President’s Letter—March/April 2019
By Rob Last, Michigan State University, ASPB President. Co-authored by Laura Grapes, Bayer Crop Sciences, and Andrew Hanson, University of Florida.
Helping students and postdocs develop technical, logical and communication skills and then go on to vital roles in industry, academia, and government is at the heart of our mission as plant biologists and technologists. Watching our trainees and mentees choose fulfilling careers and lead satisfying lives is one of the signal joys of being a scientist. When done well, the mentoring relationship prepares the next generation to be great colleagues, leaders, and citizens—and helps trainers become better at our jobs.
However, there is a humongous elephant in the training room: we train for careers that are known to us, using technologies that are currently available or on the near horizon. Today’s technologies and domain area knowledge evolve so quickly that we can only guess at which skills and knowledge will transform agriculture, health care, and education over the 40+-year career expectancy for a current undergraduate or predoctoral student. Although there is no crystal ball, two vibrant and related areas will continue to offer career opportunities in the public and private sectors: synthetic biology (SynBio) and precision agriculture–driven plant breeding.
SynBio is to biology careers today what recombinant DNA was in the 1980s: an area of explosive scientific development, investment and job growth that is building a next-generation biotech economy. Some SynBio job growth is in universities, but a lot will continue to be in companies—as the $3.8 billion that the top SynBio outfits raised in 2018 attests (Schmidt, 2018). This is excellent news for plant biologists because a fair number of SynBio jobs already require plant science training, ranging from specialized metabolism through sensing and signaling circuits to plant–microbe interactions. The number of plant-related SynBio jobs is sure to grow as the field continues to move out from biomedicine into the enormous agricultural industry. We are seeing more and more plant-related SynBio startups coming in behind the microbial ones, targeting the engineered synthesis of plant products in microbes or applying microbial systems to agricultural problems.
What sort of training opens doors to SynBio careers? At this point there are relatively few specialist SynBio graduate programs around the world, with more in Europe than North America, but universities are sure to create more of these. The existing programs are not plant-centric; they provide training dominated by a few platform organisms such as E. coli and yeast, and this is not tomorrow’s SynBio world of agricultural crops and forest trees. In the longer term, careers in plant SynBio will require training in computer skills and engineering principles, which can be acquired via a few good foundational courses or disciplined self-study. Beyond that, to really add value in the job market, trainees need visceral thorough knowledge of the universal bioscience basics—physical and organic chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, genetic and metabolic regulatory networks, and evolution—plus the plant basics—morphology, taxonomy, physiology and ecology. This classical skill set is the grounding needed to understand new SynBio technologies, as well as the technologies that eventually will supersede them. Most importantly, these skills are essential to figuring out how to apply new technologies to solve important problems.
And what is an “important problem”? SynBio’s answer is “one we must solve to make a prosperous and sustainable world.” SynBio’s stress on utility is one of its hallmarks. Another hallmark distinguishing it from biology as we have known it is that SynBio transforms biology from a descriptive discipline into a prescriptive and constructive one. SynBio doesn’t stop at describing nature’s intricate beauty; it goes on to redesign and rebuild nature to meet needs. Make no mistake: SynBio is a revolution.
Precision Agriculture and Postmodern Plant Breeding
In much the same way that biology is being transformed from a descriptive science to a prescriptive one by synthetic biology, plant breeding is being radically transformed and contributing to a rapidly changing agricultural enterprise.
Now as much as ever before, the role of plant breeding in agriculture is to develop new solutions to the biotic and abiotic limits on crop production, and to do it faster, better and more efficiently than last year. The classic core sciences that enable new variety development—plant physiology, genetics, agronomy, statistics—were joined by molecular biology and genomics over the past two decades. These technological and business developments created job opportunities for those trained in laboratory, mathematical and computational sciences.
