European Plant Biotech in the Balance

These are pivotal times for plant biotechnology in Europe. The new European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Vyentis Andriukaitis, is not due to take up his role until the 1st November but he already knows that the current rules on genetically modimied crops create conflicts between the commission itself and the member states. Those rules have seen only two GM crops licensed to be grown commercially in the EU in almost 15 years: Monsanto’s insect resistant MON810 maize and  BASF’s Amflora potato, of which the later was withdrawn from commercialisation in 2012.


Protests against the cultivation of the genetically modified potato variety Amflora contributed to its withdrawal from commercial use in 2012.

”BürGenLand (2010)” by BASFPlantScience – Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Four days after Mr Andriukatis takes office the European Parliament’s environment, public health and food safety (ENVI) committee scheduled to give its opinion on a draft report that could change the regulations concerning the ‘release’ of GMOs and thus their use as crops. Many believe that rather than relaxing the regulations the European Parliament may extend its de-facto ban on GM plants leaving european plant biotechnology efforts ‘dead and buried‘. Not that it is entirely clear what is meant by ‘genetically modified’ in this day and age when techniques for genome editing can alter a plants genetic makeup in highly precise ways but leave no transgenic material behind (see Sense About Sciences excellent online discussion of this topic held earlier this week). Such developments have been used by the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to push for a wholly new regulatory framework for GM crops.

Against this background twenty one leading plant scientists working in Europe have published an open letter calling on the Decision Makers of Europe to back research into plant biotechnology through funding, legislation and support. They point out that  Twenty-one people may not seem like many these are drawn from the thirty most cited authors in plant science in Europe. The letter has been co-odinated by Stefan Jansson of Umeå University, Sweden, who points out that this is not “a list of scientists with links to industry who some might say ‘would say that anyway’. Rather he has assembled European plants sciences’ the most influential academic researchers; saying “politicians that choose to ignore this message cannot in the future say that they take science seriously.”

Will such calls fall on deaf ears or reap future rewards? Judge for yourself as here is the text of the letter in full:


Open letter to decision makers in Europe

We all depend on plants for providing us with food, building material, textiles, medicine and fuel. Among the greatest challenges facing mankind are the provision of healthy and nutritious food, feed and fuel to a burgeoning population using agricultural and forestry practices that are environmentally and economically sustainable. Thanks to basic research on plants, we now understand well how plants grow, how they protect themselves against disease and environmental stress, and what factors limit production in agriculture and forestry.

Europe has a strong history of plant science. Robert Hooke introduced the concept of the “cell” in the 17th century after looking at cork slivers in his microscope. Carl Linnaeus developed systematics after his studies of plants and Gregor Mendel deciphered the laws of genetics after meticulous counting of plants in his monastery garden in Brno. Plant scientists discovered chromosomes, enzymes and viruses, and Charles Darwin spent a large part of his scientific career as a plant biologist; “The origin of species” starts “When we look to the individuals of the same variety or sub- variety of our older cultivated plants and animals…”. Curiosity-driven plant research has been important both to deepen our understanding of nature and take benefit of it, still we lack basic understanding of many complex phenomena in plants.

27 of the “30 most cited authors in plant science” in Europe ( hold at present a position at a publicly funded research organization in Europe, and 21 out of the 27 have signed this letter. We work on various aspects of plant science, for example systematics, physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, ecophysiology, ecology, pathology, biodiversity and effects of climate change. It is possible to perform good curiosity-driven plant science in Europe and we acknowledge our support from various funding bodies, in many respects plant science in Europe is doing well.

However, well is not good enough. Plant science has arguably contributed more to the reduction of human suffering than biomedical research, yet compared with the latter it is hugely underfunded worldwide. Norman Borlaug’s dwarf and rust-resistant varieties of wheat saved many millions from hunger. Basic science performed in Europe is also an efficient way of supporting applied research in poorer countries. We are concerned that Europe will have serious problems in reaching its ambitions of Horizon 2020: to “tackle societal challenges” and “to ensure Europe produces world- class science, removes barriers to innovation and makes it easier for the public and private sectors to work together in delivering innovation” and see three outstanding issues for decision makers to address.

First, to provide solutions to the societal challenges outlined in Horizon 2020 funding for fundamental and applied plant science should be maintained or, if possible, be increased. Most importantly, serious challenges are not adequately addressed, such as developing plants resilient to climate change, preventing loss of crop biodiversity, and creating an agriculture that avoids unsustainable demands for water, energy, fertilizers and pesticides. These tasks must be addressed in forthcoming Horizon 2020 calls.

