Alumni Newsletter: HoD letter from Mark Fricker

This is a pivotal year in the history of the department, combining both celebration of the past, of which more in a moment, and planning for new future. All-in-all quite an interesting time to take over as HoD. Major thanks go to George Ratcliffe for his unstinting efforts over the last four years - apart from the normal load of running the Department, he was deeply involved in planning the new Life and Mind Building, the start of the merger of Plants and Zoology, the introduction of the new 4-year MBiol. degree and, of course, Covid. It is a tribute to his calm, measured approach and attention to detail, that excellent progress was made on all fronts despite the pandemic. He is supposedly taking a well-earned break in retirement, but is actually finishing off a textbook on Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences. We wish him well.

Reflecting on the history of the Department - 2021 marked the quatercentenary of the foundation of the Oxford Botanic Garden and of plant sciences in the University. To celebrate this milestone the Department of Plant Sciences organised a five-month public exhibition. Nearly 700 objects from the Department’s collections and archives illustrated the University's 400 years of botanical research and teaching, and highlighted the continuing relevance of plant sciences to the modern world. The Roots to Seeds exhibition, a collaboration with the Bodleian Libraries and the Botanic Garden, was accompanied by a book written by Stephen Harris – you can snap up a copy here.

2021 was also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lionel Clowes. Lionel was one of the pioneers of plant developmental biology, and taught generations of students in the Botany School. It was his painstaking work in the 1960s and ‘70s that lead to the identification of the quiescent centre (QC) in the root apical meristem (RAM). As a tribute to his discoveries, the Journal of Experimental Botany ran a special issue on the organisation and function of the QC and RAM, with a youthful Lionel on the cover.

Turning to the current activity in the Department – it is probably the strongest it has ever been in terms of publications, funding, impact and prestige – a cumulative result of the concerted efforts of many individuals over the last few decades. Looking across the current research activity in the department, one cannot help but be impressed with the breadth and depth of scholarship. Picking out a few highlights from the past year, we saw publication of a taxonomic monograph of all 425 morning glories (Ipomoea) in the New World by Robert Scotland’s lab. The monograph included 70 species new to science and provided the springboard for a 3-year BBSRC funded project to find the elusive wild form of the domesticated sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) in South America. The discovery of this ‘missing link’ will allow the sweet potato genome to be finally assembled and will facilitate new breeding programmes.

On the commercial side, Wild Bioscience is a new spinout from The Department of Plant Sciences, co-founded by Prof Steve Kelly and Dr Ross Hendron. Wild Bioscience recently completed a major venture-backed fundraising campaign for research to radically enhance the yield and climate resilience of the world’s most important crops. In a similar vein, Paul Jarvis’s group has continued work on CHLORAD, a plastid-localized proteolytic  pathway. CHLORAD has considerable potential to deliver crop improvements and Paul has been working with OUI to protect the relevant IP and develop commercialization strategies. Recent work has revealed how CHLORAD may be used to beneficially modify fruit ripening in tomato, enabling the development of varieties with improved shelf life.

On a more global scale, Dmitry Filatov’s group recently published on species evolution in marine phytoplankton. Photosynthetic plankton in the oceans are responsible for about half of newly produced organic matter on the planet and half of the oxygen that we breathe. The amount of CO2 they fix is thought to significantly affect the global carbon cycle and climate. However, surprisingly little is known about how plankton species originate and evolve, as most research is focused on terrestrial organisms. In their paper they combined fossil and climatic records from the late Quaternary with the power of modern high-throughput whole genome sequencing and evolutionary genetic inference. Collectively these approaches shed light on the evolutionary processes underpinning formation of new species in marine phytoplankton.

These little vignettes also highlight a more profound underlying principle –pure research is central to understand how biological systems operate, and is the main motivation for much of the activity in the Department. However, applications are increasingly popping-up in the slipstream and we are collectively becoming more adept at translating these ideas into commercial success.

If the threats from the pandemic continue to recede, the Department will return to full power over the next few months, and we look forward to a new opportunities for research and teaching with colleagues in Zoology as part of Biology next year.