Sir John Beddington (Chief Scientific adviser to the UK Government) opened the UK Plant Science Federation (UKPSF) conference (18th and 19th April, 2012, John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK) with his ‘perfect storm lecture’ (a similar talk is available here).
In that opening address he identified energy demands, food production issues, and dwindling freshwater supplies as the troublesome trio that conspire together to generate the perfect storm, and which are themselves exacerbated by global climate change and projected population growth.
Not only did this set the tone for the conference, it also provided the background and context for many of the subsequent talks. It was also the ideal start because it highlighted arguably the most serious problems facing the planet, many of which will have botanical solutions.
Making plants work harder
Julian Hibberd (University of Cambridge; one of ‘Five crop researchers who could change the world’) speculated on the prospects of engineering C4 photosynthesis into C3 crops (such as rice). Which might have a double benefit because C4 plants not only have better water use efficiency, but also better nitrogen use efficiency, relative to C3 crops; a lot of energy goes into production of N-based fertilisers, and irrigation is a major ‘drain’ on water resources. In a similar resource-frugal vein, Giles Oldroyd (John Innes Centre) presented fascinating insights into arbuscular mycorrhiza and nitrogen-fixing root nodules. In particular, he reminded us that much of the host-plant ‘biology’ involved in these two mutually beneficial symbioses is nearly identical (though plants respond appropriately to form the correct relationship with the fungus or bacterium!). Importantly, the nodulation signalling pathway is probably present in many plant species – even if they don’t nodulate in practice. This opens the possibility of engineering cereals to recognise the rhizobial symbiont and develop the N-fixing symbiosis. Which in turn might reduce cereal dependency on added – energy-expensive – fertiliser; after all, as Oldroyd pointed out, nutrient limitation is the major restriction on maize growth in sub-Saharan Africa.