Harnessing Plant Metabolism for the Bio-Based Economy

Mid-July and the verdant cool of New Hampshire’s White Mountains provided the idyllic backdrop for the Plant Metabolic Engineering Gordon Research Conference and its 150 attendees.  Organized by co-chairs Rick Dixon (U. North Texas) and Sarah O’Connor (John Innes Center), the meeting progressed from showing how our understanding of plant metabolism is changing to emerging technologies that offer new strategies for engineering plants to a sobering reminder of the hurdles between the bench and the field and the perception gap between scientists and the public.  Speakers ran the gamut from molecular to cellular structure, from specialized chemicals to engineering biomass, from challenges to opportunities in a bio-based economy, and emphasized how the field draws on the intersection of diverse disciplines.

Approaches to metabolism now go well beyond the clean linear pathways of textbooks and into thinking about the diversity, regulation, and physical and temporal organization of where chemistry happens in plants.  Examples from primary and specialized metabolism and the engineering of cell walls in plants emphasized the field’s successes, but also identified gaps in our knowledge.  A reoccurring theme was the versatility of plant metabolism and its adaptability – which is both a blessing and a curse.

The explosion of new technologies, including the integration of genomics and metabolomics, gene/genome editing, artificial chromosomes, and chromosome manipulation, build on the fundamentals of plant genetics and biochemistry and are leading to the engineering of multi-step pathways, of targeted gene replacements, and non-transgenic approaches for crop improvement.  Four years ago, CRISPR was not on our collective radar, but now we are seeing the first steps toward using this technology.

Although basic science and new technologies aim to deliver on the promise of a bio-based economy, it is the farmer, livestock, the process chemist, or the consumer that determines if an idea hatched at the bench will make it.  Also, it is the public’s acceptance of such products that temper those breakthroughs and remind us that scientists need to challenge misinformation and communicate facts if we are to realize a bio-based future.

The science made everyone stretch their intellects far beyond their immediate experiments and into a wide-range of fields – the benchmark of an outstanding meeting.  Importantly, the meeting also aimed to cultivate the next generation of plant metabolic engineers.  A two-day Gordon Research Seminar organized by Josh Widhalm (Purdue) and Andrew Klein (Stanford) brought 46 postdocs and graduate students together for a series of talks, including a keynote from incoming ASPB President Sally Mackenzie on the training of future plant scientists.  If your GRC does not have a GRS, it should!  The sense of community and ownership in the meeting from the younger scientists becomes infectious.


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