Happy birthday, Mister Mendel
In July 2022, several initiatives commemorated the Bicentennial of the birth of Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics. Different scientific journals published opinion articles and special issues dedicated to the 200th anniversary of Mendel’s birth: for instance, Nature Reviews Genetics released a collection of papers that highlighted the importance of the basic principles of inheritance not only for plant genetics but also for human diseases or animal breeding, whereas The Plant Cell produced a focus issue on Plant Genetics that includes three perspectives (such as Which field of research would Gregor Mendel choose in the 21st century?) and six reviews about the influence of Mendel’s work on modern plant biology.
Moreover, the Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant biology (Vienna, Austria) powered a dedicated webpage where curious people can find plenty of information about Mendel’s legacy and a fascinating video (below) about his failed teacher’s examination and later life in the monastery garden, discovering the secrets of heredity in pea plants.
50 years of Artemisinin, the miracle molecule that saved million lives
Another remarkable anniversary has been celebrated last year: Artemisinin, a sesquiterpene lactone that accumulates in the trichomes of the aromatic plant Artemisia annua, was chemically identified in 1972 and since then it has successfully been employed to treat malaria, saving millions of lives worldwide (according to the World Health Organization report 2020).
The magic of this story relies on the approach that a young Chinese researcher named Youyou Tu undertook in the 1960s to discover new molecules able to kill the parasite Plasmodium – the protozoan spread by mosquito bites that causes the infectious disease in humans. She combined traditional Chinese medicine with modern practices: she first performed a preliminary literature search using ancient textbooks, then she selected promising natural products used in the past to cure malaria (and extraction methods described centuries before), and finally screened different plant extracts to identify the most effective antimalarial compound.
Prof Youyou Tu was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015 for her exceptional contribution to human health, and gave an epic lecture about the importance of traditional Chinese medicine for the present and future of the humanity.
A comment published by Molecular Plant gives a great summary of 50 years of research on Artemisinin, from the dissection of its biosynthetic pathway to the genetic diversity among Artemisia annua cultivars, while Molecules released a special issue that encompasses research on bioactive natural compounds that can be employed to treat neglected and infectious diseases with great impact on global public health.
Unfortunately, some Plasmodium strains resistant to Artemisinin have already been detected in Africa and Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, recent biomedical investigations uncovered potential roles for this molecule in the treatment of different diseases, including cancer (see suggested reading).
The renaissance of in-person congresses
After two years of pandemics and an endless series of webinars, online conferences, Zoom meetings and Teams gatherings … 2022 marked the return of in-person scientific meetings.
Among the biggest events, more than 1000 researchers participated in the 32nd International Conference on Arabidopsis Research (ICAR2022) – held in Belfast at the end of June 2022 – to discuss the importance of Arabidopsis as model organism for adaptive evolution studies in plants or to share new methods for the integration of OMICS data into networks. A month later, at the end of July 2022, another important event took place in Alaska: the BOTANY 2022 conference. The tagline “Plants at the Extreme!” guided most of the works presented in symposia, colloquia and workshops – which covered plant research and the impact of climate change from genes to ecosystems. Beside plants, the Botany22 conference has shone for brilliant initiatives to promote equity and inclusivity such as sessions dedicated to the “Black Botanical Legacy” and “Coloniality in plant science” as well as childcare for those researchers attending the conference with their families.
Breakthrough papers: from sustainable agriculture to loss of genetic diversity
It’s difficult to choose among thousands of outstanding research articles published in 2022, but maybe it’s worth reporting results of two papers that gave new insights, exciting and frightening respectively, on the current improvement of sustainable agriculture and the decline of genetic diversity related to climate change and habitat loss.
On the one hand, a promising approach to make agriculture more sustainable relies on the PERENNIALIZATION of important grain crops that provide staple food for the humanity. A clear example was published in Nature Sustainability in April 2022: Zhang and colleagues reported results of 20 years of research in the perennialization of rice, an annual plant that was domesticated millennia ago from perennial wild species. The process involved the hybridization of cultivated Asian rice (Oryza sativa) with perennial undomesticated African rice (Oryza longistaminata), and successive rounds of selection of the best performing progeny – characterized by high grain yield, good grain quality and strong regrowth capacity. Perennial Rice can produce seeds twice a year during 10 growing seasons and show clear advantages over Annual Rice – such as an easier crop management system, improved key soil properties and reduced input requirements. Nevertheless, the authors identified few other drawbacks, including a decline in grain yields after a couple of years.
On the other hand, an alarming article published in Science in September 2022 showed that genetic diversity is declining rapidly in the Anthropocene epoch. The team of researchers led by Dr Moises Exposito-Alonso investigated the impact of changing climate and destruction of natural habitat on biodiversity by analysing the genome-wide genetic variation of several animal and plant species – including the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana, the wild species Mimulus guttatus (seep monkeyflower), and the tree species Populus trichocarpa (California poplar).
Results of this study on the mutations-area relationship can be represented as a snake biting its own tail: the reduction in a species geographic range causes a reduction in the species genetic diversity, but a decrease in mutations in ecologically relevant traits could lead to a loss of adaptive capacity to a changing environment, thus increasing the risk of species extinction. The authors also developed a mathematical framework to estimate the loss of genetic variation across ecosystems jeopardized by anthropogenic activities, that can be used for conservation of both vulnerable and critically endangered species.
“Another year over and a new one just begun … Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear”
Gregor Mendel & plant genetics
- Mendel for the modern era | Nature Genetics
- Gregor Mendel: The father of genetics who opened a biological world full of wonders: Molecular Plant (cell.com)
- Which field of research would Gregor Mendel choose in the 21st century? | The Plant Cell | Oxford Academic (oup.com)
Youyou Tu & Artemisinin
- World malaria report 2020 (who.int)
- Tu Youyou – Nobel Lecture – NobelPrize.org: Discovery of Artemisinin – A Gift from Traditional Chinese Medicine to the World
- 50th anniversary of artemisinin: From the discovery to allele-aware genome assembly of Artemisia annua: Molecular Plant (cell.com)
- Discovery and repurposing of artemisinin (nih.gov)
Generation and evaluation of Perennial rice:
Estimation of variation of genetic resources in a climate change scenario: