Meeting Future Demands for Food and Energy
>>>Professor Michael Thomashow
is our speaker today. Although almost�– essentially
all the speakers we bring up here are fantastically
distinguished I have to say Mike is possibly one of the�–
possibly the most distinguished or in a very select group of
faculty on campus. I have a very long list of his
accomplishments that I’m going to read to you because I think
it is fully worthy of our attention for a few minutes.
Dr. Thomashow received his Bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees from
UCLA majoring in microbiology. He conducted post-doctoral
research as a Damon Runyan-Walter Cancer Fund Research Fellow at
the University of Washington. His first faculty position was at
Washington State University followed by moving to MSU where
he’s been since 1986. Prior to coming to MSU, Dr.
Thomashow worked on the plant pathogen Agrobacterium
Tumefacians which causes the formation of crown gall tumors.
He and his colleagues discovered that this bacterium transfers
its DNA to the host plant and uses that transferred DNA to
manipulate the plant for the bacterium’s own use.
These studies demonstrated that this particular bacterium is a
natural genetic engineer of plants.
These studies�– subsequent studies by scientists at
Monsanto and elsewhere converted Agrobacterium into the
primary system for producing GMO crops.
So the primary system for manipulating crops.
However you feel about GMO, I think this is an example of
basic research coming out of the laboratory and affecting all of
our lives. So it’s quite a good example of
that. Upon coming to MSU, Mike
received support from the Agricultural Experiment Station
which is now called AgBioResearch to enabled him to initiate a
completely new line of research — some of which he’ll talk about
today — determining the molecular basis for plant freezing
tolerance. How did plants tolerate low
Temperatures? How do they resist low
temperatures? What biological molecular
pathways in the plant allow it to do that?
This support led to the establishment of
a highly successful research program that produced many
important findings including the discovery of the first freezing
tolerance pathway in plants which is called the CBF
Regulatory Pathway. Dr. Thomashow holds the title of
MSU University Distinguished Professor.
He has served as President of the American Society of Plant
Biologists, and is Director of the MSU Department of Energy
Plant Research Laboratory from 2006 until this fall.
Dr. Thomashow is a recipient of the Steven Hales Prize from the
American Society of Plant Biologists, the Alexander von
Humboldt Foundation Award. He is an elected Fellow
of the American Academy of of Microiology, the American
Society of Plant Biologists, and American Association
for the Advancement of Science.
He is, finally, an elected member of the National Academy of
Science. It is with great pleasure I
introduce Mike to you. I hope his presentation lives
up to my build-up. [ Applause ]
>>Thank you very much, Steve, for that generous introduction
and the opportunity to talk a little bit about the work that
we have been doing. At the end of the talk what I
would like to do is highlight some new efforts that are under
way about establishing a center in the area of plant stress
biology. I realize I have eight minutes,
so here we go. All right.
On the planet now there are about 7 billion people.
In 2050 there will be about 9 billion people.
Yeah. And the question is how are we
going to feed this increasing world population?
There is actually some serious problems here.
Challenges. You can see this here.
This is yield with maize in the black lines here.
These dots show what the increases in yields have been
over the course of the last few years.
And great progress has been made.
This is mainly through traditional plant breeding.
This solid line right here is where that’s continuing to head.
But the problem is that this dotted line is where we need to
get on if we are going to feed 9 billion people.
In rice over here, this is the progress made and this is where
things are headed. We need to do that.
So this is a major challenge. It’s widely acknowledged.
It’s been covered in many different kinds of reports
including this one here from the royal society.
The idea is that we are going to have to have a second green
revolution. That’s going to have a lot of
component parts, but one of those component parts is to increase
the stress tolerance of plants — the abiotic stress tolerance —
that is, tolerance against drought, high temperatures,
flooding — and also biotic stress tolerance against
pathogens and insect pests. So how is this going to be
accomplished? Well, there is going to be a
continued plant breeding efforts.
But that’s not going to be enough.
What we need is additional approaches.
So the idea is that if we understand more about basic
plant processes and in particular here with plant
stresses, if we understand more about that, that that will lead
to new ways of improving plant stress tolerance.
Okay. So this sounds nice, but the
question is this totally fanciful?
Are there examples of this? I would like to give you a case
study with the work we have been doing with freezing tolerance.
Okay. So we all know that plants
differ greatly in their ability to deal with freezing
temperatures, right? Tomato has very little freezing
tolerance. Wheat has a considerable amount
of freezing tolerance. But what’s important to realize
is this is not a constant property of the plants.
What wheat can do that tomato cannot do is sense the dropping
temperatures in the fall and activate mechanisms that lead to
enhancement of freezing tolerance.