However, plant breeding is now changing even more rapidly with addition of data-intensive precision agriculture. This includes a suite of evolving imaging and sensing technologies for breeding and on farms, and these are creating avalanches of phenotypic information and environmental metadata. The marriage of these modern genotyping and phenotyping tools, along with rich climate data, create the opportunity for precision agriculture at scales ranging from individual fields to large regions. Thus, whether future scientists generate their own big data or merge diverse data types to generate insight, fluency in data manipulation and analytics using common programming languages such as Python or R will be critical to handle the available volumes of data. This will be the price of admission for job success in next-generation agriculture.
Farmers see the value of big data in agriculture, and industry is anticipating rising demand for digital agricultural tools. Connected hardware devices in agriculture are projected to increase globally from 13 million in 2014 to 225 million by 2024 (Machina Research, 2016), and the majority of new agricultural machinery is now equipped with precision agriculture features. Growers increasingly seek digital advisory services to inform their farm management decisions in areas ranging from equipment logistics and pest and disease control to seed product selection and harvest timing. To enable accurate and precise recommendations at the commercial agricultural scale, these services must be backed by millions of data points that track biological as well as environmental variables.
The ongoing big data revolution in agriculture enables plant breeding to design the next generation of sustainable solutions to biotic and abiotic limits on agriculture more precisely, and to tailor them to function synergistically. This precision agriculture–driven approach to plant breeding is creating employment opportunities for experimentalists and data scientists trained in diverse fields to collaborate in new ways. For example, the expertise of breeders, synthetic biologists, microbiologists, biochemists, and formulation experts is needed to develop new combinations of chemical or microbial products with specific elite crop germplasm to create sustainable, productive solutions for farmers.
As such, careers in the precision agriculture and plant breeding space increasingly span multiple disciplines and—especially—interaction between disciplines. To access these careers, a solid grounding in one of the core biological or environmental sciences, as well as engineering and data science, will always be critical. But from now on, new private- and public-sector hires should expect to deploy their expertise in multidisciplinary teams that redesign agricultural production systems. This diverse, team-based approach creates meaningful solutions to the critical challenge of sustainable agriculture—and careers that look more like expeditions than excavations.
Stay Ahead of the Curve with ASPB
In the past, your PhD degree training more or less set you up for the rest of your professional life. You needed to update and upgrade, but not to upend everything and move on to something new. Now everyone needs to stay fresh over decades and to prepare for the future by thinking opportunity instead of security, change instead of stasis, and the wide world instead of the narrow cloister.
This year, ASPB is focusing attention on the science and career opportunities behind these topics. SynBio is front and center, with a Focus Issue of Plant Physiology in March 2019 (http://www.plantphysiol.org/collection) featuring 11 Update reviews from SynBio leaders and eight research papers. There will be a SynBio major symposium as the concluding session of Plant Biology 2019(http://plantbiology.aspb.org/), in San Jose, California, followed by a standalone two-day SynBio satellite meeting (http://bit.ly/PlantSynBio2019). These are being supported by a set of webinars, blogs, interviews, and other activities over the coming months, which we will link to at the Plantae collection associated with this letter (http://bit.ly/NextGenerationCareers).
Modern agriculture and quantitative job skills training are well represented at Plant Biology 2019 (https://plantbiology.aspb.org/). For example, we will feature a major symposium on the Future of Food and Agriculture. There will be workshops relevant to the topics covered in this letter, including Mathematical Plant Biology and Machine Learning, as well as Careers Beyond Academia and Commercialization in Plant Sciences. We look forward to keeping in touch with you in San Jose, at Plantae, and on Twitter!
Machina Research. (2016). Agricultural IOT will see a very rapid growth over the next 10 years. http://bit.ly/MachinaResearch.
Schmidt, C. (2018). These 98 synthetic biology companies raised $3.8 billion in 2018. SynBioBeta. http://bit.ly/SynBioBeta2018.
Laura Grapes, product systems development lead in North America breeding at Bayer Crop Science http://bit.ly/LauraGrapes.
Andrew Hanson, C. V. Griffin, Sr., Eminent Scholar, University of Florida (@ADHansonLab)
Rob Last, ASPB President, Barnett Rosenberg Professor, Michigan State University (@Biokid001)