September 21, 2015

Why Study Plants?

By Liz Haswell

Early in my career I attended a Gordon Research Conference that traditionally involved research using bacterial, plant, and animal model systems. The meeting had recently been suffering from low attendance. During a formal discussion about the future of the meeting, I was shocked to witness a distinguished colleague ask, “What have we EVER learned from plants?”*

At the time I chalked this horribly ignorant question up to the personality of that particularly tone-deaf scientist of a certain generation. I now realize that many people, including the public, funding officers, and other scientists, are not familiar with the long list of answers to this question. So here are many of the reasons we study plants. I’d love to hear your thoughts and anything I missed in the comments. Why many fail to see the importance of plant biology is a topic for another blog post.

The Obvious

Almost everything we eat is derived from plants, either directly or indirectly (possible exception). Obviously, we must better understand how plants operate, in order to grow the best and most nutritious crops in less-than-ideal soils, and to reduce our dependence on inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. As the population of the world is expanding while the climate continues to change, agricultural science could help save millions of lives. P.S. It already did during the Green Revolution.

But That's Not All

“I think plant scientists mutually agree that our ultimate goal is to develop ways to change crops to improve their yield and nutrition in a sustainable way.”

According to Plant Biology Luminary Dr. Rick Vierstra, “plant scientists mutually agree that our ultimate goal is to develop ways to change crops to improve their yield and nutrition in a sustainable way.” (link).** As a plant biologist who would have a lot of trouble motivating my work in this way, I would modify this statement to describe crop improvement as "ONE of our ultimate goals." Because, as important as feeding the planet is, there are many other reasons to motivate plant research. In fact, I think we do our field a great disservice to limit our goals to agricultural advancement. A few of the less-obvious reasons to do plant research are listed below.

Plant-Based Products Make Life Nice

Plants provide the starting materials for clothing, paper, furniture, and fuel (including coffee and wine). You like wearing jeans while sitting at a table writing in your journal and drinking coffee at a cafe you just drove to? Then you like plants and plant research.

Plant Research IS Biomedical Research

1. According to the World Health Organization, malnutrition is estimated to cause 3 million child deaths annualy, or 45% of all child deaths in 2011. Furthermore, undernutrition magnifies the effect of every disease, including measles and malaria (see Black et al., 2013), and likely takes a toll on productivity, mental health and decision-making. The barriers to solving this problem are policital and economic as well as scientific, but there is no denying the fact that research into plants has the potential to address these huge medical problems.

2. Where do new medicines come from? Despite what you might think, few if any important medications were invented by or extracted from mice. Instead, many come from plants. An interesting commentary on this underappreciated aspect of plant biology can be found here.

3. Plants serve as excellent model systems for the study of human disease. Many critical first discoveries with direct relevance for biomedicine were made in plant systems. Some basics like cells, nuclei, and genes were first identified by plant researchers, as were important phenomena like innate immunity and RNA interference. For an extensive list of ways in which research in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana has contributed to discoveries in human health, see Jones et al., 2008.

Plants Solve Universal Biological Problems in Unique Ways

The differences between plants and animal systems can be as important as their similarities. It is highly valuable to have multiple examples of the ways in which different organisms solve fundamental biological problems. These can be used for comparison, for evolutionary understanding, AND for application to other systems. One of my favorite examples of the latter point is the exploitation of the phytochrome-PIF interaction to engineer photoreversibility to optogenetics (Levskaya, A., et al, 2009). Simply put, the value of a model system can not be reduced to the ways in which it resembles humans.

Scientific Investigation is Part of the Human Endeavor

Finally, an educated populace that asks (and answers) fundamental questions about the workings of the universe through science and art is the mark of a civilized society. Take that, NSF Broader Impacts!*** In my view, expanding our knowledge of the world is not a luxury but an imperative, a requirement of the human condition. The beauty and complexity of plant systems is not always obvious to the average human; and it is our job as plant biologists to communicate what we are discovering to the rest of the world.

In Conclusion

"I hope we can agree that knowledge empowers each and every one of us in a myriad of ways."

I couldn't say it any better than Dr. Joe Chappell:

“We cannot know how useful any knowledge will be to the next person, but I hope we can agree that knowledge empowers each and every one of us in a myriad of ways. And some of this empowerment will translate into practical utility for society in today’s world, some will have future benefit, and some will rest in the book of mankind to stimulate, support and encourage an unassuming mind in some future scientific pursuit.” 
--Joe Chappell, U. Kentucky, from an online discussion of the NSF Plant Science Research Summit


*Emphasis his. It was a rhetorical question. Also, the meeting folded. **Read the rest of the interview to see how R.V. decided what to work on as a new professor!
 ***I blush to admit that I did write this in a Broader Impacts section, but only once.


I owe my wellness to plants! They are literally the healing source to us as humans as they derive the nutrients and minerals from the soil to deliver as a source of energy and healing to us.
I recently got sick with the flu and thanks to chinese herbal medicine (where it's dried plants and herbs) it's been helping me get better.
This knowledge of herbs that has been passed on from generation to generation has been proven to help billions. Which is the study of plants over thousands of years!
My skincare is organic moisturizer, makeup, everything comes from plants!
From a simpleton, I just wish that all of us is able to have access to our own garden where we may start to study our own plants and have it grow beautifully :)
You studying plants, is going to make our life better some how Liz!
- Olivia

You cite yeast (or fungi in general) as a possible exception to the generalization that all organisms or human food sources rely on photosynthesis. I know that many fungi get their nutrients and carbon from organic matter living or dead plants and animals. All that "organic" carbon must have once been part of an organism, which would have consumed photosynthetic products at some point. Specifically, yeast for Vegemite is grown on brewing sugars that were originally created via photosynthesis by plants. That sort of metabolism would support your argument that all life depends on photosynthesis.

Would the photolithoautotrophs and chemolithoautotrophs in this table qualify as the only exceptions since they get both their energy and carbon from inorganic sources? It seems all the other parts of this table involves either carbon or energy coming from an organic compound, which was likely produced by a plant or by something that eats plants.

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