excellent plant science research in the UK and many approaches needed for crop improvement could be sourced from academia. The PlantSci conference brings together academics, and relationships are forged here. The newly established UKPSF has great potential to help scientists tackle challenges such as drought tolerance.”

The UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF, is a Special Interest Group of the Society of Biology launched in November 2011. It aims to bring together the plant science community in the UK and create a coordinated approach to research, industry, funding and education in this vital sector of the biosciences. The UK Plant Sciences Federation provides a central resource for everyone involved in Plant Science, facilitating interactions across the Plant Science Sector. The UK PlantSci conference will showcase the wealth of plant science that is being undertaken across the UK, from cell biology to ecology and basic research to the field.

UK PlantSci 2012 ( is the inaugural conference of the UK Plant Sciences Federation and has been established to showcase the wealth of plants science undertaken in the UK. The UK PlantSci 2012 aims to provide an unique arena for all those interested and working in the in plant science sector e.g. cell biologists, industrialists, physiologists, ecologists, plant breeders, soil scientists and agriculturists to come together and share their knowledge and expertise.

The Society of Biology ( is a professional body for bioscientists – providing a single unified voice for biology: advising Government and influencing policy; advancing education and professional development; supporting their members, and engaging and encouraging public interest in the life sciences.

The John Innes Centre ( is a world-leading research centre based on the Norwich Research Park ( The JIC’s mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, and to apply its knowledge to benefit agriculture, human health and well-being, and the environment. JIC delivers world class bioscience outcomes leading to wealth and job creation, and generating high returns for the UK economy. JIC is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and received a total of £28.4M investment in 2010-11.


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