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Daily highlights from the 4th EPSO Conference

 “Plants for Life”, 22-26 June 2008, Toulon (Côte d'Azur), France

The fourth EPSO Conference – which explored the theme ‘Plants for life’ – was held on the beautiful French Côte d’Azur, near Toulon. The conference addressed many of the challenges faced by the plant research community: climate change, preservation of the environment and of natural biodiversity, as well as the food and feed demands of a growing world population. Non-food crops for energy, biomaterials, biopharmaceuticals and other new products were also an important focus of the conference.

Sunday 22 June - Opening - Science Policy

Fourth EPSO Conference, 22 June 2008

Quote of the day: “This is an extraordinary time, a scary time, a disturbing time but an exciting one.” Richard Flavell, Ceres.

The fourth EPSO conference started today under the Mediterranean sun. More than 250 leading scientists, researchers and decision-makers from Europe and beyond are gathered to present the most recent advances in their field and discuss how plant sciences can address the challenges of our times.

Karin Metzlaff (EPSO) and Helene Lucas (INRA) opened the conference by welcoming the participants at the Cote d’Azur, wishing them stimulating talks and fruitful interactions. The conference was then opened on behalf of France by Francois Houllier (INRA) and Andre Le Bivic (CNRS) who presented the main players in French plant research.

In his keynote speech, Richard Flavell (Ceres) highlighted the critical role plant scientists can play in addressing today's societal challenges: climate change, energy supply and feeding a growing world population. He stresses that this is an opportunity not to be missed by the plant science community.

Timothy Hall (European Commission) highlighted the funding opportunities for plant scientists in the Seventh Framework Programme, in particular in his directorate for food agriculture and fisheries and technologies. He announce that the next call will be published in September 2008 (with a deadline in January 2009), and will include several topics of interest for plant scientists. He was followed by Babis Savakis who presented the two grant schemes of the ERC. Analysing the results of the first starting grant competition, he deplored that plant scientists were under represented in the final results (6 out of 300).

The session then came to an end with an interesting talk form Mike Gale (CGIAR) who called the plant science community for help in the fight against hunger in the world. Although cereal production has increased since the early 1960s, the production has not kept up with the world's population and we now face a crisis situation where the per capita share of the world's grain is plummeting. The urgency is to close the yield gap. To do so, more investment and more involvement of researchers from academia is needed in the South.

After these stimulating talks, the participants gathered on the beach to enjoy the welcome reception.

Monday 23 June - Plant diversity - Science and society: the challenges for tomorrow's agriculture

Quote of the day: “Biodiversity is a gift we have all inherited and we are destroying it at high speed” Stephen Hopper

Today's scientific sessions covered a wide range of topics showcasing the diversity of plant research in Europe, from crop genome sequencing to climate change mitigation techniques and biodiversity studies. The science and society session brought the day to its end with challenging discussions about the role plant scientists can play in addressing today's societal challenges.

During the first morning session, on plant genome sequencing, scientists presented exciting results and perspectives from several sequencing projects on wheat, sorghum and grapevine. All these results will provide new tools for plant breeders to better improve crops for food. For example, the results of the grapevine sequence could be used to address pressing issues in viticulture, such as the high level of fungicides currently used on these crops.

The next two sessions addressed the climate change issue from a plant science perspective. There is currently a tremendous pressure on plant resources for food, fuel and other plant products to address the food, energy and climate crisis. Several mitigation options are currently explored in order to reduce carbon emissions while preserving plant biodiversity, minimising the degradation of soil and water resources, as well as maintaining acceptable production levels.

According to Stephen Hopper, a botanist and head of Kew Gardens in the UK, it is now more than time to reconsider current models for land uses as they have delivered unsustainable outcomes. This requires fundamental rethinking of land uses in both rural and urban areas. We heard about several experiments currently underway to introduce or preserve plant biodiversity on agricultural and urban land.

Another way to address the climate change challenge is to study how plants take up and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This will lead to the development of mitigation techniques to reduce CO2 emissions from managed ecosystems, without compromising biodiversity. As pointed out, efforts should not only concentrate on CO2 alone but also on other gases potentially influencing global warming.