Secondly, plant scientists must be able to perform field experiments. Many of us work with genetically modified plants as research tools, for example to understand how native plants and crops protect themselves against pests and will react to climate change. However, in most European countries permits to perform field experiments with transgenic plants are blocked, not on scientific but on political grounds. In countries that do permit field experiments, these are often systematically vandalized, causing huge scientific and financial losses. Some of us have even been threatened and had private property vandalized. This is a serious threat to science, to publicly funded research, and to European society itself. European authorities must ensure that approved and safe field experiments with transgenic plants are made possible. Vandals must be prosecuted and held accountable for scientific and financial damage.

Thirdly, Europe must allow prompt authorization of genetically modified plant varieties that have been found safe by the competent authority following a thorough science-based risk evaluation. This is essential to meet the Horizon 2020 goal of removing barriers to innovation and making it easier for the public and private sectors to work together in delivering innovation. The de facto moratorium on transgenic plant approvals has been detrimental for applied plant science and has effectively eliminated possibilities for publicly funded scientists and small companies to address the big challenges for society. The resulting reduced competition has enhanced the dominance of the major seed and agrochemical corporations. We believe that a fundamental revision of GM regulation is needed that strictly follows principles of a science-based evaluations and approvals, based on evaluation of the trait, rather than the method by which it is achieved.

Our scientific credibility comes from our work on basic plant science. Some of us also apply our knowledge to improving plants for the human society, but the reason that we make this statement is not commercial interests or hope of attracting more funding for our own research. Instead, we are seriously concerned that lack of adequate funding and safe infrastructures will relegate European basic and applied plant science to a second tier status. If plant scientists cannot apply their knowledge for the benefit of society, Europe will be unable to lead in global efforts to build a sustainable agricultural system and plant-based bio-economy. The most pressing global problems – how do deal with environmental change and secure food supply for all – arguably will only be solved with a massively increased worldwide investment in plant research.

Ian T. Baldwin, Director, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena, Germany
Member of the US National Academy of Sciences
Member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina Member of the Berlin Brandenburgische Academy of Sciences

David C. Baulcombe, Regius Professor of Botany and Royal Society Research Professor, Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Member of Academia Europaea
Foreign Associate Member of the US National Academy of Sciences
Foreign Associate Member of the National Academy of Sciences India Fellow of the Royal Society
Member of EMBO
Recipient of Wolf Prize for Agriculture
Recipient of Balzan Prize (Epigenetics)
Recipient of Lasker Prize for Basic Biomedical Science Recipient of Gruber Prize for Genetics

Nina Buchmann, Professor of Grassland Sciences, Institute of Agricultural Sciences, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich, Switzerland
Founding member of the Young Academy of Sciences
Former member of the German Advisory Council for the Government on Global Change (WBGU)
Member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina Member of the Board of Trustees of the Öko-Institut e.V
Chair of the World Food System Center (WFSC) at ETH

Mark W. Chase, Keeper of the Jodrell Lab, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom
Fellow of the Royal Society
Recipient of Veitch Memorial Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society (UK

Alisdair R. Fernie, Research group leader, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, Potsdam, Germany.
Recipient of the Society of Experimental Biology medal (Plants)
Recipient of the Phytochemical Society of Europe Prize

Christine H. Foyer, Professor of Plant Sciences and Director of Africa College, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
Winthrop Professor, The University of Western Australia, Australia
Pao Yu-Kong Chair Professor, Zhejiang University, China;
Recipient of Redox Pioneer award
Recipient if the Founders Award (American Society of Plant Physiologists).

Jiri Friml, Professor, Institute of Science and Technology (IST), Austria, Klosterneuburg, Austria
Member of EMBO
Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Recipient of Otto Hahn Medal
Recipient of VolkswagenStiftung Award
Recipient of Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize Recipient of Odysseus Award
Recipient of Olchemim Scientific Award Recipient of Körber European Science Award Recipient of EMBO Gold Medal

Jonathan Gershenzon, Director, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena, Germany
Member, American Association for the Advancement of Sciences

Wilhelm Gruissem, Professor, Department of Biology, Plant Biotechnology, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich, , Switzerland
Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Sciences
Fellow and Corresponding Member, American Society of Plant Biologists Recipient of the Anniversary Prize of the Fiat Panis Foundation
Recipient of the Shang Fa Yang Award of Academia Sinica Former President of the European Plant Science Organization Chair of the Global Plant Council

