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Most of us are acutely aware of the issues relating to global food security and having to address the fact that the predicted global population in 2050 will be 9 billion people (up 2 billion from now) and requiring twice as much food and feedstock. Many di f ferent approaches are seeking to improve crop yields by reducing the impact of plant disease and one field focuses on plant growth promoting (PGP) bacteria. This workshop is dedicated to a subset of rhizosphere (or root-dwelling) bacteria called the PGP rhizobacteria (PGPR).
The previous workshop in 2009 was held in Portland, Oregon, which was a hard act to follow. But two young scientists, Valeska Villegas (EAFIT University) and Camilo Ramirez (Universidad de Antioquia), from Medellin, Colombia, proudly announced at the end of the 2009 meeting that they would take on the mantle. Myself and friend Mark Silby (UMass, Dartmouth) were particularly excited at the prospect of holding the meeting there as Colombia has been undergoing a transformation in the last 10 years and it was great opportunity to support two young and vibrant scientists. However, it was evident that some people were a little nervous of making the trip. Colombia does of course suffer from a legacy of drugs, cartels and violence, and in the 1990’s Medellin was the murder capital of the world (almost 8,000 in 1991) under Escobar’s rule. Well, that has all changed. Despite my “vision” of Romancing the Stone type scenes of an old fashioned rural system, Colombia has a very modern infrastructure; Spain with jungle, I often thought. Medellin itself has a lovely city centre with modern architecture and art, an excellent, clean rapid transit system, and friendly and welcoming people. Not once did I feel unsafe, day or night, so I would recommend a visit.
The workshop itself was held in a suburb of Medellin, about 3000 feet above the city in the area of Quirama. The venue was an old colonial building surrounded by a mixture of farmland and jungle. The organisers were superb in arranging airport pickups and delivery to the hotel, a nice varied programme and entertainment along the way. In the end, the workshop attracted over 160 delegates from all the major populated continents, possibly the most delegates at a PGPR workshop. Breakfast and lunches were held at the hotel and some evening meals – most notable were the “coffee” breaks, which were usually various freshly squeezed tropical fruit drinks, refreshing for the heat and humidity.
The conference talks were kicked off by Joseph Kloepper and David Weller from the USA who gave a nice historical perspective on PGPR. Some notable highlight talks are described below. Monica Haafte and Marc Ongena each gave nice talks on analysing novel biosurfactants made by PGPR Bacillus and Pseudomonas bacteria – Marc described novel screening and analytical methods for these, while Monica told us about the impact of metabolism on surfactant production and their biological activity, and impacts on motility. Linda Thomashow described a very nice study mapping antibiotic producing strains of Pseudomonas within different soils and revealed how water availability from irrigation drives the selection of different antibiotic producing Pseudomonads. Joyce Loper discussed a 10-strain comparative genomics project of Pseudomonas fluorescens that included seven new genomes. She found that there was great heterogeneity in the genomes with diversity in the variable genome indicating significant niche specialisation and adding weight to the likelihood of P. fluorescens being a species complex.
Mark Silby told us about two projects that he is pursuing since starting his own lab, both related to how P. fluorescens copes with changes in its microenvironment related to phosphate availability, and dehydration. Camilo Ramirez also told us about how PGPR influence plant shoot P content and thus influence plant yield. It was also nice to see some classical microbial ecology presented from Ellen Latz, Simone Weidner and Alexandre Jousset looking at the diversity and function of bacterial communities in plants from Arabidopsis to banana. A notable “flash-talk” for poster presenters was Massimiliano Cardinale – rather than try and regurgitate intro, M&M, results and conclusion in 2 minutes, he took exactly the right approach, going for tongue-in-cheek humour that had the audience rolling with laughter, and certainly wanting to learn more about his work!
He did later give a short talk showing beautiful 3D images from combined confocal and image analysis of PGPR inhabiting plant roots. The final session of the workshop was devoted to learning more about SMEs who are developing commercial PGPR products. I was quite surprised at just how many there were in South America, where the technology has been embraced and is seen as a big area for future development and collaboration.
Other highlights of the meeting were the excursions (Medellin city visit, flower production greenhouses, and to the mountain and lake area around Penon de Guatape) and the conference dinner, which served excellent food and dancing from a local dance troupe who exhibited different types of dance from Colombia. Mark Silby and I also had the opportunity to spend a couple of days visiting Eafit University and Universidad de Antioquia, both of which have good modern facilities and are looking to link up with students and researchers around the world. We would have loved to have spent more time with Valeska, but being less than one week from giving birth, she sensibly took some time off after the busy organisational schedule. We were also grateful to Camilo Ramirez and Juan Carlos Perez (“The King”!) and their group for kindly taking us on tours of the city and the beautiful Santa Fe de Antioquia, located deep in the hot and humid jungle.
During our discussions we learned that Colombia is one of the largest flower producers and exporters in the world and the main provider for the USA – the industry does suffer pathology problems from time to time. Coffee, however, is the big worry, suffering a wide range of diseases that could seriously impact this major export. There are opportunities for pathologists to engage with colleagues in Colombia; we definitely sensed the bubbling enthusiasm and pride from our Medellin colleagues that Colombia is marching forward scientifically and culturally, and the anticipation of future collaborations is palpable.
My thanks to BSPP for providing me with funding to help my attendance at PGPR2012. The next PGPR meeting in 2015 will be in Belgium, organised by Monica Höfte and Marc Ongena. I wonder if we will hear about hop and barley disease control as I am sure beer will certainly feature at that meeting!
Robert W. Jackson
University of Reading