The Garden’s Director, Professor Beverley Glover is one of the Festival’s speakers and will be giving a half hour Science Festival talk on Sunday 20 March about whether we can improve crop pollination by breeding better flowers.
Here she talks to the Cambridge Science Festival (CSF) as part of their ‘Speaker Spotlight Series’ about the current and future role of plants in solving some of our most pressing global challenges as well as her career highlights.
CSF: What first drew you to plant science?
BG: As an undergraduate I was excited to discover the world of plants. I had intended to study animal biology at University, like so many other students. But I was amazed to realise that plants face all the same challenges that animals face – finding food, surviving attack from predators, finding a mate, setting their offspring up in life – but have to solve all those problems rooted to the spot. Their solutions are so much cleverer than the simple ‘get up and run away’ solutions of animals that I was soon completely hooked on finding out more.
CSF: There must have been many highlights in your career so far. Which has been the most important to you?
BG: Probably the most exciting was discovering that flowers can produce iridescent colours using diffraction gratings. These are patterns of parallel ridges that interfere with light, the same way the data grooves on a CD generate iridescent colour. We noticed that the Hibiscus trionum flowers, which the Garden’s horticulture staff enjoys growing in the bays outside the glasshouses, looked different colours from different angles; it was so exciting to put them into an electron microscope and see diffraction gratings made from ridges of the waxy cuticle that covers all plant surfaces. We’re now busy working out how the plant controls the patterning of the cuticle to make this amazing colour effect.
CSF: The Botanic Garden is a much-loved and exquisite part of Cambridge. What makes it so special for you?
BG: The Garden is always amazing – it changes every day and every time you walk through it you see different things. That’s still true if you work here. For me, what makes it so special is that the Garden works on so many levels for different people. For most of our 250,000 annual visitors, it’s a glorious landscape in which they learn a few things about plants or simply enjoy some peace and quiet in a beautiful setting; for the 10,000 schoolchildren who come on educational visits each year it’s a living laboratory and classroom; for our undergraduate students it’s a chance to really see with their own eyes the features of plants they hear about in lectures. But for researchers, like me, it’s simply inspiration – many of my favourite scientific discoveries and papers have resulted from me or one of my colleagues spotting something in the Garden and thinking, ‘I wonder how it does that?’
CSF: What are the most exciting developments in plant biology at the moment?
BG: It’s really exciting to see plant biologists expanding to study the enormous diversity of the plant kingdom. For the last 20-30 years, we’ve been focused on understanding how a single plant, Arabidopsis (which is the botanical equivalent of the fruit fly), works. However the tools available to scientists have expanded and improved so much that we can now ask questions about the whole variety of plants and find out how they work. For example, woody plants, juicy fruits, parasitic plants, flowers that mimic bees, pine cones, aquatic roots that act as snorkels, rice that feeds the world, and water lilies. The plant world really is our oyster and this is incredibly exciting!
CSF: Where do you see plant biology research going in the future?
BG: The use of these new tools, particularly genomic approaches, will mean we can start to explore a greater diversity of plants. One particularly important area will be studying the wild relatives of domesticated crop plants, to understand how they cope with a wider range of environments and to assess how we can use that knowledge to improve crop productivity. For example, we’re developing some new displays that showcase research in the University, and one of these will contain wild relatives of many of our common cereal crops – wheat, maize, barley and so on. These wild relatives cope with different degrees of drought, and salt, and some even have different photosynthetic efficiencies. Exploring how all these plants work will really help us to identify strategies for improving crops and feeding more people.
CSF: Is there a sense of urgency regarding the research given the dire warnings about population growth, food security, health and climate change?
BG: Yes, there’s a clear sense that if the world is going to be fed, particularly in the face of growing populations and perhaps less useable land for agriculture, then plant science is going to be crucial in developing new approaches and strategies. But since we don’t know what the best approaches will be, the important thing now is to support a wide diversity of basic research into how plants work, which will underpin future applications. This is exactly what we are leading on here in Cambridge, between the University’s Department of Plant Sciences, the Sainsbury laboratory here at the Botanic Garden, and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany out on the Huntingdon Road we have one of the largest collectives of plant scientists anywhere in the world. Some of the most exciting recent discoveries have included understanding how cereal plant roots communicate with the soil fungi that help them take up nutrients and improving our understanding of how plants sense and respond to temperature.
CSF: Of those issues mentioned above, which do you think is the most pressing on a global scale?
BG: The issues are all linked, and can’t really be separated. Climate change has the biggest potential for large-scale change, but of course it’s partly driven by population growth and the demand for more food.
CSF: Are you an avid gardener in your personal life?
BG: I wish I was! Between running a research group focused on understanding how flowers attract pollinators, teaching, looking after the Botanic Garden, and raising a family there isn’t much time to spare for gardening! I do manage a few vegetables most years, and I like to get my children involved in that as a fun way of introducing them to plant science. I also have a few exotics in my conservatory, which survive despite the neglect!
Publication Date 03/03/2016