The American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) released a document this week entitled Unleashing a Decade of Innovation in Plant Science: A Vision for 2015 – 2025. It is the product of the Plant Science Research Summit supported by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It represents the vision for the coming decade of plant research. How do we better ‘understand, predict and alter plant behavior’? I would encourage you to skim through it to get an idea of where plant research is headed and the goals we have.
The envisioned outcome is summarized as follows:
“Likewise, the research proposed in the Decadal Vision can lead us to novel solutions for improving the sustainability of agriculture and the bioeconomy, even in the face of challenges such as climate change, population growth, and limited natural resources such as water and arable land.”
Want the picture-version? Check out this infographic put together by ASPB.
Here are the highlights of the strategy to get us there:
- Increase the ability to predict plant traits from plant genomes in diverse environments.
- Assemble plant traits in different ways to solve problems.
- Discover, catalog, and utilize plant-derived chemicals.
- Enhance the ability to find answers in a torrent of data.
- Create a T-training environment for plant science doctoral students.
Predicting plant traits
We need to better understand ‘complex traits,’ linking a wealth of genomic information with performance under given environmental conditions. This will require developing new methods for measuring multiple facets of plant performance and cataloging this information in a plant attribute database. Scientists need to unravel have certain plant species have naturally adapted to stressful or extreme environments in order to translate these traits to crop species. Another research area of interest involves dissecting the mechanisms of plant communication- plants are capable of communication with other individuals and species, and we need to learn how to understand this language.
Assembling plant traits
Using a variety of approaches, scientists working from different angles need to identify the genetic elements responsible for desired traits and create strategies for introducing them into crop plants. This will involve both smarter plant breeding methods as well as transgenic technology.
Plants are sophisticated biochemists. It’s their way of dealing with their environment when movement is not an option. A goal has been set to ‘understand the synthesis and biological purposes of plant-derived chemicals in 20, 000 ecologically and medicinally important species.’ Once we have this foundational information, we can tap into this plant chemistry for applications in human health, agriculture, and manufacturing.
Finding answers in the data
In the previous decade, scientists have produced massive amounts of data in the form of genome sequences, gene expression data, protein quantification data, and metabolic profile data. As this information continues to pile up with every new experiment, scientists must find ways to appropriately catalog it for useful purposes. There are still gems left in this mine, and as scientists look at this data with fresh questions, answers can be found. To do this most effectively, we need to develop common infrastructure for making this data available. We also need to continue to put it to good use by making computer-based models with greater predictive power. Finally, these new results must feed into the iterative cycle of laboratory experimentation and field trials by training scientists to use these tools.
A new training paradigm
This is the plant science community’s way of addressing systemic problems with the way graduate students and postdocs are trained to do useful science. Basically, there needs to be greater focus in training and acquiring credentials (reducing time to degree). During this training time, the national imperatives outlined above must be more explicitly addressed. In this way, new trainees will be more adaptable (read: employable) for working within the various sectors necessary to address these larger problems (academia, industry, non-profit, governmental).
Strategy and accountability
A National Plant Science Council that will act as a common facilitator among plant scientists and the stakeholders of that research. There are many agricultural challenges on the horizon. At the minimum, the urgency of these constraints will keep the broader plant science community accountable for our research goals. By setting these priorities, we are saying as a community what we think we can/should accomplish within the coming decade and why. Making clear goals also helps to define the resources we need to accomplish them. Every member of the general public is a stakeholder in this vision. In part, this is because a significant amount of this research will be conducted with public funds (USDA, DOE, NSF, and NIH). Ultimately, the results, innovations and technologies that emerge from this vision will affect you. They will affect food, energy and pharmaceutical cost and availability. They will affect national policy on agriculture, energy, healthcare and environmental issues.
Have a look at the report and let’s make sure we are on the same page.