Stormy times ahead

Image: UK Government Office for Science.

Image: UK Government Office for Science.

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

Image: David Monniaux/Wikimedia Commons.

Image: David Monniaux/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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