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Confronting the Future's Grand Challenges

(Image: Alice Cheung, University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

By Shelley Littin, CyVerse

The Plant Reproduction 2016 (a joint meeting of the Frontiers in Sexual Plant Reproduction IV and the 24th International Congress on Sexual Plant Reproduction), held March 18 - 23, brought over 200 participants from 26 countries to Tucson, Arizona to collectively learn about research advances and discuss grand challenges in the field of plant reproductive biology.

“Our understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying plant sexual reproduction has made great strides, especially over the past four years,” said Ravishankar Palanivelu, one of the conference organizers and also faculty of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ (CALS) School of Plant Sciences at the University of Arizona (UA).

“Despite these advances, significant challenges remain. A repeat of the agronomic gains from the green revolution of the 1970s will be essential in the face of rapid growth of the human population combined with the anticipated losses in arable land. Increases in crop yields of this magnitude will not be possible without a comprehensive understanding of plant reproduction.”

The Plant Reproduction 2016 conference program included nine sessions representing nearly all aspects of plant reproductive biology, from floral induction to seed development, and including research areas with recent high impact publications and major discoveries.

“Recently, there have been rapid advances in our understanding of plant reproductive development, derived not only from the more traditional molecular genetic and physiological analyses, but also using evolutionary-genomics and systems biology approaches,” said Palanivelu.

“Plant Reproduction 2016 served as an international forum to review and discuss the state of art in the plant reproduction research from multiple viewpoints, and also provided a forum to identify the best ways to translate key findings from model plants to crops.”

Eric Lyons, also of the UA’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, co-principal investigator of CyVerse and a fellow of the UA’s BIO5 Institute, led a conference workshop on CyVerse tools for data management and computation.

“I have a strong feeling that the exposure to our infrastructure and technology will be of use as the field of plant reproductive biology becomes more data intensive,” Lyons said. “One important need that we discovered from working with conference attendees was for image management and analysis. We can use this information and feedback from this scientific community to help guide our development of tools and future workshops.”

“Given that plant seeds from corn, wheat, and rice are the primary source of human nutrition and food, the advances of the plant reproduction scientific community are essential for our future,” Lyons added.

The conference organizers actively encouraged diversity of speakers and attendees. Of eighty presentations given, nearly 40 percent were by women, and about 25 percent were younger scientists, either postdoctoral researchers or graduate students. Fifty-eight percent of attendees traveled from outside the United States, and 42 percent of attendees were female.

“We provided financial support to some of the young scientists to offset conference expenses and awarded monetary prizes for outstanding poster and oral presentations,” noted Ramin Yadegari, co-organizer of Plant Reproduction 2016, and also faculty of the CALS School of Plant Sciences at the UA. “In this way, we are enabling younger scientists to network effectively. It was our goal for the conference to have broad impact on attendees and beyond.”

Said Palanivelu: “Results presented and discussions held in the conference signaled to us that we are at the cusp of translating some of the findings obtained from model plants to crops.”