Plant Genomes in a Changing Environment 2018: A forward looking perspective

12 December 2018

Conference summary

In late October Wellcome Genome Campus Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences (ACSC) welcomed delegates to the Wellcome Genome Campus Conference Centre for their very first Plant Genomes conference. ACSC felt it was time for a multidisciplinary plant group conference that sought to maximise the potential of collaboration between the plant and life science fields in addressing current and future complex global challenges.

If you missed out, or feel inspired by what you go on to read, Plant Genomes in a Changing Environment will be happening again next year! Read on to find out more.

The future of plant science: a shift in scientific priority

Plant science is undoubtedly experiencing a pivotal shift as it enters a new phase of research focused on making connections between the array of genomics data now available and linking this with phenotypes.

Until recently plant genomic research has predominantly been centred on the difficult task of generating reference genomes for sequencing. Researchers across multiple crop species have been dedicated to the challenging distillation of specific gene variations, or to the development of pan genomes to allow for the huge disparities present within individual crop species.

The prevailing questions:
  • What are the reference genomes?
  • What are the variations?
  • How do these variations impact on phenotype?

Drawing large data sets together to better understand these variations, and form a wider comprehension of how and why plant genomes respond to and perform within specific environments, has monopolised the thought and resources necessary to help answer these foundation questions. As a result, plant research has tended to be confined to species, with little or no collaboration between different research groups.

However, plant research is advancing, with the questions beginning to change into more complex and ambitious propositions as the field starts to build cohesive research connections, ultimately extending beyond the lab into the subtle prospect of application to benefit wider-world challenges.

The next steps for the field are to take all the acquired genomics data and interrogate further; to develop a clearer understanding of the properties of plant genomes; to influence the development of effective and progressive breeding approaches. The challenge is to develop a common research repository that crosses many plant disciplines, helping fill in the gaps and build sustainable research methods to garner the answers to wider questions.

In this first meeting, we brought together scientist working on a variety of plant species, ranging from the model Arabidopsis thaliana, to crop species (e.g. rice, wheat, grapevine) and plant populations in their natural environment.

Professor Cristobal Uauy, Project Leader (John Innes Centre)

Why a multidisciplinary plant species conference?

This new research challenge requires individual plant research groups to start looking outside of their own niche focus and consider broader connections to establish well-tested, widely-researched and innovative breeding techniques.

The nature of plant science up to now has created a culture predominantly focused on niche species. Whilst this has its benefits, it is clear that for this second era of research to progress, wider collaborations will be necessary to support further advancement beyond the reference genomes themselves.

Anticipating the need to generate a more cohesive, accessible and communicative plant community, Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences recognised an opportunity to provide a new multi-topic plant conference: a new platform for researchers from a broad range of plant disciplines to come together to explore collective challenges and exchange ideas. By providing a setting for researchers to form new relationships across species, the foundations are being laid for new collaborations and ideas to flourish within the field, with the aim of helping answer the more ambitious research questions.

We felt this was a timely opportunity to introduce a plant conference to our programme, focusing on pointing research in the best direction to begin to form answers - or at least part of those answers - to the important humanitarian challenges our world is currently facing.

Dr Nicole Schatlowski, Scientific Programme Officer (ACSC)

The benefits of plant research introduced to a human genome-focused programme: the bigger picture

Whilst ACSC’s events programme has traditionally focused on delivering conferences related to human genome impact, it is true that the definition of what constitutes ‘human impact’ is being challenged. It is no longer right to treat plant and human scientific research as unconnected entities, particularly if you consider that many of the world’s biggest challenges focus on climate change, food security and dwindling resources. All of these issues rely on plant research, and ultimately have an impact on the health and welfare of global human populations. If anything, it is these challenges that perhaps unite differing research communities and differing global societies the most. We share these commons problems and, to a greater or lesser extent, we will all share the impact and consequences of a changing world.

It is these facts that highlight the future need and benefit of plant and human genome research communities forming multi-disciplinary relationships, to work together to tackle their shared questions and common challenges.

Issues like the use of fertilisers, as well as access to nutrients from the soil to improve food quality and longevity, are just a couple of basic examples to highlight the overlap between plant and human scientific research. If we are to develop effective new technologies to tackle these collective problems, we need to transform plant biology to meet human needs. The only way to achieve this is through collaboration, communication and a common repository of accessible research.

There is increased recognition of the role of plant sciences in addressing some of the critical challenges faced by society. Many of these challenges are shared with those of the Wellcome Genome Campus which includes cancer and ageing, environmental change, and global food security. Plant sciences lies at the centre of these challenges by providing the fundamental research required to produce healthier foods, adapt to and mitigate climate change, protect biodiversity and achieve this through the sustainable intensification of agriculture.

Professor Cristobal Uauy, Project Leader (John Innes Centre)

Plant Genomes in a Changing Environment

The introduction of this plant conference to the ACSC programme reflects an increasing interest in multidisciplinary research to advance human health. The benefits of establishing a plant-focused conference on a world-renowned human genome campus mirrors a newly-formed narrative that draws together research scientists from different fields to work on common problems to find resource-efficient answers to compound questions.

Following the success of the 2018 conference, we are already lining up an impressive scientific committee and expert speakers for Plant Genomes in a Changing Environment 2019 conference. Registration is due to open soon, and you can register for email updates until then by emailing: scientificconferences@wellcomegenomecampus.org

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