This year the venue is Somerville College, Oxford. Although the grounds are lovely and bursting with an abundance of floral species, I am slightly disappointed that we are housed in a modern university block...I had got used to the quirky college rooms with their nooks, crannies and occasionally pianos. Nevertheless, it doesn't detract for the science, which- as usual- is top notch. Thursday afternoon is mostly dedicated to talks from Gatsby funded PhD students encompassing everything from micro compartmentalisation of the enzyme aldolase, chromosome recombination in Arabidopsis and resistance against the pathogenic oomycete Albugo laibachi. I always struggle to get my head around some of the development talks, particularly how polarity fields and hormone gradients can promote the growth of specific shapes. Some ingenious comparative models were used in the talks to explain such concepts, including pizza dough and lolly pops. Visual imagery always helps! I was also intrigued by an experimental method called FRET to determine if two proteins interact in a cell. By altering the encoding gene, it is possible to engineer proteins to have a fluorescent 'tag' which absorbs a certain light wavelength and re- emits some of the energy as fluorescent light. Some of the energy, however, can be transferred to surrounding molecules (known as Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer, FRET). So too see if two proteins interact, one can tag each with different fluorescent markers that are excited by different light wavelengths. When the first fluorescent marker ( say a green marker) absorbs light energy, it can transfer energy by FRET to the second marker ( eg.a red marker), but ONLY if they are very close together ( within 10 nm). So if the proteins are far apart, when the green tag is illuminated, it can only re- emit green light. If the proteins ( and hence the markers) are close together however, the green marker can pass on energy by FRET to the red marker, and red light will be seen. I am constantly amazed at the methods designed by biologists to answer questions!
After quite a marathon of talks, with a short break for coffee, the evening gave way to a discussion on the future of publishing in plant science, chaired by a panel of journal editors. Professor Mike Blatt, editor of Plant Physiology, made the point that many people often assume that scientific journal editors are 'failed scientists' who couldn't handle the pressures of a research- based career. On the contrary, most journal editors are very much 'active' scientists, who manage to fit in editing and reviewing with their own research agendas. There was much debate on how the move towards 'open access' publishing can be financially sustained. Although there is great pressure for publicly-funded research to be made freely available, most journals receive most of their revenue from subscriptions. Without this income, how can we ensure that these remain high quality and rigorously reviewed publishing platforms? Eventually, the talk was pulled to a close and we tripped onto the lane for the drinks reception. The formal meal was very enjoyable, the highlight for me being 'Japanese breaded baby carrots' although the menu didn't specify what exactly made the dish 'Japanese' - were they Panko breadcrumbs? Did it refer to the way the carrots had been exquisitely julienned? Were the carrots themselves from Japan?
The next morning kicked off with an open platform to discuss strategies to inspire plant science teaching in schools. I can remember from my GCSEs that my teachers were almost apologetic when we reached plant topics, with an air of 'I'm sorry but we HAVE to do this because it's on the exam...'. To combat this, Science And Plants in Schools (SAPS) have produced a stunning suite of freely available teaching resources ( including lesson plans, animations, work sheets) - the problem is now getting the message out there so that teachers actually use them!
After more talks from the PhD students, the meeting closed with a presentation by Professor Cathie Martin of The John Innes Centre, to describe the potential of nutrient enhanced food to combat chronic diseases. Her work has mainly focused on the purple tomato; a GM crop with a introduced pigment gene from Antirrhinum ( snapdragon). This increases the production of anthocyanins, said to protect against a range of chronic diseases. To test this, the tomatoes were fed to mice genetically engineered to be deficient in the tumour suppressor p53. This dramatically reduces the lifespans of the mice to an average of 140 days. Supplementing the mice's diet with red tomatoes had little effect, however introducing purple tomatoes caused them to live 30% longer, up to 180 days. The tomatoes were also tested in atherosclerosis - prone mice, where it was found that, as the proportion of purple tomatoes in their diet increased, the area of fatty plaque on the arteries reduced. European regulations mean that these 'wonder fruits ' are currently only available as a juice in the United States. Professor Martin's group are currently seeking to develop tomatoes enriched in resveratol ( a compound found in red grapes claimed to promote longevity and weight loss) and phytoestrogens ( which could benefit women approaching the menopause). Having an abundance of bio enriched foods sounds wonderful, however Professor Martin pointed out one can't rely on these foods alone for good health. The plaque reducing properties of purple tomatoes for instance, would be severely negated by pairing them with melted cheese on a pizza! It was interesting though, that the plums were the first fruit to run out over the leaving lunch....
How the years roll by... At least it means I can count on the next meeting being here before I know it! So long for now!