Study botany and the world’s your oyster . . .

You bet!

Botany or banking? Is there really a serious choice? I saw a report last year in which botany graduates received higher initial salaries after graduation than many other professions, ranking third after medicine and dentistry, in the UK. That’s hard to believe really. Bankers might certainly reach for the giddy heights in terms of salary packages (and bonuses) but I’m sure that more botanists go to bed each night with a clearer conscience than bankers. And when was the last time you heard of a botanist being reviled by society at large? Well, perhaps if you are in the GM business . . . ?

Not convinced? Well let me tell you why. There is, however, a small caveat. It might be more appropriate to talk about ‘plant sciences’ in the widest sense, because many of the people I’ve met over the decades who do scientific research on and about plants didn’t necessarily study botany per se at university. I don’t think that diminishes my point, however. In the UK, I don’t think there’s a single botany department any longer in the university sector. They all morphed into ‘plant sciences’ or ‘plant biology’ (supposedly more appealing names) or became part of  biological sciences departments. If you were lucky there might be a ‘plants stream’. Botany appears to be in a healthier position in North America.

Plant scientists, it seems, are in great demand. And the traditional image of a botanist couldn’t be further from reality. Whether employed as molecular biologists, geneticists or biochemists (the distinctions are diminishing by the day), plant or crop physiologists, plant breeders, plant pathologists, ecologists, biodiversity and conservation specialists, or even taxonomists, there’s never been a greater need for people to study plants. After all, life on earth depends on plants. Where would we be if we could not successfully grow the crops needed for survival, to adapt to climate change, to keep one step ahead of evolving pathogens, or simply try and understand this wonderful world of ours and its glorious diversity?

Botany has been my ticket to a successful and fruitful career. It’s taken me to many countries in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania over four decades – as plant hunter, researcher, teacher, project manager, and speaker. I worked on two important plant species: potato (Solanum tuberosum) and rice (Oryza sativa) and their wild relatives as a taxonomist, germplasm expert, seed physiologist, agronomist, plant breeder, and plant pathologist. My work has been both lab and field based. What more could I have asked for? And I’ve worked with some inspiring colleagues who came to work on potatoes and rice – and other crops – through one avenue or another, not necessarily as botanists, but perhaps through an interest in and love of plants as part of agriculture.

I can’t deny that I have been fortunate – when opportunities arose I was well-placed to take advantage. I studied with some inspiring heavyweights in my chosen fields. But a love and study of plants has made me a happy person – on the whole.

I was out and about yesterday on one of my daily walks. It was a beautiful day, Spring was definitely in the air (at last), and the hedgerows were creeping back into life. In one spot, the bedstraws (Galium spp.) were in their first flush of new growth,  profusely spreading over the bank beside the road, and responding to milder days we have begun to experience recently (in any case it really has been a mild winter). And it was that sight that made me think back to my student days in the late 60s as an undergraduate at Southampton University. There were times when I did wonder if I’d ever use again some of things we were taught and how relevant they might become – like plant anatomy, for example. It’s interesting to know how important anatomy studies have become in the search for and development of a C4 rice to make its photosynthesis more efficient. Researchers at IRRI have studied the leaf anatomy of hundreds of samples of wild rice species, since C4 photosynthesis in plants is associated with the specialized Kranz anatomy.

As an undergraduate I took several plant ecology courses with Dr Joyce ‘Blossom’ Lambert who had worked on and discovered the origin of the Norfolk Broads in East Anglia, UK – not as natural lakes but flooded peat diggings abandoned by the 14th century. But once I’d discovered the ‘link’ between ecology and genetics, I was hooked, and that led to my focus on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. The rest, as they say, is history . . . 

Proud to be a botanist

Botanist. That’s right. Not plant scientist or plant biologist. Botanist!

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the term ‘botany’ to ‘plant sciences’ or ‘plant biology’ that are now preferentially used to give the study of plants a more ‘modern’ image.

