#plantbiology14 wrap up (Final two days of the conference & final thoughts).

I didn’t get much of a chance to sit down and write a post for the last two days of the conference. The schedule called for a party at the end of day 4 and a half-day day 5 that I’ll talk about here as well as my own take-aways from the conference. 

Day 4.

The major symposia was on Plant Signaling, which is something I am very interested in, and yet I wasn’t very engaged with the speakers or their content; Ykä Helariutta had some truly gorgeous microscopy images of roots from a new type of SEM called SBF-SEM that allowed for 3-D rendering of root tissues as well as from a confocal microscope; I would love to learn to generate images like those. But his work on determining just how plant cells differentiate their vascular tissues was fascinating (at least in roots; shoot tissues may be different). A lot of it comes down to the spatial differentiation of two hormones: cytokinin and auxin, though the fine details rely on some very fine tuning of gene expression to specify phloem cells (that carry things long distance) and their companion cells that onload/offload things to be transported. The fine level microscopy needed is incredible.

around lunch time, I talked to Mike Sussman, my postdoc advisor’s Ph.D. advisor who told me about his bias against microscopy because ‘the molecule is the thing’ (he’s a biochemist that works on phosphorylation) to which I said, it’s best to marry the two together; the molecules and the microscopy; link the individual proteins to the cells where they’re acting, where they’re modified and if they move around or not.

I got to see examples of this in the root biology minisymposium where 3 of the 5 talks were from disciples of the Benfey lab that have gone on or are going on to start their own labs (don’t get me wrong, they all do great work; it confirms something I saw recently that 60% of postdocs from ‘elite’ or ‘rock star’ labs go on to found their own labs and become proto-rock stars of their own often times; so if you can get into one of those labs…you’ve got a good shot at successfully doing so; I’ll come back to this below). The upshot of the session (I sat through all the talks) was developing tools for studying roots more than actual root biology, though there was some of that too. From microscopy to track the properties of moving transcription factors (Sozzani lab), to realistic soil conditions to enable studying root growth (Ruben Rellan Alverez; starting his own lab soon) to studying the ROS pathway that’s independent of hormonal regulation of primary root establishment (Iyer-Pascuzzi lab), to ethylene formation of adventitious roots (Amanda Rasamussen), and how rice roots store nutrients after stress or ABA treatment (Wan-Chi Lin).

And I caught most of Keith Slotkin’s talk on epigenetics and how DNA methylation is established upon the plant first seeing a transposon it doesn’t currently possess in its genome; it was really interesting though I got lost a bit because he talked quickly and I’m not an epigenetics expert. The question was interesting and one I hadn’t thought of before.

Then there was a poster session (I talked to some people but left early to get my things ‘home’ to get myself to the closing party at the World Forestry Center which was great. And the iConnect team, responsible for digital coverage of the conference got together for a picture:

Photo by Naim, official photographer for the conference using @scato's phone.
Back: Ruben, Carl, Ian, Phil, X, Erin. Front: Molly, Susan, Maria, Kranthi. Photo by Naim, official photographer for the conference using @scato’s phone. Not pictured: (@PlantTeaching, #DaHorvathdp)

Day 5. President’s symposium

Day 5 is just the president’s symposium where the president of the society each year gets to choose a theme for a symposium, find speakers for it and there you go. This year being the 25th anniversary of The Plant Cell (@ThePlantCell) being published as well as the 90th anniversary of ASPB’s (@ASPB) founding, the theme was ‘Firsts in plant biology’ (did you put an event on ASPB’s time line of historic plant discoveries? It’ll be online too).

Although one speaker had to cancel, the three that did speak were fantastic. It was well balanced with 2/3 being women or 2/4 if all 4 scheduled speakers had been speaking; plant biology doesn’t have anything close to parity when it comes to higher levels of academia (Ph.D.s and postdocs are near 50/50 though it’s been awhile since I’ve checked the numbers; someone can correct me if that’s not accurate) though I think it is better than many fields– a long way to go, for sure, but progress is being made, although the funding crunch scientists are presently under may really harm progress on this front, if only because there are fewer Tenure Track jobs out there. It’s something to be constantly vigilant about, as that seems to be the best way to ensure diverse voices are heard.

