Helena Pozniak
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Demand for new crops is food for thought Scientists are needed to create plants that are resistant to disease and drought

The Telegraph

As a sixth-former, Joseph Moughan disliked learning about plants and never dreamt he would find himself at the cutting edge of plant science. “I think studying things like the photosynthesis cycle at A-level can scare people off,” says Moughan, now 23. A field trip to Majorca during his biology degree at the University of Manchester and some inspirational lectures led him to change course and graduate in plant science. “It got me thinking about the importance of food security and how our existence relates to plants,” says Moughan, whose degree included a year in industry, working at the National Botanic Garden of Wales on a plant conservation project.

Based at Rothamsted Research, Hertfordshire, he is currently doing a PhD in root diseases in wheat, funded by plant-breeding company Syngenta. On completion, he can opt for an industry or academic career path. “It’s tempting to enter the commercial sector to see the real-time results of our research,” he says.

Either way, he is working in an area that plant scientists say is critical to world security. Plant science usually enters the public realm when researchers create a purple tomato or other genetically modified plant, to much general anxiety. But future challenges are undeniably pressing. To feed the world population by 2050, food production needs to roughly double, says a report by the Society of Biology and UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF), which states that “the need for plant scientists has never been greater”.

Climate change and extreme weather patterns necessitate increasingly resistant crops, as erratic weather can damage yields. Last winter’s floods are a recent example, and the wet summer of 2012 led to the smallest potato harvest in 30 years. As a nation, the UK produces only 62 per cent of its food, making us vulnerable to spikes in global food prices. Research is urgently needed to combat diseases, such as ash dieback, which threaten native British woodland.

Plant scientists also have a role in protecting biodiversity and improving global health, says the Society of Biology report. But it’s certainly a niche area, as acknowledged by those in the sector currently working to improve crops and create new, disease-resistant or drought-tolerant plants. “A skills shortage exists partly because universities aren’t running many courses in the applied subjects,” says Prof James Brown, who is project leader in crop genetics at research institute the John Innes Centre (JIC), Norfolk, and also runs the MSc in plant genetics and crop improvement at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

For anyone interested in the science of preserving native woodlands, the degree choice is small, with Bangor University and the University of Aberdeen being the main institutions running bachelor’s and Msc degrees in forestry and pathology. Some universities, including Reading, Sheffield and Manchester, offer plant sciences specialisms at undergraduate level and beyond, while universities such as Newcastle, Nottingham, Reading, Aberdeen, Plymouth and Harper Adams, Shropshire, run agricultural-related degrees with a more practical focus. However, many who opt to specialise at postgraduate level come from a generic life sciences background. “While we lead the way in this country in producing fundamental research, which involves new basic knowledge about plants and microbes, we don’t have good mechanisms for translating that knowledge into practice,” explains Prof Brown. “There are job opportunities, just not as many as one would like.”

Agrochemical companies, such as Syngenta and Monsanto, and plant breeding companies, such as Limagrain Europe and Elsoms, are the most obvious destination for plant sciences graduates, from technicians through to researchers, says Dr Giles Johnson, senior lecturer in life sciences at the University of Manchester. Government agencies — the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra), for example — also welcome specialists, while institutes such as the JIC and the Rothamsted Research, in Hertfordshire, support most of the UK’s plant science research. “Skills shortages exist in plant physiology, plant pathology and plant breeding, and there’s a lot of interest in plants in the biotech industry,” says Dr Johnson, adding that environmental consultants are also short of plant specialists. UK-based companies are renowned for wheat, barley, forage grass and soft fruit breeding, but the sector is highly international, points out Prof Brown.

Some universities, such as Manchester, offer a language alongside a plant science degree. As a biosciences undergraduate with a year spent studying in Berlin as part of her degree, Joanna Halliwell, now 24, believes that learning German gave her an edge in the job market. She decided in her final year that she wanted to specialise in plant breeding and enrolled for an MSc in plant genetics and crop improvement, run jointly by the UEA and JIC. She took every opportunity to make contact with visiting lecturers from industry during her Msc to boost her chances of finding a job. “If you’re certain that you don’t want to be a farmer or a scientist, it can be really diffi cult knowing what jobs are out there,” she says. “But academics on the course were brilliant and explained all the different roles in between.”

While many of her peers went into further research, Halliwell is now working at international plant breeder Ragt Seeds in Cambridge as an assistant wheat breeder and the coming months will be a busy time. “It’s very seasonal work,” she explains. “In spring and early summer, I’ll be going around fields in Cambridgeshire to look at the plant crosses that have been made, some as recently as January, and the features shown in the offspring. It’s like a little game of logic. We hold trials throughout the UK, as well as on the Continent.” Halliwell is aware that she has entered a highly specialist field at an early stage in her career, but she also knows that the transferable skills of a science degree and profession mean that she is well equipped for the wider world should she decide to take her career in a different direction.

Hadrien Peyret, 24, is a researcher at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and in his final year of a PhD at John Innes Centre (JIC), Norfolk. Having studied biological sciences at the University of Birmingham, Peyret now works for UEA, helping to develop a system for protein production in plants, which can then be used to create new vaccines. “We use plants as little green factories to mass produce vaccines that we might be able to adapt for animals and humans. Researchers have been working in this area for around 20 years and at present there are still no plant-produced vaccines on the market,” explains Peyret. “When I started my undergraduate degree I kept my options open and had no idea I’d end up specialising in this field. My PhD is a good combination of fundamental and applied science, and I’m working at the very start of the research pipeline. But the biggest appeal is the scientific aspect of trying to answer questions nobody thought to ask, and to achieve something new. “My advice to students is to take biology and not specialise too early. My own interests changed dramatically throughout school and university; had I been more selective, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.”

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