The talks were followed by a lively discussion were participants acknowledge the need to cross disciplines. To do so, it is of outmost importance to call for an increase in research funding for collaborative research addressing the climate change challenge from different perspectives.

The closing session, on science and society generated lively discussions and stimulating thoughts. It was not only hot outside, but also inside the conference room! Economists challenged plant scientists to cross disciplines and better communicate to the civil society. As Tim Lang put it: ”Everyone got to think out of the box.” He continued by asking what a sustainable food system is. The global food system with its link to society’s health and behaviour is currently under considerable stress and increasing food production is only part of the solution.

He was followed by Matin Qaim, an agricultural economist, who presented the first study measuring the positive health and socioeconomic benefits of Golden Rice, the most widely known genetically modified crop. This study used a WHO health model to quantify the health benefits of this variety of rice that contains enhanced quantities of a provitamin A. As Ingo Potrikus has been pointing our for several years, Qaim deplored the regulatory hurdles that still prevent this crop from being available to the population that could benefit from it, 15 years after it was generate (70 000 children die from vitamin A deficiency every year in India and 4 million people are affected by blindness).

This generated a lively discussion about the role plant scientists should play in these issues and how they can better address these societal challenges. Participants also discussed the current European regulation of GM plants and stress the need to take into account benefits, as well as risks, in the approval process.

A very stimulating day indeed!

Tuesday 24 June - Developmental biology - Reducing fertilisers

The morning session was dedicated to recent advances in developmental biology. Studies in this field are very important for plant breeders as it provides them with tools to better understand how plants grow. Once the growth mechanisms are known, it will be possible, for example, to have plants with more branches, producing therefore more biomass.

Hormones are highly important for plant growth. However, their mechanisms of action are difficult to study as they interact with one another in a complex network. Ottoline Leyser (UK) presented exciting new results on how a network of interacting hormones regulates the growth of branches in Arabidopsis, a model plant. These results on model plants can be used to further the knowledge on more important crops or plants, such as trees. Trees are the source of sustainable raw material that will become increasingly used in the future to supply energy and material. Therefore, developmental studies on how hormones function in trees are of outmost importance for the forestry sector.

In the afternoon, participants had the opportunity to discover the rich biodiversity of the region. They had a wide choice of activities: a trip to Toulon, an excursion to the Porquerolles island (a natural beauty site), a tasting tour at a local olive oil mill and winery, nature hikes to discover the rich fauna and flora of the Presqu’Ile de Giens, walk in the Massif des Maures to discover Mediterranean forest trees, and a bird watching trip to enjoy numerous bird species and their habitat at the local saltpans of La Presqu’Ile de Giens. These idyllic locations offered plenty of opportunities for informal and fruitful discussions among the participants.

The afternoon session addressed the need to reduce the use of fertilisers in cultivated crops. To do so, researchers need to understand how plants use the available nutrients (nitrogen, phosphate and sulphate). We heard about several experiments that push further the knowledge on how plants use these nutrients in different conditions.

The second poster session took place in the evening. As yesterday, the authors of three posters presented their work and participants had the opportunity to look at several other posters and exchange views with their authors. More than 100 posters are on display and present research results on a wide range of topics, from biofuels and polluted soils to cotton response to low temperatures and nutritional quality of rice.

Wednesday 25 June - Reducing pesticides & water input - Improving yield - Food and feed

Quote of the day: ”Public perception towards technology is beginning to shift” Peter Langridge

Today’s sessions addressed the need to reduce inputs in agriculture, while continuing to improve crop quantity and quality.

Crops are susceptible to many diseases resulting in a wide use of pesticides. Understanding the mechanisms by which plant pathogens, such as fungi and bacteria, infect their host would enable to reduce the large amount of pesticides currently used in agriculture. Plants have natural defence systems enabling them to defend themselves from many pathogens but some ”successful” pathogens are able to circumvent or suppress these defence mechanisms. Scientists presented several studies using modern genomics methods to isolate new resistance genes more rapidly.

