Sunday, November 11, 2012

Early-career scientists: new blood, new ideas

I was lucky to be chairing the morning session on Innovations and Novel Approaches during the IRRI Young Scientists Conference on November 8 because it provided a glimpse of what new technologies are being developed or being applied by young scientists for the rice sciences.

Novel ways for observing plant characteristics
One of the challenges of phenotyping (that's technical jargon for describing or measuring observable characteristics of an organism) is that it is a slow process. For example, measuring length, width and/or height of plant parts can be tedious and slow. To save time on phenotyping, Katherine Meacham uses a technology that takes 3-D images of plants and automates the measurements. She uses this technology (among others) because she needs to develop mathematical models about plant responses to environmental conditions within the time she's required to finish her PhD.
New look at proteins involved in water transport in plants
Alexandre Grondin talked about aquaporins, proteins that regulate the flow of water  between cells from plant roots to leaves. The movement of water affects the opening and closing of guard cells, cells in the leaves that open to allow gas exchange to occur: carbon dioxide enters the leaf and oxygen exits the leaf. When carbon dioxide enters, water vapor escapes. Hence, understanding and learning how to control the movement of water through these aquaporins have implications in making the rice plant more resilient in the presence of drought and high-temperature conditions.
Mobile phones as decision-making tools
During the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRISP) Asia Review, one of the questions I had in mind was: how will farmers use the Nutrient Manager smartphone application being developed by IRRI? I got an answer during Maria Eda Apple Suplido's presentation. The app is designed to be used by extension workers or by tech-savvy farmers to get personalized information about fertilizer input at the right place and the right time. The option to get information via phone call to an automated answering system is still available. It takes 15 minutes to get through the questions though. With the current set of questions, the developers of the software observed a lot of unfinished calls and are now trying to reduce the number of questions in an effort to lessen client phone time.
Breeding by MAGIC
Nonoy Bandillo talked a bit more about MAGIC: Multi-parent Advanced Generation Inter-Cross. MAGIC allows breeders to get a lot of favorable traits from eight rice parents into one plant. Genome-wide association mapping (GWAS) is currently being used to locate the chromosomes involved in various characteristics that enhance yield and quality. Someday, the MAGIC rice populations will help overcome the yield plateau. 
Making sense of the rice genome sequence
Jeffrey Detras' presentation is one example of how information technology is used to make sense of the enormous amounts of data being generated by the high-tech genotyping tools now available. The people involved in the OryzaSNP Project decode the rice DNA sequence. In Jeff's presentation, he showed a method that measures how much of the DNA sequence of one rice sample is indica, japonica, or aus. It is interesting to find out, for example, that indica rice varieties could have DNA sequences coming from japonica and aus rice varieties.
Five interesting presentations, all from very different fields. Yet when these are seen together, they form a cohesive picture of what rice science could look like in a few years' time.