Plant Science Decadal Vision Rolls out at AAAS

On December 3rd, 2013, the National Plant Science Council partnered with the American Chemical Society; the Alliance of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Science Societies; and the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) to co-host a briefing on the report Unleashing a Decade of Innovation in Plant Science: A Vision for 2015-2025. The briefing was also supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The event took place at the AAAS headquarters in Washington, DC,  featuring David Stern of the Boyce Thompson Institute, Toni Kutchan of the Danforth Plant Science Center, and Pat Schnable of Iowa State University and was moderated by Sally MacKenzie of University of Nebraska-Lincoln, all long-standing members of ASPB.

Among the 65 attendees were Jane Silverthorne (National Science Foundation [NSF]), Sharlene Weatherwax (Department of Energy [DOE]), and the retired head of NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences Mary Clutter. A host of staff from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the State Department, and other federal agencies; representatives from scientific and professional organizations; researchers; and others also participated in the event.

The report, also known as the Decadal Vision, was developed to articulate the monumental advances in plant science research and technological innovation that will be required to address the increasingly pressing demands of burgeoning global population growth, climate change, and diminishing natural resources. The Decadal Vision is a community-driven report that articulates a path toward those monumental advances. The report describes a ten-year research agenda for plant science and its impacts on food, fuel, feed, fiber, pharmaceuticals, and American competitiveness.

The meat of the program started with Stern’s presentation. He gave an overview of the process by which the community came together to develop the Decadal Vision, which it did with the support of the NSF, DOE, USDA, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and ASPB,. He described the report’s impetus, as well as the five interwoven goals that emerged from the effort: 1) increase the ability to predict plant traits from plant genomes in diverse environments; 2) assemble plant traits in differ ways to solve problems; 3) discover, catalog, and utilize plant-derived chemicals; 4) enhance the ability to find answers in a torrent of data; and 5) create a T-training environment for plant science doctoral students. (See accompanying infographic for more information.)

Stern was followed by Kutchan, who spoke about plant chemistry. Her talk emphasized the many critical plant-derived or inspired compounds and products on which our lives depend. Whether it is plant-derived pharmaceuticals or cellulosic fibers, according to Kutchan, plant chemistry has and will continue to play an essential role in our lives. She also highlighted that of the 400,000 species of flowering plants, 30 provide for 95% of our needs with regard to food and energy. And although more than 20,000 have been used medicinally, we are only beginning to scratch the surface. Kutchan’s talk also emphasized the current rapid extinction of plant and animal species and offered a powerful argument as to the functional importance of preserving biodiversity and the value of learning more about the chemistry of plants.

Schnable’s presentation then covered why we need to devote more resources to understanding the relationship between plant traits and plant genomes in diverse environments and the attendant “Big Data” challenges. To illustrate, he spoke about his USDA-supported work to design and build a phenotyping robot. For Schnable, the utilization or robotics has dramatically enhanced his ability to collect data. The increasing utilization of automated phenotyping approaches coupled with the plummeting cost and increasing speed of sequencing and genotyping technologies have created a “Perfect Storm” of data generation.  To address the societal changes related to climate change, global food security, diminishing natural resources, and the growth of the human population, the Decadal Vision argues for the development of new capabilities of curation, data-sharing, and analysis.

Along with the need to address these issues using multidisciplinary approaches also will come the need to reengineer the training of plant science doctoral students argued MacKenzie. To tackle the challenges of the Decadal Vision will require subsequent generations of trainees to be facile in data and Internet-driven research, statistical analysis, visualization, and online collaboration. She also argued that training experiences of plant scientists must prepare them for multiple career paths as only one in six Ph.D.s will become academic faculty. The remaining trainees, she said, will play critical roles in other aspects of the scientific enterprise from working to help policy makers understand the importance of plant science to working in industry.

A true measure of the immediate success of the briefing, almost the entire audience stayed through all of the presentations as well as the Q&A session that followed. Further, the audience was actively engaged. They asked questions ranging from the role and placement of the microbiome within the context of the Decadal Vision to the engagement of citizen scientists as a means to reach urbanites regarding the value of plant science.

The briefing at AAAS was the first in a series of events aimed at introducing the Decadal Vision to funding agencies, the science policy advocacy community, and federal policymakers. The next event will specifically target Members of Congress and their aides. A video of the event can be viewed on the ASPB Youtube channel and press coverage can be accessed via the AgriPulse website.




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