Tuesday at BIO

Although half of my day was spent traveling to the BIO convention There was still plenty for me to see starting at lunchtime. During Tuesday’s lunch, they gave awards to high school students for biotech-related research, and the Governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue gave a speech positioning Georgia as a future center for biotech research.

It was his state of Georgia, however where those infamous stickers disparaging evolution could be found – Cobb County to be precise. In 2004, his statement for a “balanced” approach to teaching evolution – where it is not taught as “fact.” Apparently he wants the benefits of a thriving biotechnology industry in his state without supporting the bedrock of modern biology in his state’s high school science classrooms. It seems that Florida is not the only state where the living is contradictory!

The star of the lunchtime diversion from our food, however, was Elton John. With music awards too numerous to list, and a prominent role in the fight against HIV and AIDS, he delivered an impassioned speech in which he said that we are losing. Not only have we not been able to completely stop the spread of the disease on a biological level, but the primary ground that we are losing on is the social level. Although his speech was not about plants, it was excellent and I would like to share a portion of it:

I recorded the last ten minutes of his speech, which I will post later on my blog. Elton John’s speech was emphatic, moving, and a real treat to witness.

The first panel discussion that I attended was called Saving Harvests, Lives & Livelihoods: Breakthroughs in Plant Stress Tolerance Technologies. This was certainly the most science-heavy talk that I went to during the convention. Luckily, I had just completed my plant physiology course one week ago, so when the speakers talked about sodium transport proteins and Abscisic Acid sensitivity and how manipulating them may help modify plants to endure environmental stresses, it was very digestible. The research content of the panel was partly due to the fact that two of the four panelists were university professors.

They talked about drought tolerance, salt tolerance, adaptations to a world with more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which was all good. But more than just describing possibilities, one panelist had pictures of corn and tomatoes modified with the same gene, demonstrating drought tolerance with adding a single gene. (I’ll see if I can get those pictures.) The most surprising thing I learned was that it is estimated that we get less than a quarter of the full genetic potential of the crop that we grow – and with 70% of the losses due to abiotic stress, you can easily see the potential to increase crop yields by preventing those losses. Losses which might get worse as our climate continues to change.

I wrote the whole thing up, which you can read on the AgBiotech@Bio blog: Saving Plants from Stress.

Then finally, I hurried out to sit in the audience of a “Think & Drink.” Although I didn’t get a drink myself, there was a pretty good crowd of people listening in on a conversation between several members of academia and industry, relaxing with various forms of ethanol delivery mechanisms. The discussion was titled, Industry Is from Mars, Academia Is from Venus, and it was moderated by the Editor of Nature Biotechnology, Andrew Marshall. When I got there they seemed to be wrapping up a discussion about how the two kinds of researchers differ in their approaches and interactions. The rest of the discussion mainly focused on the hairy issues of public-private partnerships, and there were some good points made about conflicts of interest. (And a brief discussion about patents)

I particularly liked some of the comments made by Christopher Scott, from the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. He drew some important distinctions between the kinds of conflicts of interest that arise in public-private partnerships in basic research, versus clinical trials. The latter, of course, is extremely problematic because it involves testing things on people. While also discussing the degree to which researchers can get vested in these arrangements, he also joked about how many deals stem cell researcher Irving Weissman has coming his direction all the time.

When it came to the discussion about these partnerships, I noticed that none of the panelists were particularly critical of the concept itself – I think the discussion would have been improved if there was someone who was a little more wary of such interactions. (Part of why I thought Chris’s contributions to the discussion were so valuable.) Not that I’m particularly wary of such interactions myself, but discussions are better if the viewpoints are a little more widely distributed.

After the panel discussion, I also had a good conversation with Chris about stem cell research, a little politics, and the need to continue to study embryonic stem cells. We discussed the methods that some researchers are using to try to generate ES cells from adult cells, which often comes up in political discussions as an ‘alternative’ to ES cell research – ignoring the fact that in order to know if you have reverted an adult cell to an embryonic state, you need to be studying ES cells in the first place!

I snagged Andrew Marshall for a moment to say hi and tell him about Biofortified. Hey, how often do you get to meet the editor of a scientific journal? (Ok twice so far, that I have been aware of – they’re nondescript.) Although I was tired from getting up at 4 am that morning for my flight, I did my best to cogently explain what I hope to accomplish with the blog. Wouldn’t it be great to have us profiled in a journal article? It is not a new thing for science blogs. Let that be a prod to my fellow bloggers. :)

Tuesday was a fairly light day, and as I wound down the evening I didn’t realize how busy I was going to be on Wednesday… to be continued.

Full Disclosure: My trip to the BIO convention is courtesy of the Council for Biotechnology Information. I am also not getting paid for anything I write about the convention.

P.S. If you see any pictures from the BIO convention with someone wearing a bright orange pumpkin-print shirt, let me know because I know I was in the line-of-sight of some snapping cameras Tuesday!

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a public research geneticist in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.

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