Another input used in large amount in agriculture is water. Climate change makes water availability an important issue worldwide, especially in already dry area such as Australia. Studies on plants that can grow in difficult climatic conditions (such as excess of salt, drought, and extreme cold) are therefore extremely useful to understand the molecular mechanisms by which plants cope with these stresses and to choose appropriate solutions. Further studies are needed to better understand the regulation mechanisms involved in stress tolerance.

Another important factor in agriculture is crop yield. Yield is a very complex trait that is not determined by only one gene but rather by a range of factors such as metabolic composition, soil quality, pest resistance and many others. Different complementary approaches to identify molecular markers for yield components were presented. These studies push further the current knowledge of the genetic components of yields.

The ultimate goal of all these studies is to improve crop production for food, a high priority in light of the recent food crisis. After harvest, cereal grains are processed into food. During this industrial process, healthy compounds such as fibres are removed. Researchers involved in the EU-funded project Healthgrain reported on their latest results on how to increase grain fibre in industrial food processes. The scientific presentations ended with the presentation of the conclusions of the EPSO workshop on the feed value chain.

In the evening, participants enjoyed the reception and relaxed in the cool breeze.

Thursday 26 June - Plant based biofuels - Biomaterials - Closing

Quote of the day: ”Plants are our future” Birgitte K Ahring

Climate change, energy crunch, rising food prices… these are today’s headlines. How can plant research contribute to tackle these challenges? Today’s sessions were devoted to non-food uses of plants: biofuels, biomaterials and new products.

Over the last years, there has been a push for liquid biofuels (ethanol) to replace conventional crude oil. The high demand is mainly due to price increases but also to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The so-called first generation biofuels are not considered sustainable as their production generates more carbon dioxide than conventional crude oil and they compete with land use for food production. Research is now focused on second-generation biofuels (lignocellulose, non-food crops, residues from agriculture and forestry). Birgitte Ahring presented a promising pilot biorefinery where ethanol is produced using agriculture residues. The pilot test started in August 2006 and is now ready to be up-scaled. Prospective figures show that ethanol can be produced at US$0.35 per litre, a very competitive price.

Agricultural residues are available in large quantities, therefore conflict with land use for food production is not an issue. Such is the case with biofuels produced from grasses such as Brachypodium and Miscanthus.

Ethanol is not the only product that can be used to replace crude oil. Plants can also be used to produce other molecules, such as isoprenoids, that can be used for biofuels. We heard about a very interesting project from Jay Keasling who managed to engineer the biochemical pathway of isoprenoids, opening the road for biofuels production based on these molecules.

The session ended with a lively discussion on the sustainability of the different options for biofuels production.

The next session highlighted recent research results on plant-based biomaterials and biopharmaceuticals. As Yuri Gleba pointed out, the goal is to produce products that consumer really need, such as vaccine against deadly diseases or antibacterial molecules. He deplored that academic research is still not sufficiently applied-minded and that the interest of industry is not often considered. He called for an integrated approach. Small plant biotech companies have a hard time competing with chemical pharmaceutical companies that use well established process to produce pharmaceuticals (in E. coli or yeast). Several transgenic approaches are used to produce proteins in plants: nuclear transformation, plastid transformation or transient amplification (using viral vectors or Agrobacterium). Using the later technique, up to 5 grams of proteins can be produced per kilogram of fresh leaves in tobacco. Plant-based pharmaceuticals are currently produced in greenhouses or fermentors, at high costs. One promising and more efficient strategy is to grow non-food plants in open fields.

Plant can also be used to produce chemical compounds used in detergents for example and we heard about a promising research project that aims to produce these compounds in tobacco and potato.

Karin Metzlaff (EPSO) closed the conference by thanking all the speakers for their very interesting talks on the diverse topics over the last four days and the participants for their valuable contributions. She warmly thanked the group of helping students for their work and enthusiasm and offered them a free registration for the next EPSO conference. The audience applauded Markus for his very good technical work with the powerpoint presentations and Katrien for handling the practical organisation of the conference. Karin pointed out that any financial surplus from the conference will be used for support grants to students for the 2010 conference.

 

 


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EPSO is an independent academic organisation currently representing 61 institutional members bringing together more than 204 research institutes, departments and universities from 29 countries in Europe and beyond.