By Erica Hawkins, John Innes Centre, University of East Anglia, Norwich
Plant science is a lot more important than you realise. It has often been cast as cell biology’s less exciting sibling. What is the point of studying root growth, flowering or stomatal aperture? There are way more important things to be researching… aren’t there?
What do plants do for us?
They give us life. Not to sound too dramatic, but without plants we wouldn’t survive. Plants are core to our very being – we use them for crops, food, clothing, shelters, medicines and energy.
Considering how important plants are to us, it makes sense to study them and understand them as much as we can.
Making crops for the future
Global warming is a huge problem that is coming for us. Over the last few years we have already started to see the impact of global warming on crops. In 2013, an extreme cold winter devastated wheat crops in the UK, this year supermarkets rationed lettuce and broccoli after severe floods and storms in the Mediterranean. Wheat, Corn and soybean harvests have been predicted to fall by 22% in the US by the end of the century because of water stress brought on by global warming.
What can we do to decrease the impact of global warming on crop production? We can’t change the weather, but as plant scientists we can look at the influence of long-term climate change on crops. By understanding how plants adapt to changing environmental conditions, we can help to breed crops that are more resilient to adverse environmental conditions such as water stress.
There has been a long history of using plants for medicines, with many of the most important medicines such as the anti-malarial artemisinin, and the chemotherapy drug Taxol having their origins in plants. Over the years drug discovery has moved away from plants to chemical based discovery, however, every year fewer new drugs hit the market. This has prompted researchers to look back to plants for new drugs – using traditional plant based medicines as a starting point for drug discovery.
Sweet wormwood, the original source of Artemisinin. Tea made from sweet wormwood was traditionally given to help the fever associated with Malaria. The anti-malarial compound Artemisinin was identified in the 1970’s and is now chemically synthesised. (Kristian Peters — Fabelfroh 11:40, 16 September 2007 (UTC), Artemisia annua detail, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Plants as biofactories
Although many drug candidates are found in plants, most are chemically synthesised in genetically modified bacteria and yeast. This is because often plants only make small amounts of the desired compound and are not suitable for large scale production. However, some plant compounds are extremely complex and take multiple steps with several enzymes to make. All these steps need to be replicated in yeast and bacteria to enable them to make the desired compound and getting this to work is extremely time consuming, difficult and expensive. Many scientists are now looking at ways to increase production of these medicinal compounds in planta, turning the plant into medicinal biofactories.
Plants to make vaccines
Plants now have the potential to manufacture vaccines. Prof George Lomonosoff at the John Innes Centre has found a way to hijack tobacco and turn its leaves into factories to produce polio-vaccines and this technology has the potential to be used to make vaccines for other viruses too. One of the most exciting future uses of this technology is to use it to create flu-vaccines. Currently the flu vaccine is grown in chicken eggs, takes months to grow and isn’t always successful. However, with this new technology you could potentially produce a vaccine in plants just 4 weeks after identifying the new viral strain.
Plant scientists are currently tackling some of the most important challenges currently facing us: from food security, to human health. The areas talked about above make up a tiny fraction of what plant scientists are looking into – hopefully it has shown you that plant science is much more important than you previously thought!
- Article of the challenges and strategies scientists are looking at to future proof crops: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369526616300061
- More information about plant-produced polio vaccines: https://www.jic.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2017/08/plant-produced-polio-vaccines-could-help-eradicate-age-old-disease/
- Example of a plant as a medicinal biofactory: The Purple tomato. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1360138509000909
I am a PhD student at the John Innes Centre and University of East Anglia in Norwich. My research combines plant science with cell biology by making medicinal compounds in plants and testing the effects on human skin. You can find me on twitter @ericahawkins16 and on my blog PhD freaking out where I write about mental health, PhD life, and plant science.