That�s called cold acclimation. This is an example of it with
Arabidopsis which is a really powerful model plant to study
basic plant processes. If you grow the plants at warm
temperatures and then you do a freeze-thaw cycle, they die.
If you grow them at warm temperature and put them in cool
temperatures for a while, low but nonfreezing temperatures,
and then do the freeze-thaw, they survive.
So the big question of course is: What’s occurring in response to
this low temperature that leads to this enhancement of freezing
tolerance? So I have my Ph.D. in
microbiology. I got interested in this.
And I wanted to work on it. Fortunately a job came open here
at MSU that�– and with support from the Ag Experiment Station,
we initiated a new line of investigation.
And to make the story short, it turns out we had a number of
hypotheses. We tested those, and that led to the
discovery of this first freezing tolerance pathway in plants.
In fact, it’s still the best understood pathway in plants.
Basically it’s simply this: The plants sense low
temperature. Then it turns on these genes
called the CBF genes. They are like master switch
genes. Those genes, when they are turned
on, they produce these regulatory proteins that turn on
a bunch of other genes. Those act together to lead to
this enhancement of freezing tolerance.
Let me just show you this a little bit more graphically in the next
slide here. So here we are just looking at
the expression of a few genes in the plants and asking
whether or not they are on or off.
And what you see here, that is a normal plant at warm
temperatures. The CBF genes are off and the
targets of the CBF genes, they’re off.
But you can create transgenic plants where you switch those
master regulators on at warm temperature.
And that’s an example. Here in these transgenic plants
— and you can see here you have now this�– all these genes on.
The targets are on at warm temperature.
Okay. So now what happens with
freezing tolerance of those plants?
Well, what you can see is now even at warm temperature these
plants are freezing tolerant. In addition, they are tolerant to
drought stress as well. I don’t have time to go into
that cross-protection. Okay.
So this is with Arabidopsis, a model organism in a lab setting.
Can you take this to the field with a crop species?
I’m just going to quickly describe experiments that were
done at ArborGen. So they were interested in
developing eucalyptus for a bioenergy crop.
The problem is they are from the tropical and they have very
little freezing tolerance. And so you can grow them in this
part of Florida, but you can’t grow them up in the Gulf coast.
Okay, the occasional frost there wipes them out.
So they wanted to put CBF genes in.
MSU held the patents for the CBF genes.
They come to MSU, sign the right papers, and they do the
experiments. What they found was this.
Pretty exciting result. These blocks of trees over here,
the normal trees not expressing the CBF genes.
Here are the live ones that are expressing CBF.
So that’s pretty exciting. Unfortunately it didn’t make it
to a commercial product and the reason is these are GMO plants.
The regulatory hurdles to get that out in the field is really
difficult. In addition environmental groups
are a bit worried about this. Basically the hurdles were too
high. They now grow the plants in
Brazil. But for the purpose today is
that it shows that, indeed, you can go from a hypothesis in the
lab and go to the field and have a crop species that’s improved
in a complex agronomic trait. Okay.
I will just make one other remark.
These are GMO, but I know a number of you are aware there is
a new gene-editing technology called CRISPR technology that
one can potentially do these things and get around being a
GMO plant. Okay.
So, indeed, this is not fanciful. Knowing more about basic plant
biology leads to new ways of improving stress tolerance.
And in that context I would then just like to end on this last
slide. It will just take me a couple
minutes. A number of us are excited about
establishing a center for plant stress research.
I hope you are convinced this is an important area of research.
Really this came out of the ACF initiative.
And now the global impact initiative.
As we know, the idea is, well, okay.
MSU is strong in its research. The challenge to the faculty
was, well, how are we going to take it to the next level?
What kind of things take that to the next level?
One of the areas of strength on campus are the plant sciences,
and within the plant sciences one of the strengths is plant
stress biology research. So the four of us got together
here�– actually more, but we spearheaded this.
Myself, Brad Day, Sheng�Yang He, Gregg Howe.
They are internationally known for their research, highly
regarded. Sheng Yang was elected to the
national academy last year. And what we decided to do was
put forward a proposal that had two components.
One was a cluster hire, right? To bring on additional faculty
that could strengthen areas of research in plant stress biology
and broaden and deepen that. But, in addition, we thought that
to take full advantage of this it would really be a powerful
situation if we could also have a center where we brought the
people from campus and we brought new people from off
campus together to conduct collaborative research to
address really fundamental questions in plant biology in
stress biology. So we envision then the
formation of this plant stress research center.
We don’t yet quite know what the name will be.
We envision it to become an internationally recognized
center of excellence. We have such entities on campus.
