Let there be fascinating plants
18th of May is the “Fascination of Plants Day”. This is the second year that this initiative takes place. The “Fascination of Plants Day” is coordinated by the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO),an independent academic organization that represents more than 226 research institutes, departments and universities from 30 countries. Many different activities are being carried out today by many volunteers around the world that share their work and enthusiasm to communicate the importance of having plants in our daily lives and also to promote the importance of plant science. Thus, today´s article is not focused on a single scientific article but provides an overview of some of the reasons plants are so fascinating and why we should support plant science.
The number of plant species worldwide is estimated at around 250,000 from small herbs to giant sequoia trees. Plants are characterized by their fascinating capacity to convert sunlight, water and some soil nutrients into chemical energy, with the production of oxygen. This oxygen is essential for animal life and all the food we eat comes directly or indirectly from plants. Plants are also essential for horticulture, forestry and in producing many products for used in our daily life like paper, fibers, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, as well as for producing energy (biofuels). In Addition, plants have always been used to create spaces where we feel comfortable (gardens) and are a proof of esteem and love when we offer someone flowers. Plants are often symbols that represent countries or areas, like the famous maple leaf in Canada or trefoil in Ireland.
Current research on plant science is focused among others on 1) improving plants’ nutrient-use efficiency and stress tolerance so better yields can be reached, especially in regions under adverse environmental conditions (high temperature, drought, saline soils, etc.) 2) increasing plant resistance to pathogens and pests 3) improving plants’ nutritional value 4) minimizing the environmental impact of agriculture and 5) finding new chemicals, primarily for the pharmaceutical industry.
World population is increasing exponentially; by 2011, it reached nearly seven billion people. Obviously, world food demand increases with population. We all know that one the biggest issues concerning human food access depends more on political decisions than on plant scientists or crop yield. However, in the future (2050-2100), according to United Nations predictions for world population, even in the best of political scenarios, increasing crop yield will be essential to ensure food supply. Until now, improvements in agricultural practices and plant breeding have continuously increased crop output. This tendency needs to be maximized while minimizing the harmful environmental effects associated with the excessive use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that pollute soils and water resources and increase greenhouse gas emissions. Further, the use of additional land in agricultural production should be limited. Thus, one of the things scientists do is anticipating solutions for the problems of the future, especially taking into account predictions for global climate change.
One of the differences between animals and plants is that plants do not have the ability to run away from predators or to move when they feel cold or hot or when they are subjected to drought, etc. Plants have thus evolved to try to cope with these environmental constraints. A proof of it is that we can find plants virtually in every land ecosystem of the planet. Of course dealing with extreme environmental conditions means to make some compromises, like being very small in size or producing a very limited number of seeds. However, investigating how these plants manage to live in extreme conditions is particularly important in transferring their capacities into crops to improve agriculture yield, mainly in areas where the conditions are challenging, like many regions in Spain, where water availability is limited.
Some plants have developed very interesting strategies to survive with minimal nutrients, for instance establishing mutualistic relationships with other organisms like mycorrhiza that allow them to exploit the soil very efficiently or, in the case of legumes, with nitrogen fixing bacteria that allow them to use the atmospheric nitrogen. A better understanding of these processes will decrease the amount of fertilizers that are applied to crops. As an example of the great potential of these symbioses, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding millions of dollars in research projects to transfer legumes’ nitrogen fixing capacity to cereals.
Pathogens and pests can have devastating effects in agriculture. One of the most well-known examples of agricultural disease is the potato late blight that in the XIX century caused thousands of deaths by starvation, notably in Ireland. The result of constant coevolution between plants and pathogens is that most of the plant cultivars we grow are susceptible to many diseases. Science greatly helps to minimize the effects of these pathogens and the selection of resistant varieties is crucial to ensure crop yield.
As stated before, in addition to the value plants provide in food production, plants also provide fibers to make paper and clothes, wood to build houses and make furniture or energy for our vehicles. Plants are also able to remove pollutants from water and soils contaminated as a consequence of industrial activities. Importantly, and something that we too often forget, is that plants also provide us with hundreds of compounds that are active principles in medicines and drugs. However, plant chemical diversity is still largely unexplored, and many compounds remain to be discovered. In the medical field, a promising line of research is in the production of vaccines in plants, which could greatly increase the immunization rate of children in poor countries.
The extension of this commentary about the importance of plants and plant science could be much longer but I hope that this article has made you at least a little bit more aware that plants are an incredible source of many different products. In this sense, plant science is crucial not only to ensure food production and quality but to efficiently use the potential that plants give us. Currently, genetic technology represents an incredible tool to better understand plant functioning and for example to maximize plants’ capacity for using natural resources, for producing pharmaceuticals and vaccines and for providing us with more environmentally friendly products like biofuels and bioplastics.