So why study plants in the first place?

So why study plants in the first place? Climate change, crops, and crises.

It’s no secret that our fragile planet is changing at a rapid rate (unless you’re Donald Trump). Our population is booming, our cities are growing, and our fresh water supply is shrinking. All whilst our temperature and weather extremes become, well, increasingly extreme. Biologists, chemists, physicists, geologists, scientists, are rapidly trying to invent ingenious solutions to the problems that climate change is presenting.

As a plant scientist, my work focuses on improving plant species to cope with the challenges our climate will bring. These include, drought, flooding, heat, salinity, insect pests, temperature extremes and heavy metal contamination.

Rice, growing here in China, is especially susceptible to flooding risks

Plants are responsible for everything we see around us. Plants as we know them first evolved from microscopic photosynthetic algae around 450 million years ago. They began to produce oxygen, a by-product of photosynthesis, where plants use light to produce energy. This oxygen built up in the atmosphere, providing the perfect starting point for other life to flourish. Even now, plants are responsible for virtually every breath we take. They are also the building blocks of our diet: we can either eat the plants, or eat animals reared on them.  In fact, the whole of humanity is based around hunter-gatherers settling down to begin agriculture and farming.

Wheat growing in the UK

A plant scientist’s work stems from trying to stabilise food security and food sovereignty. Security focuses on four pillars: access to nutritious food (is the food supply chain robust?), availability of suitable food (do people have access to available food?), utilisation of food (is it safe to eat?), and finally food stability (is there enough food to last the winter?). These four fundamental questions guide a plant scientist’s journey into improving what we eat, and how we access it.

Encroaching desert in Africa

Food sovereignty asserts that those who “produce food, distribute, and consume food, should control the mechanisms of production and distribution, rather than market leaders”. This provides a conundrum to the plant scientist: a lot of our work is funded by so-called ‘market-leaders’, but we want to help people directly affected by climate change.

There are loads of ways for us to improve plant resilience; we can help the plant make more of a specific gene, which might improve how a plant copes with heat. We can help the plant make less of a different gene, which might improve how a plant copes with extra salt in water. We can even change entire networks of genes to improve a response to a stress. The possibilities are practically endless. But, as plant scientists, we also need to make sure that our work is ethically sound.

So there we have it, plants are the building block of our entire world and food supply. Without them, we would be nothing. Climate change destabilises our food supply, meaning we need to come up with creative solutions to help our plants, food, or otherwise, thrive.

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