Dirk Inzé, Director, Plant Systems Biology, Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB), Ghent University, Belgium
Member of Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts Member of EMBO
Recipient of the Körber Stiftung Prize
Recipient of the Francqui Prize
Recipient of the Five-yearly FWO-Excellence Prize:
Recipient of the Dr A. De Leeuw-Damry-Bourlart in Exact Sciences Prize Chairperson of the Life Sciences, Environmental Sciences and Geosciences (LEGS) Committee of Science Europe

Stefan Jansson, Professor in Plant Cell and Molecular Biology, Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC), Plant Physiology, Umeå University, Sweden.
Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Recipient of Roséns Linneus Prize

Jonathan D. G. Jones, Professor, The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, United Kingdom
Fellow of the Royal Society
Member of EMBO

Joachim Kopka, Research group leader. Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, Potsdam, Germany

Thomas Moritz, Professor, Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden
Director Swedish Metabolomics Centre

Corné M. J. Pieterse, Director, Institute of Environmental Biology, Utrecht University
Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

Stephane Rombauts, Principal scientific staff, Plant Systems Biology, Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB), Ghent University, Belgium

Ben Scheres, Professor in Plant Developmental Biology, Wagenignen University, Netherlands
Member of the Dutch Royal Acadamy of Arts and Sciences
Recipient of Siron Pelton Award USA
Recipient of SPINOZA award

Bernhard Schmid, Professor of Environmental Sciences, Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zürich, Switzerland
Dean of the Faculty of Science

Mark Stitt, Prof Dr. Dr, h.c. Director, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, Potsdam, Germany
Member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
Honarary Doctor of Umeå University
Recipient of the Presidents medal, Society of Experimental Biology

Yves Van de Peer, Professor in Bioinformatics and Genome Biology, Ghent University, Belgium
Group leader, Plant Systems Biology, Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB), Belgium
Adjunct Professor, University of Western Ontario, Canada
Part-time Professor, Genomics research institute, University of Pretoria, South Africa Member of Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts

Detlef Weigel, Director, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany
Foreign Member of the Royal Society
Member of the US National Academy of Sciences
Member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Corresponding Member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities Recipient of State Research Prize of Baden-Württemberg
Recipient of Otto Bayer Award
Recipient of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Award

Pushing the Reset Button for Vernalization

Recent years have witnessed great advance in our mechanistic understanding of vernalization in overwintering plants. The FLC locus, the hub of vernalization network, is epigenetically silenced by polycomb-mediated histone methylation during vernalization, which thereby removes the suppression on the FT locus for flowering to occur. We know that during embryogenesis this histone methylation of FLC is reset to ensure a requirement for vernalization in each generation but little is known about the resetting mechanism.

the resetting mutant

Schematic of the FLC expression levels in wild-type and elf6-5 mutant.

Pedro Crevillen and colleagues now report that an H3K27me3 demethylase, ELF6, plays a critical role in the FLC resetting (NatureEpigenetic reprogramming that prevents transgenerational inheritance of the vernalized state). They isolated an Arabidopsis mutant (elf6-5) with full silencing of FLC by vernalization but partial restoration of FLC expression in the following generation. The resetting mutant shows earlier flowering and reduced FLC expression. Genetic mapping narrowed down on a non-synonymous causal mutation on gene ELF6. FLC expression pattern analyses in elf6-5 and the wild type supported the idea that ELF6 promoted the expression of FLC as the embryo developed.

To understand how ELF6 regulates FLC expression, they tested the potential mediator, COOLAIR and siRNAs, neither of which seemed to be involved in the process. Instead, using an in vivo histone demethylation assay, they found the wild-type ELF6 had H3K27 demethylation activity in tobacco leaves, but the mutant elf6 showed reduced activity. In vivo experiments utilizing chromatin immunoprecipitation indicated FLC H3K27me3 was indeed reset (demethylated) in siliques of the vernalized wild type but not fully reset in elf6-5. Also in the next-generation progeny after vernalization, the elf6-5 seedlings showed a higher H3K27me3 methylation of FLC than the wild type. Therefore, without an intact ELF6, the demethylation resetting of FLC would be impaired, resulting in the inheritance of a partially vernalized state.

Mammalian embryos also harness a similar mechanism for epigenetic reprogramming. This study thus indicated an ancient role for H3K27 demethylation in embryonic epigenetic reprogramming shared by plants and animals.

