Day two and another early start in the name of plant science.... I had worried that I wouldn't get much sleep I the shared dorm at the youth hostel but with only two other ladies in the room, it was pleasantly quiet!
The first set of sessions centred on the theme 'Environment, diversity and adaptation'. Tina Sarkinen, of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh gave a fascinating introduction to life in the Andes, where plants have to be incredibly resilient to survive in a land where the climate can vary between that the extremes of North Africa and Greenland. Clearly, Peru is a hotbed of diversity and an estimated 29% of the plants and animals that remain undiscovered will be found here. Meanwhile, I was pleased to pleased to finally meet Sebastian Schornack of the ( brand spanking new) Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge, who works on filament out plant pathogens and with whom I once applied to do a PhD with. His presentation focused on the devastating pathogen Phytophthora palmivora: his belongs to a distinct, and little known, class of fungal like organisms called oomycetes. Clearly however, there is a pressing need for greater knowledge of this genus, which is responsible for a wide range if plant diseases, including ash dieback and potato blight. Over coffee, I engaged in a spot of 'networking' to raise the possibility of some collaborative work to compare the response of host plants to parasitic plants ( such as Orobanche ) and the Phytophra oomycete... Watch this space!
The second session, 'Plants as Factories', presented a fascinating mix of pioneering research seeking to encourage the production of desirable compounds and chemicals in plants. This included anthocyanin production in blood oranges. These cancer fighting compounds are specifically found in blood oranges ( as opposed to 'blonde' oranges) however these can only be cultivated in certain regions, such as Sicily, as they require a cold period to develop their distinct colour. Blood oranges have recently garnered interests through studies which suggest their juice could be an aid to weight loss: mice fed on a high fat diet gain less weight when given blood orange juice to drink, compared with standard orange juice. As such, there is great interest in introducing the anthocyanin- producing trait into more easily cultivated orange species. Cathie Martin, of the John Innes Centre, described the progress made so far in identifying genes responsible for anthocyanin production. I was also able to hear a first hand account of the development of omega-3 fatty acid producing oilseed crops ( see the previous post 'Something Fishy...') from Jonathan A. Napier from Rothamsted Research. This was followed by Simon McQueen-Mason's (University of York) account of the various approaches being made to engineer crops more suitable for use as biofuels (see the post 'Fuelling the Future'). After the depressing start yesterday, I was feeling much more inspired and invigorated!
It was even sunny enough to enjoy a buffet lunch out on the waterfront, in the company of the resident ducks and geese. Then the final session, which described some of the various new technologies being introduced into plant science. These included a CT scanning method being developed at the Centre for Plant Integrative Biology ( University of Nottingham) to map root architecture non- invasively. The closing speech was delivered by Jackie Hunter, Chief Executive of the funding body BBSRC (Biological and Biomedical Sciences Research Council) who stressed the organisation's commitment to developing world-leading plant science in the UK. Then a flurry of activity as cases were snatched up, coats collected, feedback forms handed in.... We may enjoy getting together but plant scientists are generally busy people! As the crowd dispersed, I paused to reflect on the hundreds of fascinating avenues of research we represented collectively, and to which we would return with renewed excitement.