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For Carrington, the future of plant science is digital and data-based

James Carrington 300 PIXELS only
Provided by the Danforth Center | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2013: As president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, James Carrington played a big role in making the independent research institution an integral part of St. Louis’ plant science community.

But Carrington isn’t dwelling on recent accomplishments. Instead, he’s looking to the future of a field that he says is becoming more digital and data-centric.

The shifting manner in which research is conducted, he says, means that commercial and institutional leaders will need more computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers. It will also force universities to expand the intellectual template of future scientists beyond looking at how plants grow and adapt to environments.

Closer to home, the Danforth Center is embarking on a substantial expansion. It's a growth spurt that will allow for more scientists and more technological advances at the Creve Coeur-based institution. And it's another example of how St. Louis' plant science infrastructure is on the upswing.

The Beacon sat down with Carrington to discuss the future of plant sciences research, its recent rollout of new technologies and whether the Danforth Center's trajectory has been replicated in other parts of the country. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Beacon: Where do you see plant science research going into the future? And not just in St. Louis, but throughout the field?

Carrington: There are a lot of ways to answer that. It’s very important to understand that plant science is digital. What that means is everybody who is doing plant science is actually a digital scientist.

We’re sequencing thousands and thousands of genomes as a matter of routine. [That allows us to] do things like improve crops through breeding. Or to discover how one crop uses water more efficiently than another. It’s all digital.

What we want to know is what those genes do and what makes one plant a better performer, in an agricultural sense or even in a natural sense as to what makes a plant a good competitor. We want to know which of the genes control those different traits. That gets into another huge digital field called phenotyping.

The Danforth Center is in expansion mode and appears to be on a very solid financial footing. Are other comparable institutions across the country experiencing a similar situation? Are they seeing an expansion or are they having difficulties?

Carrington: We actually have relatively few independent plant research centers in the U.S. There’s just a small handful – the Danforth Center being the largest of that handful.

It’s very expensive to have a research institution. Initial hurdles or barriers to entry for a new institution are quite high. That’s not to say that more won’t come into being in the future. But there are big capital barriers to entry.

We have had the very good fortune at the Danforth Center of having very strong financial support from the St. Louis community. And it started with vision from Dr. (William) Danforth and his colleagues almost 20 years ago. That is an absolute prerequisite for a Danforth Center to operate and move into the future.

What the donors enable is for us to make investments in things like the phenotyping facility. Without the phenotyping facility and technology facilities and a good building to do work in, we can’t recruit the scientists to do the work. Without the scientists, we will do no science. And the science is what we hope to use to make an impact in the world.

You need a very committed set of donors to make that happen.... Plant science is not right there at the top of what most big dollar donors are thinking of when they want to express their philanthropy.

There are some philanthropists who have been very important to us like Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as Warren Buffet and his son Howard Buffet.

What is phenotyping? And how will it impact the future of plant science research?

Carrington: Phenotyping is understanding everything we can measure about a plant’s growth, development, performance and interaction with the environment. And the way we do that these days and for the foreseeable future will be through taking images of plants ... to create an image map.

But you don’t want to just take one image. You want many images, because you want to do things like three-dimensional reconstruction. And you want to do that every day over the course of one or two months. So the result of that is you have a massive amount of digital image data.

We need computer scientists. We need computational biologists – people who do their work exclusively on the computer. We need statisticians and mathematicians.

(We) need physicists and engineers – because we need to invent equipment to do all of these things that we’re talking about.

What we’re able to do now is use digital information to fast-forward or to speed up the process of doing good things with plants.

When we talk about doing good things with plants, we’re talking about making more abundant, nutritious food or we’re talking about doing agriculture with plants that requires less fertilizer and less irrigation water. We can accelerate, for example, the conventional breeding of plants to just a fraction of the time it used to take back in the old days before all of this digital information.

You mentioned that these technological advancements require statisticians, engineers and computer programmers. It would seem like a reasonable assumption that there's a shortage of people that go into those fields. Is that true? And what needs to be done to reverse that?