And I’m proud that I received my university education in botany: BSc at Southampton (combined with geography, 1970), and MSc (in genetic resources, 1971) and PhD (botany – biosystematics of potatoes, 1975) at Birmingham. By the time I returned to teach at the University of Birmingham in 1981, the Department of Botany had already become the Department of Plant Biology, a decision made in the late 1970s in the hope of attracting more undergraduates to study plant courses offered as part of the biological sciences degree.

Botany has had a bit of a bad press, I guess. For one thing there’s an image issue. It’s often seen as old-fashioned, the purview of enthusiastic Victorian amateurs like country parsons collecting and studying wild flowers, and perhaps not relevant for today’s society. And there has been a significant decline in teaching plant sciences at university level in the UK. Nothing could be further from the truth. Given that food security is dependent upon the productivity of agricultural systems – all life depends on plants in one way or another – the study of plants is essential for humanity’s survival.

In an interesting article [1], Grierson et al. (2011) ask what are the 100 most important questions for plant science research. They also propose that “We need to radically change our culture so that ‘plant scientist’ (or, if we can rehabilitate the term, ‘botanist’) can join ‘doctor’, ‘vet’ and ‘lawyer’ in the list of top professions to which our most capable young people aspire.”

I’ve had a successful career over 40 years based on botany, one way or the other. So why did I become a botanist in the first place? In high school, I didn’t study biology until I began my GCE Advanced Level courses in 1965. Biology was not taught at my school in earlier years, and only accepted a handful of students for the advanced course. I’d always had an interest in natural history, particularly bird watching, and had harbored ideas at one time of becoming a professional ornithologist. But over the two years of the biology ‘A level’, I came to realize there was likely to be a more secure future in plants, and even the possibility of getting into agriculture in some way, better still if that would take me overseas.

Southampton University was not my first choice, but once I’d attended an interview there, I knew that was where I wanted to study. As a botany-geography undergraduate, I knew that there would be a focus on plant ecology, even though we took the full honours course for two years, and selected modules in the final year. My tutor was Dr Joyce Lambert, Reader in Ecology, who had studied the origin of the Norfolk Broads in the east of England, and shown that they were actually man-made, the result of medieval peat diggings that became flooded. Just before I went to Southampton (and for the rest of her career at Southampton – she retired in 1979) she began working on multivariate methods to study plant communities (with former head of department Bill Williams, who had left Southampton in 1966 to join CSIRO in Australia). I even completed my dissertation on an assessment of vegetation sampling techniques based on quadrat size related to the height of the vegetation (not really a success). I made this study in the Back Forest area of the Roaches in the Staffordshire Moorlands. I measured quadrats along a 200 m transect from open heath to larch-oak woodland dropping steeply to the Black Brook and River Dane. I used a tape recorder with a thumb switch microphone to record the presence and absence of species in each quadrat, using a checklist of species.

As a final year student, however, my interests had already begun to turn from ecology. I took courses on plant speciation and plant breeding with geneticist Dr Joe Smartt, and a special course in flowering plant taxonomy offered by Professor Vernon Heywood of Reading University. Southampton’s own taxonomist, Leslie Watson had emigrated to Australia in 1969, and it was felt that a botany degree without any taxonomy component was not complete. Heywood travelled down from Reading once a week for 10 weeks, giving two lectures each time. This was not one of my specific elective courses for examination, but I decided to sit in and listen – and I was hooked. Linking what I heard in Heywood’s lectures with the plant speciation and plant breeding courses, and ecology was the foundation for my career-long study of plant variation, and entry into the world of plant genetic resources.

But there was one research endeavor that really fired my imagine (and others) – and it’s as good today as when it was originally published in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In a ground-breaking series of experiments, geneticist/ecologist Jens Clausen, taxonomist David Keck, and plant physiologist William Hiesey, from the Carnegie Institute of Washington located on the campus of Stanford University, studied the adaptation of plants to their environments, the variation in plant populations, and the genetical and physiological basis of the variation they observed.

Establishing a series of experimental stations across California, they undertook transplant experiments in a range of species such as Achillea and Potentilla, to understand the nature of variation and species, and published in a series of monographs Experimental Studies on the Nature of Species.