There were two epigenetics talks, the first by David Baulcombe (@dcb40) talking about some of his work on post-transcriptional gene silencing, and what underlies it and talked about how plants were the first systems where such RNA silencing was first observed. And took us through his modern day work which is also showing some firsts in plant biology, which ideas and mechanisms first described in plants being also discovered in animal cell systems. Julie Law from The Salk Institute continued on the theme of epigenetics talking about her work on the selective methylation mechanisms plants have and talked about how the first ‘methylome’ ever publihsed was from Arabidopsis. I don’t follow it, but I wonder if there are prokaryotic systems that have epigenetic marks.

The final talk was given by Pamela Ronald (@pcronald), giving her second talk of the conference; this one about her lab’s research into a rice bacterial pathogen and the response to it in rice and the difficult process of tracking down a receptor ligand. The first in plant biology that she cited was the fact that the potato blight of the 1840’s was determined to be caused by a phytopthora species of fungus and Koch, of Koch’s postulates learned of this link and figured out that microbes can cause disease in animals (and came up with assays to determine just that). She talked about how the peptide that the rice pathogen produces that is the suspected ligand is modified post-translationally by sulfination that turns out to also be important for the mechanisms of HIV infection in humans. It was really fascinating and a great way to end the meeting.

Both Baulcombe and Ronald talked about how plant scientists tend to have an inferiority complex when it comes to our work and said that we shouldn’t hide the fact that we work on plants that they’re inherently great systems to work on and have some of the most cutting edge science in the world that has implications for not just mechanisms in all of biology, but also for overall human health. I have experienced this inferiority conference.

Final impressions

Education matters. How we tell the story of plant science matters. And the community really matters.

Plants are indeed fascinating systems to work on and the modern tools of science are making the exciting biology of plants more and more discoverable; from whole genome approaches to better imaging technologies to populations that allow very fine mapping of markers for desired traits of interest. Of course, I’m not so short-sighted as to say there’s no interesting biology to be uncovered in other systems, even ones not yet explored.

Plants do offer a lot of unique opportunities as they provide things we rely on every day from ecosystem services to food, shelter, clothing, and energy; a list that’s only likely to grow over time as plants can be synthesis factories for a lot of things as well. Some of this conference was devoted to the debate between basic and applied science; a decision I don’t think any science enterprise should have to distinguish; both matter. Basic research, as Marcelo Gleiser (@marcelogleiser) argues in his recent book ‘the island of knowledge’ is to define the shores of our ignorance in order to push them out even further (we’ll likely always be pushing); there’s an ebb and flow of that shoreline as we slowly learn things, correct ourselves and yes, apply what we’ve learned.

The initial discovery phases of any product are underpinned by basic research. And of course, applied projects can make significant basic science discoveries (e.g. Cosmic microwave background). Anyone reading this is likely a plant scientist and knows all of this; yet Arabidopsis is still the only model organism that is up for the chopping block as far as I know (I am all for smarter use of the model; a lot of experiments may not hold true for other plants because we grow Arabidopsis under utterly false conditions often).

We currently live in a very short-term world; nothing should take a long time to develop. Basic research takes a painfully long time to mature into something that could be applied; on the order of 30-50 years. Should scientists be on the lookout for contributions they can apply from their discoveries? Absolutely, but there is nothing wrong with knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The frustration with that as an approach is that it is hard to feel like you’re making a difference in the world; ideally, any project has both applied and basic components, even if it is split 10/90. You never know when someone will come upon your work and make a brilliant discovery because of it (likely, it’ll only be a small piece of that breakthrough, but still, every bit helps; it’s useless knowledge until suddenly, it isn’t).

In the current funding environment, it’s likely that things that can be applied quickly will take priority, and that is kind of a shame. Both Pam Ronald and David Baulcombe talked about pursuing systems you are passionate about; I don’t think I’ve found my applied system yet that I feel I can make a contribution to. Maybe coffee? I am very interested in saving coffee.

Education matters.

