Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where have all the British botanists gone, just when we need them?

We are desperate for new crops, drugs and energy sources but plant science graduates have become an endangered species, says Professor Steve Jones. 

By Steve Jones 

The Botanic Garden in the University of Oxford. Where have all the British botanists gone, just when we need them?
The Botanic Garden in the University of Oxford. 
Plant scientists have become an endangered species in Britain, says Steve Jones.
'I’d like to see them starving,/The so-called working class,/Their wages yearly halving,/Their women boiling grass”. Thus wrote Philip Larkin in a poem that can have no relevance to Britain today, for he was writing before the era of coalition politics. 
Boiled grass may, in fact, soon be on the menu, because of advances in a science which has revolutionised our lives and yet – at least when it comes to producing a new generation of practitioners – has almost vanished from the British scene. Botany has disappeared as an A-level subject, just 10 universities offer degrees in plant science (at least one is thinking of dropping it) and there are no more than 100 graduates each year. Most places have a grotesque imbalance between researchers using plants and using animals, humans included (a 500-to-one ratio in my own institution).
Yet plants are not just beautiful, diverse and easy to handle, but we depend upon them for food, for fuel, for drugs and (not to be forgotten) for aesthetic sensibility.
Why do students find the vegetable world so boring when without it we would perish? The United States (unlike Britain, where less than a third of our landscape is suitable for crops and we need crop-land twice the size of these islands to feed ourselves) now has enough acreage to grow all the food it might need, plus a bit over. In just 40 years, population growth, urbanisation and loss of soil mean that the amount of fertile land per head will drop by ten times. To guard against that, the Americans are pouring in billions to a plan to double maize yields in two decades. A quarter of all medicines are plant-based, or were discovered in that kingdom, and the need for sustainable fuel has led to the – unsustainable – use of food plants or oil palms to make alcohol-enhanced petrol. New crops, new drugs and new sources of energy are needed but the annual crop of British botany graduates is now so reduced as to make them an endangered species.
Ironically, the technical advances in DNA research that came from the Human Genome Project (and disappointed those who had hoped for a revolution in medicine) has transformed the study of plants. New genes for increased production (such as grass with enough sugar to make it palatable, and clovers that make far more nitrogen fertiliser than before) are emerging fast. Many of our crops, wheat included, are natural hybrids between wild species, and the hunt is on for ways to disrupt the inborn mechanisms that stop other potentially valuable mongrels from being made. Already, distantly related kinds are being persuaded to mate to generate varieties resistant to heat, salt, flooding, drought and to the other good things promised by global warming.
One escape from that problem is to use plants as fuel. Much of the biofuel market is driven by the economics of the madhouse, for subsidies make it profitable to burn crops that could be eaten. Elephant grass is a 15ft Asian giant that can grow on barren land and is four times better than maize at producing fuel. It is already being burned in British power stations, but almost everywhere just one strain is used. Expeditions to Japan and China have found wild varieties that might do the job even better. The plan is to double the plant’s yield and to have one kilowatt in every eight of Britain’s electricity generated from the crop in two decades.
In fact, all these projects are under way in one intellectual hot-house in west Wales. Here I must declare an interest, for I am on its advisory board, and have just returned from my annual visit. The University of Aberystwyth’s Institute of Biological Environmental and Rural Sciences is a world centre for the new plant science – but even there it is hard to attract school-leavers to study the subject and to find funds to pay for it.
In spite of the astonishing progress being made there and in other great research centres such as Norwich, Nottingham, Cambridge and Oxford, none of their work has more relevance for the future than does an agricultural adage from before science began: that, both for plants and for the people who study them, to eat the seed corn today will be to starve tomorrow.
Steve Jones is Professor of Genetics at University College London


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