Similar work had been carried out in Scandinavia by Turesson and in Scotland by Gregor, but the Californian group was, in my estimation, pre-eminent. Thus was the concept of the ecotype established. And the methods of experimental taxonomy and genecology which they developed are used to study the nature of variation in the genetic resources of crop plants conserved in genebanks around the world – and certainly the approach I took with my own work on lentils and grasspea (Lathryus sativus), potatoes, and rice.

Another influence was Missouri Botanical Garden geneticist Edgar Anderson. If you’ve not read his highly entertaining and readable Plants, Man & Life, then grab yourself a copy.

But the most influential concept he developed was introgressive hybridization, the merging of plant species populations through crossing and backcrossing – a phenomenon we believe to have played a major role in the evolution of many crop plants.

Joe Smartt encouraged me to follow a career in plant genetic resources. In fact he was the one who suggested I should apply for a place on the Birmingham MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, founded by Jack Hawkes in 1969. Joe had studied the cytogenetics of groundnut (= peanut, Arachis spp.) under Walter C Gregory at North Carolina State University, and joined the Department of Botany at Southampton in 1967. He had also spent time in Northern Rhodesia (= Zambia) working on groundnuts in the 1950s.

And the rest is history, as they say, and I spent the rest of my career studying genetic resources and agriculture in many different countries (Peru, Costa Rica, Canary Islands, Philippines and other countries in Asia).

Some of my own interests have included the species relationships of triploid potatoes, and we have looked at the compatibility relationships between wild and cultivated forms.

These photos show the growth of pollen tubes in compatible (left) and incompatible (right) crosses between wild potato species.

In potatoes and rice we made tens of thousands of crosses to understand the biological relationships between different species.

It’s important to make many crosses when the chances of success are quite low. And we have looked at the morphological and biochemical variation in different plant populations – the ability to study species relationships at the molecular level is throwing a whole new perspective on plant speciation; applications of GIS permit easier mapping of diversity.

One of the concepts that has guided much of my work with genetic resources is the genepool concept developed by Illinois geneticists Harlan and de Wet in 1971 [2]. This allows one to assess the relationship between crops and their wild relatives based on crossability, and the accessibility of different genetic resources that can be used in crop improvement.

I’ve been very fortunate in my career choices – all because of my decision to become a botanist. Who says that botany is an old-fashioned science? Just look through the 100 science challenges I referred to earlier on and you will see just how and why it’s ever more important that we invest in the study of plants.

[1] C. S. Grierson, S. R. Barnes, M. W. Chase, M. Clarke, D. Grierson, K. J. Edwards, G. J. Jellis, J. D. Jones, S. Knapp, G. Oldroyd, G. Poppy, P. Temple, R. Williams, and R. Bastow, 2011. One hundred important questions facing plant science research. New Phytologist 192 (1): 6-12.

[2] J.R. Harlan and J.M.J. de Wet, 1971. Toward a rational classification of cultivated plants. Taxon 20: 509-517.

Standing on Vavilov’s shoulders . . .

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943). Not a name familiar to many people. Vavilov is, however, one of my scientific heroes.

Until I began graduate school in September 1970, when I joined the MSc course at the University of Birmingham on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, I’d never even heard of him. In fact, looking back, I’m rather surprised that his name didn’t crop up once during my undergraduate years. I’d been encouraged to apply for a place on the Birmingham course by a lecturer in genetics at Southampton University, Dr Joe Smartt. But Vavilov and his work was not on the curriculum of botany courses that I took.

In preparation for Birmingham, I’d been advised to purchase and absorb a book that was published earlier that year, edited by Sir Otto Frankel and Erna Bennett [1] on genetic resources, and dedicated to NI Vavilov. And I came across Vavilov’s name for the first time in the first line of the Preface written by Frankel, and in the first chapter on Genetic resources by Frankel and Bennett. I should state that this was at the beginning of the genetic resources movement, a term coined by Frankel and Bennett at the end of the 60s when they had mobilized efforts to collect and conserve the wealth of diversity of crop varieties (and their wild relatives) – often referred to as landraces – grown all around the world, but were in danger of being lost as newly-bred varieties were adopted by farmers. The so-called Green Revolution had begun to accelerate the replacement of the landrace varieties, particularly among cereals like wheat and rice.

