By Heidi Ledford of Nature magazine
The perennial grass Miscanthus × giganteushas all the makings of a biofuel superstar. It grows rapidly, converts sunlight into biomass ten times more efficiently than the average plant and has little need for fertilizer.
But M. × giganteus is a headache in the lab. Its genome has few markers to help would-be breeders keep track of desirable genes, and little is known about how it regulates important traits such as cold tolerance and water efficiency. It is also a sterile hybrid, complicating attempts at genetic improvement. "It has such great promise," says Neal Gutterson, president of Mendel Biotechnology, a company in Hayward, California, that is developing the grass as a biofuel crop. "But from a research perspective it is so painfully underdeveloped."
Gutterson hopes that the first ever summit to map the future of US plant science will change that, by encouraging researchers to tackle the genomic wilderness of emerging biofuel crops in a more systematic way.
The 22-23 September meeting, hosted by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is the brainchild of Gary Stacey, an expert in host-microbe interactions in plants at the University of Missouri in Columbia. After a stint chairing the public-affairs committee for the American Society of Plant Biologists in Rockville, Maryland, Stacey says he realized that "we were speaking to Congress with too many dissonant voices. It was clear we had to start singing from the same hymnal."
At the summit, Stacey aims to bring together academic and industry scientists along with representatives from funding agencies and growers' associations to draw up a ten-year plan for plant biology. On the meeting's agenda are topics from bioenergy and informatics to the field's grand, overarching goal of predicting how a plant with a given set of genes will fare in different environments. The resultant list of priorities should aid coordination across a diverse research community and help to target the funds it receives from an array of federal sources. "It's a really smart idea," says Karen Cone, a programme director at the US National Science Foundation (NSF). "It will give the plant-science community an opportunity to articulate a vision for the future that will influence the funding agencies."
Stacey began pushing for the meeting five years ago, borrowing a concept from US astronomers and astrophysicists, who survey their field once a decade to identify scientific priorities and rank potential projects. With the plant summit, he hopes to bridge a sometimes acrimonious divide between researchers who specialize in crops and those who work with model systems such as Arabidopsis thaliana, a quick-growing weed with a small genome that serves as a reference for plants that are harder to study. At the time, Arabidopsis researchers already had their own ten-year project: the Arabidopsis 2010 project funded by the NSF, which aimed to identify the function of every Arabidopsis gene by 2010.
Stacey says that the need for broad planning is now even greater because funding for the Arabidopsis 2010 project has run out and won't be extended (see Nature 464, 154; 2010). Many Arabidopsis researchers are now hoping to apply what they have learned from the weed to agriculturally important species with genomes once considered too big to tackle. "It is time to move forward into other species," says Cone.
As research objectives get more ambitious and cross species boundaries, plant scientists will need to coordinate their activities. "We're getting more like the physical sciences in the sense that we have to have bigger projects with enormous amounts of information," says Gutterson. "If you don't think about it ahead of time and create larger-scale interactions, you can't advance the science as effectively."
Although the decadal surveys of the astronomers take years to pull together, Stacey and organizers at the American Society of Plant Biologists hope to issue a report by early 2012, then circulate it to members of Congress and funding agencies. The team has already put together a list of about a dozen topics to be discussed over the two days and in wider solicitations to the community after the gathering.
A key to the summit's success, says Gutterson, will be the engagement of ecologists, whose expertise is becoming increasingly valuable because even molecular biologists are flocking to learn more about how the genes and processes they study function in natural environments. Stacey expects that summit participants, like all plant scientists, will tout their favourite species, but he hopes for unity in the programmes and technologies they push. "The tone might be different, but for once, we might be pulling together in the same direction."
This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on September 13, 2011.