For example in the plant sciences, the plant research lab
is internationally known. But we have a strength here.
We should have more of these focal areas, high profile
entities people can point to. In addition to the center, we
envision it to promote excellence in research and
training and also very importantly here is to position
ourselves to be highly competitive and to win future
awards and grants that are going to be directed in this area.
And, finally, to contribute to attracting exceptional faculty.
It’s one thing to come in to a university, into the departments
which is very good. But if you come in and you are
part of a new effort, there is an added draw to that kind of
position. So we would hope this would also
assist in that regard. So we put forward this proposal.
It met with enthusiasm in the V.P.s office, in the College of
Natural Sciences and AgBio Research and also in CNE & R.
I hope it has some support in the president’s office and the
provost’s office.>>We haven’t got any money.
[ Laughter ]>>Where we’re at right now is
we have been approved for the cluster hire.
We are putting the pieces together to fill in the picture
for the center and hopefully within the not too distant
future somebody else will be standing up here and tell you
about the accomplishments that come out of this new center.
Again, thank you very much. [ Applause ]
>>Questions for Mike? The board yesterday, we did sort
of a field trip over and Brad Day was very gracious to take us
around some of the spaces and talk�– see students and
faculty at work.>>Yes.
>>And hearing about your new announcement of getting a couple
of $5 million grants�– oh, by the way, as Christmas presents
>>Questions, comments for Mike?>>Well, they teed us up for you
yesterday. I can see why we are winning
these grants when we tour the facilities and see how first
class they are and then we end up interacting with everyone
over there because we discovered that they are not giving the
grant based upon the presentation they are giving
the grants based upon touching, feeling.
That’s why Michigan State is going to be in business like you
and the rest of the individuals over there we can see are making
a difference. We were thankful to be teed up
yesterday and we continue to be impressed with your
presentation.>>Thank you so much.
>>Questions, comments, anyone?>>I have one question.
Coming off the Paris climate talks and�– well, there was a
lot about climate-smart agriculture which is not really
defined. Obviously when you’re looking at
extreme weather events, drought tolerance, heat, frost, what do
you see coming up? What do you see in climate-smart
agriculture in the next five to ten years?
What kinds of research and practices?
>>All the things I was talking about here today.
We need to improve the stress tolerance of these plants.
Okay? That’s a given.
It’s widely acknowledged. That problem is just even made
more uncertain with climate uncertainty.
So the part that I can speak to is really the science side of
it. I really can’t speak at all to
the policy side in that business.
But it’s absolutely clear that if we are going to meet the
demands of feeding 9 billion people, if we are going to
have food security — high quality food, et
cetera — that we are going to have to do a number of things,
one of which is improve our understanding of these
mechanisms so that we can come up with novel ways of improving
the stress tolerance of plants. Again, I say climate uncertainty
is only going to exacerbate it and make it even more important.
>>Could you — we talked a bit yesterday about GMOs and what it
meant and you commented that the eucalyptus project was moved to
Brazil rather than being in Florida.
Then you mentioned a new technique.
What does that mean in terms of being able to move some of these
ideas from the laboratory into helping people feed the world?
>>Right. Well, so this new technology,
instead of taking�– with Agrobacterium, as Steve was pointing
out, we can take genes and put them into plants.
That’s incredibly powerful. That will remain powerful in an
experimental setting. There are concerns about GMOs.
So the wonderful thing is that this new technology of CRISPR,
you can actually go in, edit the sequence in the genome and
hopefully get the same kinds of outputs, but it’s not
considered�– there is a number of decision-making processes
under way. It looks like in the United
States it will not be considered to be GMO.
It is just mutation within the Genome, which is what plant
breeders use all the time. You select on that.
This will be just more designed, but it will not fall under a GMO
category. It’s not quite clear what’s
going to go on in Europe at this point.
But the point is that we need to develop ways of improving
various traits in plants, and the fortunate thing is that this
kind of technology should be able to be applied.
So it’s very promising in the future.
>>And new kinds of technology to also evolve in the future,
but it still requires the work that you and your colleagues are
doing to understand gene expression, gene mechanism,
everything about it. Doesn’t matter what the
technique is as much as the fundamentals.
>>Right. That part, the GMO part is
bringing it to the field. CRISPR is bringing it to the
field. In terms of the basic knowledge
though, doing the work in the lab is�– those are the things
we can use with this new technology.
>>Okay. It’s terrific to have you be one
of our beacons in building plant science here over a very long
period of time. It’s great that with�– you and
your colleagues in terms of enthusiasm, the passion for this
work that the new center, I think, is going to be
extraordinary moving forward.>>Thank you.
>>Thank you. [ Applause ]