A Word From: David Jackson, Todd Mockler & Jane Parker

L to R: Ken Zaret, Fiona Watt, Marius Wernig; Photo by Constance Brukin

In late 2017, we hosted the eleventh biennial CSHL meeting on Plant Genomes & Biotechnology: From Genes to Networks. The meeting debuted in 1997, and there have been monumental advances in the field during the intervening two decades. We met with meeting organizers David Jackson, Todd Mockler, and Jane Parker for a quick chat to hear their thoughts on the field’s evolution.

Jane: One obvious advance to me, and it struck me at this meeting particularly when compared to the one two years ago, is this merging of computation and high-end sequencing. It’s transforming biology and bringing together different disciplines that center around it.
Todd: I would echo the point that sequencing has changed all of biology. I don’t think there’s a single talk at this meeting that hasn’t been impacted by cheap, fast, genome sequencing. The 1997 meeting was when the Arabidopsis genome was the first plant genome to be sequenced.
David: It wasn’t even finished.
Todd: And now just about every plant that’s been discussed here has a sequenced genome. That’s been revolutionary. It’s changed everything. 
David: I will add CRISPR. It’s a more recent advance, but it allows us to use all of this genome sequencing data to go in and modify plant genomes and find out what they’re doing. We had a session dedicated to CRISPR this year and we heard CRISPR talks in several other sessions.

Having had attended the 1997 Plant Genomes meeting, David took us on a quick trip down Memory Lane before the organizers collectively listed what’s changed – and stayed the same – about the meeting. 

David: During the first meeting in 1997, I remember driving into Huntington in the back of someone’s pickup truck and it was absolutely freezing. It’s a lot warmer this year, the climate has gotten warmer. And the food’s a lot better. There’s also less focus on Arabidopsis, although it’s still incredibly important as a model. With the new tools, we’ve seen really impressive talks using other plants that five years ago wouldn’t have been possible.
Jane: I would endorse that. Less focus, perhaps, on individual components but a broader focus on trends and processes that are enabled by new tools and technologies.
Todd: My perspective is shorter because I’ve only come for the last four meetings. I think the caliber of science is the same but the topics have changed, because there’s this march of technology. There’s a lot more research that has computational aspects, bioengineering, ‘omics, and all kinds of  genomic analysis. It’s just the nature of where science is going. In my memory, we had more engineering and modeling this year – almost purely computational things – and that’s really interesting. Those are some of the coolest presentations that I’ve seen.
Jane: And presented in such a way that people who are not in computation can understand. The communication is what I found really impressive this time.

Technology was a clear theme throughout the conversation, so we asked their thoughts about it:

Todd: It’s a net good but – even as I made the comment about fast, cheap sequencing being revolutionary – you can’t answer every question with sequencing, right? There’s still a place for biochemistry and other basic biological techniques. 
David: They go hand in hand. The more you can do in science, the more need you have to develop the technology, and that invents more science. I’ve had this concern that as science moves more quickly, as CRISPR did, people may become less interactive because it’s much easier to get scooped. I work in maize and at the Maize Meeting we talk about genetic projects that may take 2 or 3 years to get to a certain point, so you don’t feel bad talking about it before publication. But with CRISPR, I can go to my lab now and design a construct in about a month. But I haven’t seen that occur much; people are still interactive so this isn’t yet an issue. 

An intimate meeting, the organizers commented on how Cold Spring Harbor plays a major role in the overall atmosphere at Plant Genomes & Biotechnology.

Jane: I think a lot of people come here because they appreciate the breadth of topics. I certainly do.
Todd: I think the breadth and the small size.
Jane: And the informality that goes with the small size. The students and postdocs don’t feel too intimidated and so there’s lots of discussion.
Todd: During the breaks, there’s always lots of conversation.
David: It’s quite a diverse meeting. I was commenting to one of my non-plant colleagues that it’s very diverse and they said, “But it’s all on plants!” And I said, “Well, you don’t have a meeting called ‘Animals’, you have a meeting on one pathway in animals!” 

Our discussion concluded on their attendee wish list; specifically, who they would like to see more of at the next meeting. 

Jane: As many postdocs and students as we can get in, really getting labs to support them coming. 
David: It’s always great to get lots of young people. I think this meeting is especially great for graduate students who are close to finishing. They can present their work and also look for a postdoc position, because they can meet lots of different people in different areas.
Todd: A type of attendee that I’d like to see more of is program officers from funding agencies. This year, we had someone from the Gates Foundation and in the past we’ve had people from NSF attend. 
David: Yeah, they hear about the science which helps them in future rounds of funding. It’s also great for faculty - especially junior faculty - to interact with program officers because it helps their grant proposals. 

The Plant Genomes & Biotechnology: From Genes to Networks meeting returns to the Laboratory in 2019. Also, every summer, we offer the Frontiers and Techniques in Plant Science course.

For more conversation with other meeting organizers, check out the rest of our A Word From series.