After two and a half years into the COVID-19 pandemic and after many digital attempts to keep scientific communication and discussion going, it was finally possible to meet again in person for the International Conference of our Society (Botanik-Tagung) at the University of Bonn. Originally, the meeting was scheduled for 2021 already, but got rescheduled by one year to ensure an in person meeting. This was highly appreciated by the scientific community and resulted in more than 600 attendees despite the fact that the pandemic is not over yet. It was, however, very positive to see almost everyone at the meeting wearing face masks, and it cannot be overstated that not a single case of confirmed infections was reported during or shortly after the meeting. With only three dropouts caused by infections shortly beforehand, this can be considered a huge success.
Compared to former meetings of our society, the first major change that has been implemented at the Bonn meeting is the German title. This is now Botanik-Tagung to specifically mention and reflect on the subject rather than giving the false impression in the German language of an exclusive male scientists’ meeting.
Plant Sciences for our Sustainable Future
Conference chair, Professor Dr. Andreas Meyer, and his local team organized the meeting from August 28 to September 1, 2022 at the main building of the University of Bonn under the slogan Plant Sciences for a Sustainable Future. This motto expresses the increasing awareness that we have to ensure sustainability of our economic and ecological actions and that plant sciences takes a key role in this effort. It also links directly to one of the central interdisciplinary research activities at the University of Bonn and was picked up by the rector of the University of Bonn, Professor Dr. Dr. hc. Michael Hoch, in his welcome address. Professor Hoch pointed out that there may in fact be multiple views and interpretations on sustainability such that there is a need to address this in plural form as done by the University of Bonn in the Transdisciplinary Research Area Sustainable Futures. There is, however, full agreement that plants are key to sustainability in human nutrition and global ecology.
Plant Research to Combat Climate Crisis and Feed the World
In his welcome address the president of the DBG, Professor Dr. Andreas Weber, pointed at the need for more plant research to combat the global carbon problem, which without any action will last for centuries even if net zero carbon emissions can be achieved within a few decades from now. The impact of plant sciences on the society and the need for further research to bolster up global food supply both in terms of total amounts and quality, were emphasized in a brilliant public talk by Professor Dr. Matin Qaim on Sustainable Global Nutrition and the Role of Plant Breeding. Professor Qaim emphasized that the use of genetically improved organisms should not be taken as synonymous with industrialized agriculture but rather interpreted as having the potential for enabling a more sustainable agriculture. Generally, it is important to focus on plant characters rather than the employed breeding technologies and be open to new technologies if no scientific arguments stand against their implementation.
Plant Science is Coming Home
In his welcome address, Professor Andreas Meyer also emphasized that Bonn in the 19th century has been the work place of many excellent plant scientists at both the University and the predecessor of today’s Agricultural Faculty, then the Agricultural Academy at Poppelsdorf. The list of prominent names includes scientists like Christian Nees von Esenbeck, Wilhelm Pfeffer, Hermann Schacht, Friedrich Körnicke, Robert Caspary, Andreas Schimper, Julius von Sachs, and last but not least of course Eduard Strasburger. Together with the groundbreaking work done by all these scientists, the textbook written by Strasburger, Schimper, Noll and Schenck ̶ which today is released in its 38th edition ̶ and simply known as “the Strasburger” highlights Bonn to be a hotspot for plant sciences in the 19th century and that the claim Plant Science is Coming Home in form of this meeting is thus fully justified. To honor and memorize these eminent names, the eight plenary lectures were named after these scientists. All historic figures were briefly introduced by the respective session chairs before the invited plenary speakers took over. To further commemorate the history of Bonn Plant Sciences and to make conference attendees acquainted with the historic figures, the conference organizers invented a little picture puzzle in which attendees were asked to identify ten leading scientists of the 19th century by name based on their portraits.
Flat leaves and Chloroplasts
In the Strasburger lecture, Marja Timmermans (Tübingen), provided exciting insight into mRNA-based signaling mechanisms that underlie the formation of a flat leaf. Mathematical models describing the process show that the respective gene regulatory network follows the organizing principles of a Turing system. Due to a COVID-19 infection Matthew Johnson (Sheffield, UK) unfortunately could not make it to Bonn, but fortunately he was fit enough to deliver the Schimper lecture online. With Schimper having first recognized chloroplasts as descendants of free living cyanobacteria-like bacteria, Matthew Johnson now provided biochemical and biophysical detail on how the proton motive force in chloroplasts is regulated.
Novel Natural Products and Nitrate Transporters
Anne Osbourne (Norwich, UK) in her Pfeffer lecture highlighted the potential of biological diversity for identification of novel natural products and described translational synthetic biology approaches for preparative production of such compounds. Yi-Fang Tsay (Taipeh, Taiwan) gave the von Sachs lecture and provided in depth insight into nitrate transport, sensing and the optimization of nitrate utilization efficiency. With her characterization of several nitrate transporters she convincingly showed that nitrate in addition to the xylem can also be transported in the phloem.
Biological and Morphological Diversity
Biological diversity was also addressed by Marcus Koch (Heidelberg) in the Nees von Esenbeck lecture. In these studies, however, the morphological diversity was investigated through comparative genomics. Morphological diversity is considered the major product of macroevolution and to quantitatively describe the amount of morphological variation, the term morphological disparity was introduced. With his work Marcus Koch showed that Brassicaceae may pave the way for developing concepts of phylogenetic genome-wide association studies to analyze the evolution and the basis of morphological form and function.
