ate the remarkable complexity of biological processes that we could not have appreciated when studying one gene and one gene product at a time. While that is daunting and scary, it is those same discoveries that have given us a shadowy view of our way through. If we can work our way through, if we succeed and integrate, the knowledge that is discovered can be used to effectively address and solve vexing, urgent, social problems.”
The workshop steering committee asked each participant to arrive prepared to make a three-minute presentation of a “big idea,” an idea out of reach of a single discipline or a single funding agency but something that, if achieved, would advance two or all three of the challenge areas.
Some participants began with straightforward observations. For example, Don Ort noted that crop yields, even in record years, do not reach their theoretical potential. “I’d like to see research to raise record yields toward the theoretical and even to raise the theoretical,” he said. Several speakers took note of how some plants can survive in inhospitable environments, such as semiarid environments, salt water, or places as mundane as a crack in a sidewalk. Understanding how plants grow under highly unfavorable temperature, water, and nutrient conditions could enable development of crop plants that thrive in areas where malnourishment and starvation are acute and contribute to the ability to develop biofuel feedstocks that compete minimally with food crops or impact natural ecosystems. Greg Stephanopoulos also highlighted the importance of algae as feedstocks in the future. Their rapid growth and consequent high productivity make them a potentially unlimited source for biofuel and other purposes, he said, if we can develop the technology to grow and harness them in a viable way.
Expanding on this same theme, Richard Flavell proposed closer coordination between synthetic biologists and plant breeders to create new plant forms with desirable traits, such as drought tolerance, and to move this knowledge from scientific journals to production in the field. Presenters also noted that creation of diverse new plants requires that we first do the science to provide a deep and detailed understanding of a single species—something that sounds deceptively simple, yet is anything but. “We need to understand how one plant works in great detail to be generalizable to others,” said Jeffery Dangl. For this reason, a number of speakers decried the declining federal support for basic research on Arabidopsis as a model plant species as “misguided.”
To Ann Reid, new knowledge about microbes is essential to understand and be able to exploit their roles in improving plant growth and