Plant Biology (#plantbiology15) days 4 and 5. Too much happening.

This post covers two days of Plant Biology, 2015 in Minneapolis. Your correspondent took the night last night to attend the closing mixer/party and so decided to combine the last two days into one post. Once again, this is just to give a reader a sense of what went on at the conference, not exhaustive account, there’s more to search at #plantbiology15, as well as looking up the researchers mentioned below that presented their work.

Wednesday at Plant Biology was another solid day at the conference. The day started with the major symposia on plant-microbe and plant-insect interactions.

The chair, Xinnian Dong of Duke University had some good lines in her talk on circadian rhythms and a plant’s interaction with pests and or pathogens.

The fact that plants can schedule their defense responses to times of day when pathogen attack is most likely is incredible and one great example of why organisms have circadian clocks, to anticipate events that occur regularly.

Gary Felton’s (Penn State) talk had gifs of insects eating plants and told a really fascinating story about how the potato beetles that effectively feed on plants rely on bacteria in their mouths to help suppress the plant immune response.

Alisa Huffaker from UCSD told the audience about some peptides that are signals for various pathogen or herbivore responses and ended with the new direction of trying to determine the evolutionary history of the entire family of peptides & receptors to try and predict co-evolution of receptor-ligand pairs. There’s a lot still to be learned.

Melissa Mitchum (Univ. of Missouri) talked about a nematode and how they actually affect plant developmental pathways to suppress defenses and allow them to feed on plants. The conclusion I came to after hearing and seeing tweets from the session was that the relationship between plants and pathogens is extraordinarily ancient and both have deep levels of complexity in their responses/signaling to one another to successfully defend/repel or infect/eat.

I ended up going to an education workshop about how to study with Nate Cornell of Williams College where he talked about how learning happens best when you interleave learning tasks (as switch to something else after a short time and return to it later), how making sure you’re challenging yourself, testing yourself often, and to work on weaknesses are better ways to learn. So called “massing”  where you hammer out one task quickly, is great when you need to get things done. The science of learning is fascinating and I left thinking it’s not an efficient process as important as it is to civilization.

Concurrently, there was a session on the recently approved farm bill that will infuse $200 million for R&D at USDA. More to come on just what will happen with that, I’m certain.

The minisymposia were fascinating too. The ones I’ll mention here were on Transcriptional networks in development, ecophysiology and space biology. All had some really outstanding points.

The first was really focused on just how plants get their shapes, through lots of complex gene regulatory loops and pathways as well as a lot of cell-cell communication. The most clear talk in that session was from Erin Sparks, talking about just how the gene SHORTROOT is activated and why it’s expression pattern is the way it is. It’s a dance of activators and repressors, including a serendipitous result.

Space biology is just plane cool. One factor that will have to be addressed for growing plants in space is how to water them, since water just sticks to roots in microgravity & a plant could end up having a flooding response and die due to a very thin film of water.

And the ecophysiology minisymposia sounded like every talk had a implications for just how crop plants especially respond to various environmental factors, including variable light conditions due to canopies or competing plants nearby.

The town hall meeting was a good, if brief discussion about how the ASPB is doing (seems healthy and vital). During the open question session, Don Gibson got up to pitch his campaign to get Barbara McClintock on the $10 bill.

I got up to plug social media (even though I am not sure how many in the audience really care what Twitter/social media is). I just know that an important aspect to science is communication, digtial media will continue to broadcast conferences and I think that putting in my request that next year’s official hashtag  be shortened to #plantbio16 will be heeded. It matters. ASPB knows it as well, as they have embraced digital media more and more (going all online with journals, launching Plantae.org).

Then there was the closing mixer. The Nines, a band from Seattle that played last year in Portland was back this year. They were awesome. Everyone seemed to have a good time, with pictures like this one coming out of the party:

The President of ASPB, Julian Schroeder even got up and played harmonica with the band:

The final morning of the conference today, the President’s symposium was on salt stress and flood tolerance.

The 4 talks were all amazing, and this was a good topic in light of climate change, more widespread droughts and the preciously small fresh water supply.

Rob Horsch of the Gates Foundation talked about drought as being the result of having less water than you planned for. If you know water’s going to be scarce, you can plant accordingly and at least get something out of a field.

He also highlighted a really important point that agriculture is the way out of poverty for many in the world:

This is true of nearly all civilization. Life was rough for our ancestors and agriculture led us to where we are now. A 7 billion strong species that discovers and applies the things we learn about nature. Agriculture permitted that deeper investigation of the world.

Jose Dinenny gave a great talk on root responses to salt stress and just what cells in the root respond to salinity as well as pointing out a threshold of salt response, low, mid and high level responses all differ. He also spoke about the Zen of plant physiology. There are cells, and affecting the cells are form/function, signaling, development, and the environmeent (that is more complex than we can often simulate in the lab, though Dinenny’s certainly trying to do it in his lab).

Julia Bailey-Serres spoke about SUB1A rice, a variant of rice that can tolerate flooding and talked about the fascinating aspect to the story of how the plant manages it’s carbon stores while under and recovering from, flooding (assuming it’s a tolerant plant).

Mike Nuccio of Syngenta closed the meeting talking about a biotech product he developed with lots of effort to figure out how to get maize to fill its grains with sugar despite drought. It would protect some yield at least, and help a plant use it’s water more efficiently to produce sugars, though certainly more could be done.

Thus ended Plant Biology, 2015. There was so much more that I couldn’t get to here; I will write more about the conference and what I experienced, but would encourage anyone to search the #plantbiology15 hashtag and interact with those of us who attended and covered the meeting on Twitter if you’re interested in hearing more about it. The program for the meeting is here (pdf). Plant scientists are great, clever people with a passion for science and the application of science and technology to solve the problems of how plants work and of nourishing the world (& not just food; as the entire plant world supports us in myriad ways).

For now, your correspondent is signing off to get some sleep and finish participating in an extension of the meeting, a workshop in data carpentry.


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