Plant science in the public domain

Nature Plants is now supporting the wonderfully informative Plant Science Panel run by Sense About Science, a charitable organization geared towards helping the public make sense of scientific developments and debates.  Established in 2012 and comprised of 40-plus scientists, the panel provides answers to plant-related queries from the public on topics ranging from the nutritional quality of crops to the politics surrounding agricultural innovations.  Answers to previous questions can be found at

Alongside serving as an ongoing resource for people with general plant science queries, the panel also runs live question and answer sessions on specific themes.  Topics covered to date include the safety and regulation of GM crops and the environmental impact of organic versus conventional farming.  Next up is a live Q&A on soils, to be hosted by four soil scientists on Monday 28 July –  Any burning questions about soils and their sustainability to be directed their way.

New Shoots at the NAS

I know that this is pretty much old news as the announcement of the new members of the National Academy of Sciences was made almost a month ago. However I’d very much like to congratulate all 84 new members and the 21 new foreign associates. But this is a blog dedicated to things planty so I’d lie to give special congratulations to those of the 105 who are plant researchers:


  • Edward Buckler; USDA Agricultural Research Service; and adjunct professor, department of plant breeding and genetics, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
  • Kenneth Keegstra; University Distinguished Professor, department of biochemistry and molecular biology and department of plant biology, Michigan State University, East Lansing
  • John Pickett; Michael Elliott Distinguished Research Fellow and scientific leader of chemical ecology, Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, United Kingdom
  • Scott Poethig; Patricia M. Williams Professor of Biology, department of biology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia


All four great scientists and very nice people as well.

Convivial Rice, Decoded Cotton and Bronze Medals

Last week was a busy week for Nature Plants for a number of reasons. Various members of the team were out at meetings so if you were at the TIP conference on the “Dynamics of Plant DNA” in Strasbourg you might have run into Guillaume. While if you were at UK Plant Sciences meeting on “Breeding plants for the future” you could have had the opportunity to chat with Anna over coffee.

What with all that, plus getting to grips with the first official submissions to the journal there wasn’t much time for blogging. There is nothing staler than old news so while they are still semi fresh in my mind here are some of the interesting things that I saw last week and intended to write about, but didn’t quite get to:

  • Timely focus on Photosynthesis
    The BBC radio 4 program “In our Time” tackled the question of photosynthesis this week with a discussion between Sandy Knapp, Nick Lane and John Allan. Great fun and well worth listening again to.
  • Table Manners
    Science published a provocative article called “Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture” which looked at different areas of China that either primarily dependent on rice or wheat culture. It seems that growing rice results in a more “interdependent and holistic-thinking” population. If you haven’t time to reads the article itself there is a good summary in the accompanying perspective, “Rice, Psychology, and Innovation“.
  • Barn-raised Biotech
    There was a nice piece on the TechRepublic blog about ‘Open Source Agriculture’. It talks about the Open Source Seed initiative that, taking its cue from Open Source software, is developing ways to distribute seeds in a way that makes them “available in perpetuity in a protected commons”.
  • Roses are red, Tomatoes are blue
    Cathie Martin and Eugenio Butelli of the John Innes Centre won the BBSRC Innovator of the Year award for their development of food varieties with enhanced vitamin contents, most notable their high-anthocyanin tomatoes.
  • Cotton Genomics
    Nature Genetics has published the genome sequence of tree cotton, Gossypium arboreum, from a team of researchers, principally based at the Institute of Cotton Research of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. This is not only one of the major cultivated diploid species of cotton but also provides the major part of the genetic material of tetraploid cotton.
  • Prize Design
    The maize Genetics Executive committee has already announced that the first recipient of he Barbara McClintock Prize for Plant Genetics and Genome Studies will be David Baulcombe. What they don’t know yet is what that prize will look like. So they have started a further competition to design the prize, “a bronze medal (60 millimeters in diameter, 4 millimeters in thickness) that will carry a picture of Dr McClintock on one side and an image symbolizing one or more of her unique scientific contributions on the other”.

Crop nutrient content compromised

The nutritional quality of key food crops could be compromised by growth under elevated concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, reports a paper published online in Nature (  

Samuel Myers and colleagues gathered together data from a series of open-air CO2-enichement experiments to show that wheat, rice, field pea and soybean plants contain lower levels of zinc and iron when grown under elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide expected by the middle of this century, as opposed to present-day conditions. A drop in the protein content of wheat and rice grown under high-CO2 conditions is also reported.  

