In the second in a series of articles on Great British bioscience pioneers, Professor Mike Bevan highlights key milestones that have shaped the plant science landscape.
How did your bioscience career first begin?
In 1979, after a PhD in plant biochemistry, I went to Washington University in St Louis to work on Agrobacterium tumefaciens genetics. I was attracted to this field by the potential of using newly discovered recombinant DNA methods to understand how Agrobacterium transferred part of its DNA into plants. This was a very fortunate choice as I had a great opportunity to learn molecular genetics and apply the methods to understand plant genes using Agrobacterium.
What are you working on now?
My current research interests are in structural genomics of hexaploid wheat, aiming to create improved genome assemblies that will aid gene discovery and help understand how evolution and domestication have shaped genomes. I am also very interested in using wheat genomics resources to understand how the independent genomes of wheat influence each other, possibly through epigenetic mechanisms.
Work in my group has also identified a set of genes that control the growth of plant organs and seeds. We are unravelling the mechanisms of growth control and work with industry to exploit these genes to increase crop yields.
What advances have you seen in your field in the last 20 years?
There have been profound changes in plant genetics over the past 20-30 years, and I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with outstanding colleagues in excellent institutions during this period. Overall, the primary advance has been the concerted focus on a limited range of experimental systems – such as Arabidopsis, Medicago, maize and rice – for discovering genes and determining their functions, coupled with the power of genomics for unifying knowledge across plant species. This provides a strong framework for crop improvement and understanding how plants function.
Some specific examples of important advances include plant transformation, the application of genomics to genetic analyses, the understanding of epigenetic mechanisms, and the building of integrated knowledge of many complex plant regulatory systems at the molecular and cellular level.
What are the key bioscience milestones that you've been part of?
- 1982: First expression of a foreign gene in transformed fertile plants. This laid foundations for crop genetic engineering and enabled new ways of studying genes
- 1984: Development of a widely used plant transformation vector. This was provided to researchers as an easy to use system for studying genes
- 1987: Development of the GUS reporter gene to measure gene expression in single cells. This provided researchers with a new approach for understanding how genes are regulated
- 2000: Completed the sequence of the Arabidopsis genome, the first plant genome and third eukaryotic genome to be sequenced
- 2012: Published the first draft sequence of the bread wheat genome, the largest and most complex genome to be sequenced at that time
How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?
I have worked at institutes funded by BBSRC and Agricultural and Food Research Council (BBSRC's forerunner) during most of my career, first at The Plant Breeding Institute and then the John Innes Centre. Most of my research has been funded through BBSRC competitive grants, which have enabled me to establish my career in research.