Plant Genomes & Biotechnology Meeting

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. 

Visitor of the Week: Lei Lei

Photo provided by Lei Lei

Photo provided by Lei Lei

Meet Lei Lei, an associate editor at Nature Plants since September 2016. On campus for the 2017 Plant Genomes & Biotechnology: From Genes to Networks meeting, Lei and other fellow meeting-goers celebrate the great progress the plant science field has made over the last two decades while they also discuss upcoming and exciting advances in plant genomes and biotechnology. Lei obtained her Ph.D. degree in Plant Biology from the Pennsylvania State University. Her previous research covers the regulatory mechanisms of cellulose biosynthesis, microtubule organization and embryo development in plants. As a member of the editorial team of Nature Plants, Lei handles manuscripts regarding plant metabolism, physiology, cell biology and ecology. She is based in the New York office of Springer Nature.

What areas of plant research is your journal most interested in?
Nature Plants covers the full range of disciplines concerned with plants. More details about the aims and scope can be found here.

What is your key takeaway from the Meeting?
There is already so much fantastic progress achieved in crop breeding and metabolic engineering, while more incredibly novel approaches and applications are oncoming.

How many CSHL meetings and/or courses have you attended? Will you be attending any other near future CSHL courses and/or meetings?
This is my first one. I will be looking forward to any future CSHL meetings related to plant sciences.

Was there something specific about this meeting that drew you to attend?
I am particularly interested in some topics covered in the meeting like Metabolism, Biotechnology, Biodiversity. I also received a kind invitation from Ullas Pedmale a few months ago that helped me make up my mind.

If someone (for example, another editor) is curious in attending this meeting were to ask you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I would strongly recommend it. CSHL is so close to our office and we have plenty of travel options. Prior to the event, the digital meeting package (including maps, parking permit, train info, shuttle schedule, and registration details etc.) is super helpful to schedule my travel plan. The meeting itself is perfectly sized and very well-organized. No need to emphasize more on the fascinating science talks and discussions in the meeting, I would say that CSHL is like a science camp that anyone who has deep love in science (not only plant science) should come and see.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL? 
The campus is scenic and historical. Living and dining on the beautiful campus made it an excellent time to make new friends :)

Thank you to Lei for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.