PAGXXV in San Diego: A Study in Cross-Pollination

Published: Jan 16, 2017

PAGXXV in San Diego: A Study in Cross-Pollination January 16, 2017
By Josh Baxt, Breaking News Staff

People ask a lot of plants and animals. They feed and clothe us, provide oxygen, labor, shade. In coming years, we will ask even more as population growth and climate change put additional pressures on agriculture. Scientists will need to find creative ways to feed a hungry world.

That is one of the many plotlines at the annual International Plant & Animal Genome (PAG) conference, which opened in San Diego this weekend. Billed as the largest agricultural genomics meeting in the world with more than 3000 attendees, the conference covers everything from microbiomes to forestry, mango genomes and conservation.

“People are realizing that our population is growing, we basically have no more land to exploit and the climate is changing,” said Briana Gross, assistant professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, who studies how different forces shape plant evolution. “So we have this challenge of finding food plants that meet these yield needs but are not going to completely decimate the landscape.”

PAG helps spark that conversation. Academics hobnob with business people; swine specialists share tips with their poultry counterparts; representatives from 50 different countries discuss unique regional challenges. They share a common language.

“DNA is DNA,” said Jacqueline Farrell, a postdoctoral researcher at Iowa State University who specializes in beans and big data. “New methods that are done in animal research could be done in plant research…Learning how other people do their research is important for me to think of new ways to analyze my data.”

The Center for Aquaculture Technologies (CAT), which has facilities in San Diego and Prince Edward Island, Canada, is one of the many companies exhibiting at PAG. CAT is a biotech focused on aquaculture productivity. They provide genotyping and marker discovery, manage trials for the pharmaceutical and feed industries and research improved genomic techniques.

Aquaculture is a fast-growing industry, but it’s also a young one. “Husbandry has been around for such a short time that we’re growing very close to wild animals,” said John Buchanan, Technologies’ cofounder and CEO. “They’re not fully domesticated.”

PAG offers a great opportunity to hear what others are doing and perhaps bring those practices home. “I like to go to workshops on genomics or gene editing for other species,” said Buchanan. “Poultry is so far ahead of aquaculture, so I love going to their workshops.”

But understanding genotype is only the beginning. Researchers and companies must see how those variations translate into different phenotypes and how gene expression adjusts to environmental conditions. Making those observations can be a challenge.

“It’s always interesting to see how people are collecting that data, whether it’s with drones or whether it’s with machinery that’s rolling over the field, or through remote sensing or cameras,” said Allison Miller, associate professor of Biology at Saint Louis University, who studies the diversity and evolution of perennial plants, such as grapes. Miller and Gross collaborated on a Sunday afternoon workshop: Domestication Genomics.

Attendees are gearing up for a range of hot topics: gene editing, high throughput phenotyping, synthetic biology, climate change and, of course, big data.

“We’re adapting to big data with each advance in technology,” said Miller. “The trend towards integrating data and collaboration among groups is making it possible for us as a scientific community to do things that were completely inconceivable just five years ago.”

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