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BBSRC plant scientists who 'could change the world' highlighted

5 December 2008

Two researchers who have received support from BBSRC and the Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC) – BBSRC’s forerunner – have been highlighted in a News Feature in the journal Nature profiling five scientists working to improve global agricultural productivity.

With rising worldwide food prices and a growing global population, the world requires another ‘green revolution’, such as the one seen in the decades after the Second World War, to improve agricultural productivity. Zhang Jianhua, a plant physiologist who was supported by AFRC in the 1980s, and Julian Hibberd, a BBSRC-funded molecular biologist at the University of Cambridge, have been highlighted by Nature for the part they are playing in this.

Professor Doug Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC, said: "The security of the world’s food supply is going to be one of the defining issues of the next couple of decades. Zhang Jianhua, Julian Hibberd and other leading plant scientists are at the forefront of efforts to harness bioscience to help agricultural productivity cope with a changing climate and to keep pace with population growth. Many factors affect global food production, but the most fundamental are reflected in the ability of crops to produce the yield the world needs, and with the minimum level of inputs of water, energy and nutrients."

Zhang Jianhua, now at Hong Kong Baptist University, is a leading researcher and proponent of deficit irrigation. This irrigation technique utilises the knowledge that a plant suffering from drought stress can, at times, concentrate its resources on reproduction, rushing resources to the grains, believing that death is imminent. Zhang’s research group is now examining the gene functions that are induced by water stress and the development of ‘partial root drying’, a technique that both keeps a plant alive and triggers the signals that gets it to send resources to the grain.

Zhang did the definitive work showing plant roots use the signalling hormone abscisic acid to communicate drought stress to the shoots, funded by an AFRC grant in Bill Davies’s lab at Lancaster University. The impact of this research, and the work that Zhang continued in Hong Kong, is now being felt in rural China where he travels widely to promote deficit irrigation to farmers.

Julian Hibberd is a leader in research that seeks to understand the basic processes of photosynthesis. His work in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge has been supported by BBSRC over a number of years, and he is a former BBSRC David Phillips Fellow. Hibberd’s research has taken him close to understanding the basis of a ‘turbocharged’ version of photosynthesis. This approach, which has evolved independently at least 45 times, allows plants (especially those in hotter climates) to fix carbon dioxide into a 4-carbon compound instead of the normal 3-carbon version, before feeding it into cells for further photosynthetic metabolism. This increases the local concentration of carbon dioxide and the overall efficiency of the process. Hibberd’s work has shown how in the ‘turbo’ plants photosynthesis is separated into two main areas, and this requires both cellular specialisation and leaves that differ structurally from those in the commoner "3-carbon" plants.

Other researchers believe that if this approach can be incorporated into rice then yields could be increased by around 50 per cent from current levels. It may take several decades to achieve this but the fact that this form of photosynthesis has evolved independently on a number of occasion gives researchers cause for optimism.

Zhang Jianhua and Julian Hibberd are both featured in Nature, Vol 456, 4 December 2008, p.563-568. doi:10.1038/456563a



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