Thus began my fascination with Vavilov’s work, and a career in genetic resources in a broad sense that was to last 40 years until my retirement in 2010.

Vavilov was a botanist, geneticist and plant breeder who rose to the top of agricultural research in the Soviet Union who, through his many expeditions around the world (described in the book Five Continents [2], published posthumously in English in 1997) assembled a vast array of diversity in many crop species. Vavilov developed two seminal theories of crop evolution, which have influenced the science of genetic resources ever since.

The first was his Centers of Diversity and Origin, in which he stated that “the place of origin of a species of a cultivated plant is to be found in the area which contains the largest number of genetic varieties of this plant.” While we now appreciate that this was an oversimplification, his ideas about the origin of crop diversity have been the foundation for much of the genetic resources exploration carried out in subsequent decades.

The second was his Law of Homologous Series in the Case of Variation, published in Russian in 1920 and in English in 1922. I applied this concept in my search for pest resistance in wild potatoes, which I presented at a Symposium organized by the Linnean Society of London and the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London in 1987 to celebrate the centenary of Vavilov’s birth [3].

Vavilov died of starvation in prison at the relatively young age of 55, following persecution under Stalin through the shenanigans of the charlatan Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko’s legacy also included the rejection of Mendelian genetics in the Soviet Union for many years. Eventually Vavilov was rehabilitated, long after his death, and he was commemorated on postage stamps at the time of his centennial.

Although never having the privilege of  knowing Vavilov, I do feel that I met him vicariously through three people I have known, who did meet him, and I worked with two of these for many years.

First, Sir Otto Frankel FRS, who I first met at a genetic resources meeting in Jakarta in the mid-80s, was an eminent wheat breeder and geneticist, and one of the founders of the genetic resources movement. Originally from Austria, he had escaped before the Nazis came to power, and moved to New Zealand and Australia afterwards. Frankel visited Vavilov in Leningrad (now St Petersburg again) in 1935.

Jack Hawkes, Mason Professor of Botany at the University of Birmingham and my PhD supervisor, travelled to Leningrad in 1938 to consult with Vavilov’s colleague, SM Bukasov, about the potatoes he had collected in South America. He wrote about his meeting with Vavilov, which he presented at the Vavilov Symposium referred to above [4].

John S Niederhauser was an eminent plant pathologist who spent many years researching the potato late blight fungus in Mexico. He was awarded the World Food Prize in 1990. I worked for several years with John in the 1970s when I was regional leader for the International Potato Center in Costa Rica, and we were developing and implementing what turned out to be the first consortium, PRECODEPA (Cooperative Regional Potato Program – in four Central American countries, Mexico and the Dominican Republic), of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). As a young man of about 17, so John told me, he’d asked a travel agent how far he would be able to travel (return) from San Francisco with the money he had available: Leningrad was the destination. Walking around a research garden there one day, he was approached by a kindly gentleman – Vavilov as it turned out – who offered him the chance to work for a few weeks harvesting germplasm evaluation trials on one of his institute’s research stations in the Soviet southeast.

What all three emphasised – in their writings or related to me personally – was Vavilov’s friendliness, generosity of spirit, his boundless energy, and above all, his humanity, and that he treated everyone as an equal, even young persons as Hawkes and Niederhauser were when they met him.

Vavilov’s legacy endures. He is recognized as one of the giants of 20th century biology. And he has been an inspiration for countless students of genetic resources conservation and use.

[1] Frankel, OH & E Bennett (eds), 1970. Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation. IBP Handbook No 11. International Biological Programme, London and Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford and Edinburgh. pp. 554. SBN 632 05730 0.

[2] Vavilov, NI, 1997. Five Continents. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy. pp. 198. ISBN 92-9043-302-7.

[3] Jackson, MT, 1990. Vavilov’s Law of Homologous Series – is it relevant to potatoes? Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 39, 17-25.

[4] Hawkes, JG, 1990. NI Vavilov – the man and his work. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 39, 3-6.