To keep our food production systems secure in a changing climate, plant biologists need to expand their repertoire.
My personal research is about understanding the communication networks within plants –specifically, how the chloroplast communicates with the genes to bring about changes to deal with the sun and shade, drought and heat – it’s about how the chloroplast acts as an environmental sensor for the plant, and then how the plant responds according to the signals it receives. What are the languages the plant is using to communicate with itself? How does it respond to its environment in a way that’s best suited to its survival?
To understand those things you get down to the cellular level. Once you understand the components of the system, you go back to the plant, change the components, and see what happens to the network of signals.
Sequencing the genomes of plants is straightforward, the same as we sequence the genomes of the COVID virus every other day, for example. DNA is DNA. It’s more about understanding what that DNA does. It’s the storage system – the hard drive. It’s the interface between genes and function that I’m most interested in, and how genes function in a particular environment – how does a plant sense drought, respond to it, and then change the way it grows, or changes resistance, or changes the way it detoxifies toxic chemicals?
The Laureate Fellowship, in particular (awarded in 2019), was about creating smart plants. In many ways, plants are as smart as us anyway – they just don’t have a brain. But a smart plant will be one that does what we want it to do, so you can switch from one function to another. It might switch from rapid growth to drought resilience, then back to rapid growth. Ideally, this will be controllable. With knowledge of weather systems, the farmer could switch a crop to produce predominantly grain in the year that’s going to have great grain prices. Or switch to, say, being a fodder plant because it’s going to be a poor year for grain prices, or a poor year for getting a good yield if it’s a drought.
But it’s not just a case of making a plant that can deal with heat and drought. As we’ve seen this year, all sorts of environmental extremes are a consequence of climate change. Already one of the consequences is that farmers are now planting their wheat crops earlier – but that actually makes them more likely to suffer from a late frost. So, ironically, if we’re breeding plants for a hotter, drier climate, we also have to think about other traits, such as frost-avoidance strategies. This is an example of the complexity of challenges we’re facing in the plant science community.
To address future food security, we need big teams. I’m director of the ARC Training Centre For Future Crops Development. We are a partnership of more than 20 national and international institutions aimed at training the next generation of agri-tech leaders. These are the people who will have to live through what we leave behind, and they will need the skill sets to be able to do that. They’ll have to take those skills and technologies and create the crops we need for these future climates.
That means they’ve got to understand all of the gene editing and CRISPR technologies. But these researchers also need to be trained in skills beyond the lab. So they’ll be working in industry for a year; they’ll be placed with breeding companies; they’ll be placed with other partners who work in the regulatory space; who work in policy; who work in export; who work in communication.
Technologies themselves aren’t dangerous – it is the application that can be good or bad. It’s a case of understanding what the technology does and then appropriately regulating the application. But the gene-editing, CRISPR stuff is just game-changing. All the “omics” technologies, measuring genes and their activation, that’s just routine now. Around 99% of cotton is now GMO. Why? Because it uses less water. And something like 90% less pesticides. As far as cotton goes, it’s a win win.
The GMO framework in Australia is incredibly tightly regulated. In fact, GMOs are an application of a technology that’s not that different to the way we’ve bred crops for over 5,000 years. Maize, wheat and tomatoes didn’t used to look anything like what they do today because farmers and then breeders have picked the best one each year and planted that again, then pick the best one and planted it again.
Importantly, we’ve also got three social scientists in our leadership team who are helping our researchers understand community perceptions of science – the regulatory framework that is used to ensure that GMOs and gene editing are safely applied and appropriately regulated in our food system. They will also be looking at marketing and market shaping, because there’s no point in doing something if there’s no market for it. Sure, you can make discoveries and reveal fundamental knowledge, but if you’re trying to do something of fundamental importance for the community, the community needs to want it, and there needs to be a market for it. That is the vision for the Centre – the next big thing: training new leaders with a comprehensive understanding of science, the ag sector and societal implications of their research.
Barry Pogson is a professor at the School of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Australian National University, an ARC Laureate Fellow, and director of the ARC Training Centre For Future Crops Development, where he mentors the next generation of leaders in science, policy and industry. His research has revealed crucial pathways by which communication between different parts of a cell influence growth, development, photosynthesis and tolerance to drought.