Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Priorities for Plant Scientists

We biologists like to think that the scientific agenda followed in our labs is predominantly rational. But the subjects we study are as often determined by serendipity as by rational planning.

How refreshing then that a group of European, primarily British scientists, recently conducted a study to identify the 100 most important questions facing research in plant sciences.

A hundred questions is rather daunting, and of course many are intimately connected with each other. But I’d like to focus on two of these questions, and tell you why they not only are they the most important questions for plant scientists, but actually the most important questions for all scientists.

#1 (and it should come as no surprise): “How do we feed our children’s children?”

Wheat field in Hod Hasharon, Israel
Most models have the world’s population reaching 9 billion by 2050. That is a 3-fold increase in my lifetime alone. If we consider that these 9 billion will live on a planet with less arable land, less fresh water available for agriculture, and with dwindling supplies of chemicals for fertilizers, the potential for problems in food availability, let alone a full-blown food disaster, is pretty obvious. Throw into this equation that these 9 billion will be more prosperous, demanding more meat and dairy then used today, then the demands on food supplies become precarious.

So at the risk of insulting colleagues and friends, and with all due respect to modern medical research, I think it is clear that if we do not solve the problems of ensuring a future food supply, then questions of cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease become moot.

When I made this statement a few years ago at a workshop, a very prominent scientist grabbed the microphone and said, “If we feed the world, there’ll just be more people!” GASP!

Students working in the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences
Assuming we don’t agree with this rather Archie Bunkerian statement, we come to question #2 (which was actually #9 on the list): “How can we attract the best young minds to plant sciences so that they can address Grand Challenges facing humanity such as climate change, food security and fossil fuel replacement?”

Any hope of scientific and technological progress is fully dependent on human resources. The Manhattan Project and the 1960’s space program are clear examples of how harnassing the brightest young minds to a clear goal can lead to breakthrough results. But to be frank, we have not been successful until now in attracting droves of the brightest, most talented students to plant biology.

This is not a knock to the current generation of plant scientists and their students, but a statement of fact that in terms of facilities, grants, scholarships and prestige, plant sciences, at most universities take a back seat to biomedical research. Students, who are often attracted as much, or not more, to prestige than to a particular field, are then understandably drawn to the new prestigious programs and facilities in, for example, neurosciences.

Attracting new talents into plant research will necessitate far-reaching programs and investments. As Deep Throat infamously said, “Follow the money”.

Sainsbury Laboratory
And students and scientists alike do follow the money. The new Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University is prime example of how to attract young minds to plant biology. Over 120 million dollars was invested in this beautiful new facility which will house over 100 plant biologists. The Gates Foundation program to eradicate wheat rust disease has also enticed new minds to tackle critical problems in plant and food biology. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently recognized the importance of plant biology by endowing a new series of 13 investigators in plant biology (to go with the previous 300 HHMI investigators in biomedical sciences).

But until most major universities fund their plant programs to the level that they fund other departments, until the biology programs at the major universities place plant biology on par with human biology, until plant physiology and ecology are required parts of all biology curricula, then we will not succeed in attracting the top tier of students necessary to tackle the major problems of food security simply because most of these students will continue to see plant biology as secondary to animal biology.

The other 98 questions were of course also important and interesting, and I’d like to share just one more. Question # 48: “How do plants communicate with each other?” For more on that, preorder a copy of my forthcoming book, WHAT A PLANT KNOWS!

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