Plants get frequently infected by pathogenic organisms as described already in the 19th century for nematodes by Schacht. In a similar way, plants also get infected by fungi and this goes along with a complex interaction between the fungus, the host plants and also beneficial plant-associated microbes as Bart Thomma (Cologne) highlighted in his Schacht lecture. Detailed molecular and metabolic analysis shows that pathogenic fungi exploit effector proteins with selective antimicrobial properties to promote host colonization through the manipulation of beneficial host microbiota.
Stress Reactions in Developing Cereal Crops
Maria von Korff Schmising (Düsseldorf) is well-known for her work on cereal crops and especially barley for which she was recently elected to the national academy Leopoldina. At this meeting she presented her work on inflorescence development and floral abortion under stress in barley in the Körnicke lecture. Using global transcriptomic profiling of developing shoot apical meristems under abiotic stress in genotypes with different stress responses, genes and gene networks controlling spike development, floret fertility and grain set under stress were identified. The work highlights how natural genetic variation for developmental plasticity in stress responses in germplasm collections can be exploited for new functional insights into how plants work.
Cell Wall Formation
‘Caspary’s strip as a model for localized cell wall formation’ was the title of the Caspary lecture delivered by Niko Geldner (Lausanne, Switzerland). In his lecture, he took the audience on a journey from the early days of the first identification of a new root cell type characterized by ring-shaped cell wall incrustations, which nowadays of course is known as the Casparian strip, to the molecular principles underlying its formation. Major new insights result from entirely deleting highly redundant CASP proteins and identification of potential interactors of CASP. Nico Geldner managed to excite the audience literally to the last minute of this meeting.
Symposia and more than 300 Posters Covered the full Breadth of Plant Sciences
Beyond the eight plenary lectures, the full breadth of plant science was covered in 21 symposia. With the exception of an open session entitled Topics on the Rise all other sessions were set with one invited keynote speaker. In most cases, these keynotes were delivered by international guests for whom funding was provided by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Additional funding was kindly provided by the local excellence cluster PhenoRob and the German Society of Plant Nutrition who both funded one speaker for symposia covering the respective scientific areas.
To further ensure full coverage of plant sciences, all six sections of the DBG organized at least one symposium each focusing on their respective subject areas. In full awareness of the fact that even with 20 distinct symposia it is not possible to cover all parts of plant science, especially with highly dynamic new developments at the forefront of research, the symposium Topics on the Rise offered an opportunity for all those participants, who could not be assigned to any other topic. In total, the fully set program gave about 130 scientists a chance to present their work in oral form. For these presentations, a clear preference was given to early career scientists including PhD students.
Yet, many additional requests for oral presentations had to be declined and allocated to the two poster presentation sessions. At the same time, it is noted that this further improved the quality standards of the poster sessions with altogether more than 300 posters on display. The fire protection rules of the University of Bonn prevented that all posters could be on display for the complete conference, rather they were displayed for only one day within two general poster session. A complimentary digital poster session on several local work stations, however, ensured that all posters could be looked at any time during the whole meeting.
Poster Prizes and Honors
The more than 300 posters made it very challenging to select 10 posters for awards. Here a two-stage selection process with an initial public vote and a second selection round by a committee of advanced postdocs and professors was chosen to ensure a selection process that is quality-based and yet fair in terms of subjects selected for the awards. It is noted that this procedure led to a result in which the respective awardees represent the full breadth of plant sciences.
Science Prizes for Early Career Scientists
Three young scientists, Dr. Rabea Meyberg, Dr. Meike Hüdig and Dr. Kai Bartusch were honored for their groundbreaking original work with science awards handed out by the Pfeffer, Strasburger and Wiehe trusts, respectively. As usual, the DBG also held its general assembly during the conference. During this assembly the DBG announced Professor Dr. Widmar Tanner (Regensburg), Professor Dr. Birgit Piechulla (Rostock) and PD Dr. Klaus Appenroth (Jena) as new honorary members of the society for their individual long-term contributions to science and the DBG. In addition, the two former presidents of the DBG, Professor Dr. Ulf-Ingo Flügge (Cologne) and Professor Dr. Karl-Josef Dietz (Bielefeld), were honored with DBG’s Simon-Schwendener Medal for their long-term support of the interests of the society.
Farewell and Outlook
Before the farewell session Professor Andreas Meyer presented the solutions to name the portrait images of the leading plant scientists in the 19th Century who did their research at the University of Bonn. Altogether 53 attendees participated in the quiz and some of these allegedly spend most of Monday night to find the correct answers. In the end, 13 submitted ballots were completely correct and thus the winners of a bottle of Ahr valley wine and two conference T-shirts had to be drawn.
The first in person meeting into the COVID-19 pandemic can be legitimately considered a huge success. This would not have been possible without support from colleagues in Bonn and Jülich, support from University staff and the many helping hands from student assistants and the nice work of the photographers. Furthermore, the meeting was supported by many colleagues from other Universities, who helped organizing symposia and inviting high profile international guest. Last not least, I am also grateful to the support staff from our conference management partners at Conventus, Jena. Without their support and input it would not have been possible to make this conference a success.
Going back to the original two-year rhythm for our meeting, the next conference has been announced to be organized by Professor Edgar Peiter and his team of co-organizers at the University of Halle-Wittenberg in 2024. By chance, in historic terms, Halle appears to be the logic recipient of the baton as one of the original authors of the Strasburger text book, Dr. Fritz Noll, soon after publishing the text book became professor at the University of Halle. On behalf of the organizers in Bonn and our German Society for Plant Sciences I thank all attendees for their exciting contributions and look forward to meeting you again in Halle.
Bonn, October 2022
Prof. Andreas Meyer, Conference Chair, Professur für Chemical Signalling