To continue from my comments above, It also seems true that postdocs from amazing labs will be the ones to get funded and go on to be successful. In a way, that’s as it should be; success breeds success. Lots of research bang for the buck, which is what we want. As well as very talented people doing science (or people we can train to become talented; growth mindset!). However, if only people from a top few labs are able to get hired, the focus and scope of research may be limited. And schools that serve primarily undergraduates, currently a large supplier of grad programs may have an ever harder time getting funding for their mostly less ambitious research programs; I’m sure the people at the funding agencies do their best to balance research and education; the two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to begin with, but it just seems like we’re living in an increasingly tiered world where a very few top labs produce the most research and leave the rest of us out in the cold (great if you’re one of those labs; or a lab that can collaborate with them). Competition is good; but I feel like what we have now is too competitive and may end up in what a cell biologist might call an apoptotic event for the entire scientific system. Again, I have no trouble with great labs doing amazing things that we end up often hearing about at conferences like Plant Biology. I just worry about the crowding out of smaller research programs, especially those form PUIs. Big science, is, well, big these days; and we’ll likely all be doing it at some level sometime soon, but I’m not so sure the resources are there for every lab, independent of its size, to do that RNAseq experiment (the crash in sequencing costs/base may continue, but to do a full on experiment is still expensive). I know that these are more systemic concerns within academia as a whole, but they affect us in the plant biology world too. Competition is good. Hyper-competition I’m not so sure is. I don’t know where that balance point is, but it seems like science as a whole is moving towards the latter.

The two major symposia sponsored by Monsanto, The Plant Cell and, Plant Physiology all highlighted messages of public education and awareness (which is necessary, but not sufficient as Nathanael Johnson (@SavorTooth) pointed out). The speakers weren’t there to tell us that feeding the world would be a challenge; we know that; but to give us data and perhaps a narrative to help communicate that message to others who aren’t so aware. Robb Fraley (@RobbFraley) talked about some of Monsanto’s latest projects/products and vision and Pam Ronald talked about how to integrate ecologically minded farming with GM technology. Like it or not, GM is controversial (even though it’s far from the only thing Monsanto produces). Part of the controversy is just that Monsanto is a large company. Robb Fraley flew into Portland on a private jet and flew out again soon after his talk. That’s some Bond Villain level activity right there. Or he has a demanding job that likely takes place in many cities all at the same time and Monsanto can afford a jet to enable him to do the work he’s obviously passionate about (I would love to tour Monsanto to see what it’s like; I’ve never been despite living in St. Louis for my Ph.D.). However, as a large and resourced company, Monsanto might have an even bigger responsibility to being environmentally friendly and encouraging farming practices that leave a lighter footprint on the planet (the scientists there, at least, are on board with this, I’m almost certain). Things like the two symposia really are important for getting the message of plant biology out to the world, it broadens our scope.

The community matters. iConnect with Plant Biology.

Covering the conference on Twitter was great. The core group of us, the iConnect team tweeted up a storm. But that was only half the point. ASPB is embarking on a digital futures initiative to provide tools and connections to other plant scientists. Right now, even though we’re a community of mutual interest in plants, the links seem fairly loose and there’s still a lot of ivory towers/silos that exist. I envision a tighter community that will connect in real life as always, but also digitally. The end goal is to create a much better megaphone to communicate plant science as a whole to fellow plant scientists and build the membership, but to communicated it other audiences as well (various segments of the public, government, industry, etc.). It’s a new project and a big undertaking, but we’ve planted the seeds at least.

Final, final thoughts.

I had a good time at #plantbiology14 even if I felt like I missed a lot and maybe could have done some things better (networking, getting noticed). I hope all the attendees did. There are some truly amazing plant scientists doing great work at all levels with projects at all stages of completion. Talking to a friend, she was saying plant biologist’s inferiority complex actually harms us because we’re a lot harsher on one another’s work; it has to be perfect before any of those animal people even get a glance at it. Perfectionism is no way to go about life, I’ve found. I’m still fighting those tendencies (I want to be excellent, but not to wait for perfection because it will never happen). I don’t know if that’s the case in the entire plant world, but from what I’ve seen, there’s a lot of good work being done. And the world needs a strong plant science community to work towards agricultural and environmental solutions to the world’s problems. It’s great to do the work and apply it, but two other keys are education and communication about plant science to relevant communities. And of course, paying for all of this won’t be easy, but I think a lot of it starts with a strong, diverse, and large community that has strong links to one another.

The World Domination Summit (WDS) coincided with Plant Biology this year in Portland. WDS is a conference of largely small business owners/startups that are trying to create socially/environmentally responsible companies that are going to be the next big thing (their founders think so anyway and most really do seem to want to put all the effort they can into creating a successful business). I follow it a bit though have never been (they are a community of people with positive voices that work for me, something I needed to hear a few years ago), and one thing they did one year was have everyone sing Journey’s “Don’t stop Believin”; something the band (The Nines, from Seattle, they were great) at the Plant BIology closing party played too, by request. The challenges we face are huge, but together, we can create a better Earth to live on.






Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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