Carrington: You’re absolutely right. When we go out and hire or search for a computational scientist, (we're competing with) Boeing, Washington University, Enterprise Rent-a-Car – all of our high-tech partners and neighbors in St. Louis. Everybody wants these people because everybody is going digital.

That’s a challenge for us and it underscores that we have to have a reason for people to come. We think we have a pretty good mission with a good story to tell to recruit people. But it also puts the onus back on us and other plant science institutions – universities in particular – to train a different type of scientist.

You can no longer just focus a biology student on biology. What we need to do with our students is to provide them training so they’re as comfortable with mathematics and statistics and computer programming as they are with biology.

And we need to train our students to better work with engineers and physicists and even social scientists. We’ve done a relatively poor job in the U.S. … of teaching people how to be effective collaborators and to effectively work with people from disparate fields.

Do you think universities that have programs training plant scientists are getting this message?

Carrington: They’re clearly hearing the message. And some are changing their programs to actually train competitive students. They’re not all changing. And the ones that are changing – some of them are not changing fast enough. But I think everyone is hearing the message and at least some are acting on it.

Do you have any examples?

Carrington: One here in town is Washington University. Their plant biology graduate program is actually changing quite dramatically to accommodate a lot of these things that we’ve been talking about.

When you look at where Ph.D. students go after they graduate from a place like Washington University, only one out of six ends up working in an academic environment. Five out of six go to industries, companies or institutions like the Danforth Center. The plant scientists go to seed companies. They go to environmental engineering firms. They go to legal firms. They go to food science companies. They go to consumer product companies.

One big challenge many people mention is feeding a world with a dramatically increasing population and expanding middle class. How do you accomplish that?

Carrington: We’re growing our global agricultural productivity at something less than 1 percent a year. But to meet the expected demand, we’re going to have to grow that at something over 1 percent a year. And we’re going to have to do that for another 40 years. Now combined with conservation, with improving the infrastructure around the world and improving food storage technology, increasing productivity is going to be very important.

If we keep on our current trajectory, we’re not going to get there. We need innovation and we need science to come into play – more now than ever. We’ve got to be doing it at the same time that water resources are more limited – particularly groundwater sources that are not being replenished fast enough. Surface water resources are being overused around the world. Yet agriculture requires fresh water. So we’re going to have to figure out how to breed plants that simply use less water.

We’re going to have to breed plants that use less fertilizer. Overuse of fertilizer has some environmental issues, especially if the unused fertilizer gets into the fresh water systems. It’s also expensive to produce fertilizer. It’s energy intensive. And some fertilizers come from non-renewable sources like phosphorous.

So we’re simply going to have to do a better job of getting more productivity with less environmentally costly and energy-expensive inputs.

What will St. Louis’ role in the plant science community be in five, 10 or 15 years?

Carrington: Well, I think from the series, you paint a pretty accurate picture that we are a hub – but we’re not the only hub.

St. Louis is recognized around the world as one of the major hubs now. … All the way down the value chain starting with a seed and then all the way through agriculture, agricultural product processing, distribution and food manufacturing. St. Louis is already a major player in all of those things in a big way.

If you look at some of the other hubs like Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, they are very much a hub for seed companies and other technologies. And they’re a very formidable hub But it’s a little less integrated than St. Louis. And it’s less of an innovation culture.

We need to attract more investment capital. We need to have more homegrown sources of capital. ... That’s where we really need to focus a lot of attention, not only at the start-up phase of the innovation pipeline, but in the innovation growth phase where we can not only see companies grow that start here – but we can keep them here.

I think St. Louis is a very important player – one of a handful in the agricultural space.

It's definitely in an upward trajectory. It would really be a shame if there aren't a lot of information-based companies that come out of the ecosystem that are major players in the ag innovation space. ... We have a unique opportunity here to see different pieces of the innovation culture come together and do some really good things.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.