Where are all the plant scientists?
This week I went on a mission- to find more plant science blogs to follow. Although science publications are great for communicating science to each other, it is nice to read about what others are doing in a less academic setting- via blogs. I follow a whole bunch of science based blogs- the majority are cell biology based or ecological. A much smaller minority of blogs are run by plant scientists (if you are sat reading this as a plant science blogger, or know of some great plant science blogs- please tell me about them!).
If you look up plant science you will predominantly find academic papers, and pieces on news sites (although this is a much smaller section than the animal science). In blogging sites such as wordpress, searching plant biology will often lead you to 2 categories of blog: blogs discussing GMs, and blogs about horticulture. If you try searching for a plant-based biology technique, for example plant transformation, you will nearly always just get academic papers. This is the case for a lot of science- however, you can often at least find simplified versions suitable for those without a scientific background.
This lack of plant science for ‘non-scientists’ spreads to bookstores and other media outlets- how often do you find a plant biology book in the popular science section of a bookshop? Do you ever turn on the tv and find a horizon programme based on a area of plant science (other than the GM-debate?) If you go to the science museum in London, you wouldn’t even know that plant science existed as a subject at all!
Why is this?
Plant science is just as impactful as other areas of science- its just as important, and just as interesting! But unfortunately, its seems to be overlooked in favour of other sciences…
Does plant science have an image problem?
Over the years, plant science has suffered (in my opinion) from a few negative things:
Plant Biology lessons at school do tend to be boring. Mine sure were… At school, at least for me, plant science focused on photosynthesis and respiration. When this was taught next to cell biology, where you were learning everything from cancer biology, to the workings of the digestive tract- it could seem dull and tedious. In chemistry we learnt how to do titrations in experimentals, in physics you learnt about space and got to do cool experiments on electricity and velocity, in human biology we dissected organs. In plant science, we put a piece of pond weed into a tank of water and counted how many bubbles it produced. This is not going to inspire! There are way more exciting plant-based experiments you could do at school, and there is so much more to plant science than the photosynthetic and respiratory cycles.
“Plant biology is dull and not important”
I have heard this being said. This in part links to science school lessons on plant science. If you are teaching kids about plants and only talk to them about photosynthesis and respiration, it is going to seem a bit dull and un-relatable isn’t it?
But this isn’t true at all! There is a lot of very important plant biology going on around the world.
–Plants for the future: With Global warming, there are many plant crops which may not be able to survive. We have never been in a time with global warming before, we don’t know what the affect will be on farming crops- but we need to! Our world is getting warmer and the Earths population is ever increasing. Finding out how plants respond to different environments like heat stress, excess salt, and acidic soils will help us and farmers to get the best out of crops in the hard times coming.
–Plants and medicine: The majority of our medicines came, initially, from plants. There are thousands of plants which are unknown to us-what secrets could they be holding? We already know that there are a lot of fruits and vegetables out there that are our main sources of vitamins, we could get these plants to make even more of these compounds- helping more people to get the daily intake of important vitamins they need.
Plants can also be used to help develop vaccinations at a low cost, and with high speed. The recent technology developed by Prof George Lomonosoff allows avian-flu vaccines to be produced in plants reducing production times for 10 million doses from 9 months to just 30 days!
-Plants and diseases: If you are a gardener you will probably use some forms of pest-resistant crops. These have been bred for increased resistance, and are extremely useful, but we can take it even further… How do plants and infectious microbes interact? If we understand this we may be able to not only help reduce the impact of infectious agents on crops, but also increase future crop productivity- which is extremely important in a world with an increasing population.
Genetic modifications of plants has been a topic of heated debate, and has made people very suspicious of plant science in general, but plant science is NOT all about GM. Unfortunately, over the years GM has cast a cloud over all plant science, meaning that it is the main focus of media stories, and you can rarely go to a plant-science talk without GM being brought up- even if it was never used, or referred to.
But it is changing…
Plant Biology deserves an image revamp. It is already undergoing one- The Martian got a botanist into mainstream entertainment, NASAs lettuces grown in space hit world headlines, Plants to make vaccines again hit headlines. Science outreach festivals like the Norwich science festival, Pint of Science, and Soapbox science have featured many plant scientists talking about their work, and the general feedback suggests public perception to plant science is changing.
This weekend, the John Innes Centre in Norwich opened its doors for the first time to the general public, and over 3000 people turned up.
This shows that people want to know more about plant science. They want to hear more, to learn more. And in part, it is our jobs as scientists to provide accessibility to our research. The more we talk about our work, the more we effectively communicate our work- the more people will be interested. The more that kids will be interested and inspired. The more views about plant science will change.
I am confident that plant-science will soon have its place in the sun, and be the science topic everyone wants to study. Why shouldn’t people want to study it? Plants are amazing!
Check out my related blog post: How plant science will change the world!https://thebiochemistblog.com/2017/10/25/how-plant-science-will-change-the-world/
Here are some great plant biologists to follow, if you are a fellow plant biologist with a blog, or who knows of great resources for the public, or you know about other great plant-biology blogs please let me know! Spread the plant-biology love!
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/octobergirl/