by Peter Mills, BSPP President 2006
Twenty five years for BSPP is an achievement to be proud of. Following a somewhat awkward and stressful birth (see page ) the Society has grown to become one of the strongest plant pathology societies in the world representing and supporting pathologists from more than 50 countries. But what have we achieved and what has changed since those exciting early days in 1981?
From a research perspective, the early 1980s were an exciting time with PCs appearing on our desks for the first time (how did we manage before that? – ‘out of office’ was a note sellotaped to your door!), recombinant DNA technologies were being used effectively (we all became expert bacteriologists and learned how to handle plasmids) and perhaps arguably the most important leap forward was the development of PCR (never had we had so much DNA to play with). As with many disciplines in biology, the impact of all of these technologies on plant pathology research has been outstanding. Sensitive pathogen detection and discrimination, the molecular basis of host/pathogen interactions, mapping and characterisation of resistance genes, ecology, population biology and forecasting have all developed from ‘jam tomorrow’ to reality. We’ve all been a part of these developments and similar ones in one way or another. It would be foolish of me to attempt to name those who have taken forward our discipline over the last 25 years but the speakers on the programme for our Anniversary meeting represent a tiny proportion of the leaders in their field within our Society. The programme also demonstrates the breadth of expertise within the Society and it would be hard to identify any topic where a BSPP member is not making a significant contribution. This brings me neatly on to the subject of skills and strength within the discipline.
Where do we stand today?
There is a concern voiced fairly frequently that training and job opportunities are declining and that by extrapolation we will soon face an era where Universities will no longer teach plant pathology and that the ability of students of the subject to recognise a disease will be lost. I’m not sure that I totally subscribe to this analysis. The Society certainly acknowledges these concerns and we are currently attempting, as one would expect of well trained scientists, to collect data that will test the hypothesis. There is conflicting data available at present. On the one hand, there appear to be fewer University Departments offering plant pathology as an option in the third year of an undergraduate degree course and as we know there have been redundancies in UK research organisations resulting in job losses in our discipline. To counter this, the membership numbers within BSPP seem to be holding up well. As technologies, funding body requirements and fashions change, the scientific ‘label’ that people give themselves change also. I’m convinced that there are many plant pathologists currently working under the labels of molecular biologist, environmental biologist or biotechnologist whose work is still delivering improvements in pathology.
For those who have been involved in research for the last 25 years it is obvious that there is a cycle in scientific fashion within the main sponsors of research. As a snap-shot of the situation in 2006 it is worth recording that research on the pathology of crop plants is less well supported than has been the case in previous decades. Support is shifting towards environmental issues and model species. Although many of our members may have views on this strategy the reality is that our skills as pathologists are still being employed. We are still progressing the science of plant pathology and making contributions at national and international levels.
Where’s it all going?
So what about the next 25 years? Well I’m reluctant to fall into the trap of predicting the future (I don’t want this article to be reproduced in 2031 and bench-marked against reality) – but I’m going to anyway. I think that I’m on relatively safe ground to say that some of our challenges over the next 25 years are fairly self-evident. Climate change is a massive opportunity to us as a discipline. Not only new pathogens and food crops to get to grips with but also the prospect of huge increases in biomass and alternative crops all of which will need our skills to allow them to be grown efficiently. Who, for example, amongst our current group of post-graduate students will want to be the Director of the Alternative Bio fuels Research Institute in, say, Oxford in 2031? Global food markets will bring exotic pathogens to our doorstep and as we look more closely at the relationship between natural and agro ecosystems we will find interesting new systems to study. Will chemical control measures still be needed and will the legislative authorities be disbanded or, more likely, will they be spending all their time dealing with biological control agents? But above all the priority over the next 25 years surely must be to exploit the increasing amount of information being generated from genome sequencing projects of both host plants and pathogens. This has to deliver robust disease resistance in major crop plants. Looking back at where we started in 1981 and where we are now I am convinced that we will easily achieve that – and much more.
What has the Society done for you?
There are some very tangible outputs from 25 years of BSPP. We started our journey in 1981 with Plant Pathology, a minor journal that has been transformed by a succession of Editors into one of the major pathology journals generating substantial income that fuels the Society’s activities. To add to this, we have created a sister journal Molecular Plant Pathology and between them our two journals rival the very best plant pathology journals anywhere in the world. Our income has been spent on sponsoring at least 100 scientific conferences (including hosting a very successful Congress in Edinburgh) and, at a rough estimate, funding 1000 plant pathologists to attend conferences at home and abroad. We have funded Fellowships for senior researchers but more critically sponsored large numbers of student bursaries to encourage young people into our profession. We should be immensely proud of what we have achieved over the last 25 years and acknowledge the foresight of those who were bold enough to get us started on the journey.It is inconceivable that the skills we have will ever be superfluous to plant production and the Society’s network of members across the world will enhance our ability to deal with many of the issues mentioned in this article. I look forward to being part of the next 25 years of BSPP!