Ask Plants to Solve Biggest Challenges

Without plants, we'd have no air to breathe or food to eat, yet plant science lingers in the shadowy wings while other fields take center stage. With the goal of shining the spotlight on plants, a new study presents the field's top 100 most pressing questions for research to address the greatest challenges facing humanity.

"The study highlights the importance of plant science for society by laying out myriad questions and technical challenges that, if solved, could sustainably support the increasing human population on a planet under climate change," said Sanna Sevanto, a plant physiologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and co-author of the study recently published in the journal New Phytologist.

Wide-ranging questions

The questions cover a wide range of topics, including genetically modified organisms, plant-based fuels, food scarcity, growing seaweed as a carbon sink, using algae to clean up oil spills, how soil microorganisms affect stress in plants, and even growing plants in space to support human life.

Sevanto was one of 20 panelists selected from Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Oceania and Africa. In four regional teams, the panelists sifted through more than 600 questions submitted from around the globe by anyone interested in plants - not only scientists. The panelists edited those submissions into a final list of the top 100 most important questions facing plant science in 2022, ranging from how plants can contribute to tackling climate change, to plant defense, to epigenetics. The paper revisits a similarly named 2011 paper on the same subject.

The authors hope the paper will stimulate additional research in the field, along with funding for it.

"Plant science is often overlooked as an old science with low importance in school curricula, so interested students often struggle to find research questions that contribute significantly to the current state of the art in the field," Sevanto said. "This study shows that plant science is a modern, highly technical field that can contribute unique solutions to many of the challenges facing humanity and the planet."

Areas of critical global importance

The panel selected the top 11 questions that represent areas of critical global importance across diverse plant-science research:

  • Climate change: How will climate change impact plant abundance, productivity, bioregions and ecosystems?
  • Science in the community: How can we ensure that the varied goals and needs of our diverse societies are understood and fulfilled by plant scientists?
  • Food security: How do we leverage existing genetic diversity to create climate-resilient crops?
  • Biodiversity: How does species diversity develop in novel ecosystems such as restored agricultural land, forests, grasslands and gardens?
  • Sustainability: Could plant-defense priming be a platform for a new green revolution?
  • Plant-plant interactions: How are interactions between plant species regulated?
  • Plant disease: How should we prepare for novel pathogens of trees, crops and the natural environment?
  • Plant-microbiome interactions: How does the plant microbiome affect stress tolerance?
  • Plant adaption: What is the plasticity of the epigenome of plants?
  • Plant stress responses: How do plants cope with combined stressors?
  • Ecosystem services: What natural materials could be invested in for a more sustainable future of manufacturing or residential development?

Paper: "One hundred important questions facing plant science: an international perspective." LANL contributor: Sanna Sevanto. DOI: 10.1111/nph.18771

Funding: Laboratory Directed Research and Development program at Los Alamos National Laboratory

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