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UWC and Missouri host Plant Science Symposium

UWC & Missouri Plant Science Symposium: Can plant research mitigate the effect of climate change on food security?

It is widely agreed that climate change poses a very real threat to food security. In response, scientists across the globe have been looking at all manner of science-based solutions, as was the case at the first University of the Western Cape - Missouri UniversityPlantScience Symposium, hosted at UWC from 15 to 17 June 2015. The symposium’s more than 30 presentations were a celebration of cutting-edge plant research.

Themed Sustainable Food Security and Environmental Ecosystems for World Prosperity, the symposium focused on the abiotic and biotic stresses (caused by non-living and living factors, respectively) that plants are being subjected to, and how they affect food security and environmental sustainability.

The event featured researchers from around South Africa and the US, and was organised with support from the Department of Science & Technology - National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS), and co-hosted by UWC and the University of Pretoria. Offering glimpses into their work were scientists from UWC, Missouri’s Interdisciplinary Plant Group (IPG) and UP, joined by colleagues from CoE-FS collaborating institutions such as Stellenbosch University (SU) and the University of Cape Town.

In particular, the presentations looked at how plants respond to a range of abiotic and biotic stresses –such as drought (a particular concern as water scarcity becomes a global issue), heat, salinity (salt levels) and bacteria. To this end, scientists have been honing in on a selection of genes, proteins, and biochemical, physiological and molecular processes.

Boasting an enviable track record in fundamental plant science – specifically around major Missouri crops like maize and soybean – the US university is keen to identify areas where they can apply that fundamental knowledge on a broader canvas.

Professor Robert Sharp, director of MU’s IPG, says collaborations such as the one with UWC allow scientists to, on an international scale, draw greater attention to issues of food security and water scarcity. “This is an opportunity to link up with colleagues in other countries, and to put our minds together and make more rapid progress in this regard.”

Presenting the science against the backdrop of food security is also in keeping with the interests of symposium co-sponsor, the CoE-FS – a virtual centre that aims to undertake research, build capacity, and kick-start activities that would promote a sustainable food system.

”It was a chance to bring together people in these highly specialised fields in one place to talk about what is a very important topic,” says Professor Julian May, co-director of the CoE-FS. “International partnerships are important to what we’re trying to do in the Centre of Excellence; they allow us to accessresources that are not necessarily available to South Africans.”

UWC and MU have a relationship that dates back nearly 30 years, officially to 1986. However, the collaboration around plant science rings in a host of fresh new prospects for joint research ventures, networking, and exchange opportunities for scholars and graduate students from both universities, saysProfessor Ndiko Ludidi, group leader of the Plant Biotechnology Research Group at UWC. More importantly, it allows the universities – whose work in the field overlap and complement each other – to jointly address a major global concern.

“So, if we bring those commonalities together and, of course, our different kinds of expertise and different approaches, we can really advance plant science research to new levels. This kind of international collaboration can have a substantial benefit on the type of impact we can make in science – and in society in general.”