Around two billion people depend on crops for their dietary intake of zinc and iron. A CO2-indcued reduction in the nutritional value of these crops could therefore pose health problems for a significant fraction of the world population.

Cultivar-dependent differences in the extent of zinc and iron reductions could be exploited in breeding programmes to help counter some of the deleterious effects of rising levels of CO2 on crop nutrient content, the researchers note.

Agriculture in focus

The latest IPCC climate impacts report ( suggests that food production could be compromised by climate change over the coming century.  Strategies to bolster agricultural production and safeguard food supplies for some of the most vulnerable – in the wake of continued warming and an increase in the prevalence of extreme events – are discussed in a web focus that accompanies this month’s issue of Nature Geoscience (  The importance of developing region-specific solutions and legislation that protects the interests of local land owners is explored.  

Nature Plants is a reality!

Today I am very excited and not a little apprehensive. That is because today we properly launch a new journal, Nature Plants. It has been a long time coming, some will say too long. Certainly the idea was talked about in the long distant past of the early years of the millennium. At the time I was working as a biology editor on Nature and handling most of the plant biology that was submitted. We talked about launching a plant biology journal but the time didn’t seem right, there didn’t seem a specific need.

Things have changed in the dozen of so years since then. The explosion of plant genomics off the back of the Arabidopsis genome sequencing coupled to advances in synthetic and systems biology has made engineering in plants a reality. The World population has risen from below 6 billion to over 7 billion putting and increasing strain on our ability to feed ourselves. And that is before you consider the degree to which our greater understanding of the progress of climate change has shown exactly how lean the years ahead may be. Understanding plants in all their myriad aspects will be central to the survival of mankind, as indeed it always has been. Through their harvesting of the suns energy plants are fundamental to the creation of environments capable of supporting other forms of complex life. They provide raw materials for every human endeavour in the form of food, clothing, energy, shelter and the complex chemicals on which our modern world is based.

Plants are also fascinating in their own right. They are aliens among us. Faced with the same basic biology and environment they have evolved different and exotic ways to survive and thrive. A parallel kingdom to that of animals at which we can marvel. OK so I’m getting a bit carried away with myself but it is difficult to deny the how fascinating and how interesting plants are.

And that is what Nature Plants is all about: their evolution, development, metabolism, their interactions with the environment, their societal significance. We will be publishing primary research into the molecular biology, physiology and ecology of plants—in both the basic and applied research spheres—as well as investigations into the relationship between humanity and the plant kingdom.  Nature Plants will provide a fully rounded picture of the most accomplished and significant advances in the plant sciences. And on top of that there will be Commentaries, Reviews, News and Views, everything that you would expect from a Nature journal.

So if you have some fascinating and significant studies please consider publishing them with us. Our online submission system is fully functional and we are waiting to read about your research. Our first ‘issue’ will be in January 2015 which may sound a ways off yet, but will come around very soon.

Help us make Nature Plants the invaluable source for researchers, technologists and policy makers alike.

Meet the team: Shannon Evans

profile-image-display-e1397651944956You don’t hear much from the editorial assistants of research journals (unless you’re reviewing one of our papers – then you hear from us more than you’d like). So I thought I’d use our new blog to say hello.

I’m Shannon. I’m not Irish; my parents just liked how the name went well with my brother’s name. I hail from Sarasota, a tropical city on the west coast of Florida. I joined NPG in August 2012, initially working with Nature Cell Biology and Nature Nanotechnology. I’m still with NCB but have moved to Nature Plants to help the team as they launch this new journal.


When not working, I’m probably immersed in a book, baking something chocolaty or cycling on my new bike. And as I’ve been asked to, I’ll reveal that my favourite plant is basil, probably because it goes so well with pasta, which I would happily eat for every meal for the rest of my life.

Looks like a boulder, smells of pines.


Editor Guillaume Tena says his favourite plant is the llareta (Azorella compacta). It is an amazing alien-looking plant with a quechua name, growing at very high altitudes in the Andes and the Altiplano of South America. This flowering plant is so compact that you can walk on it. It’s a beautiful example of adaptation to extreme conditions and survival. Llareta looks like enormous cushions, or maybe some sort of terrestrial coral, and quite often are the only trace of green in the altitude deserts, for kilometers around. Because of its high resin content, it smells a bit like Mediterranean pines, and was traditionally used as fuel in the rural communities of the Andes.