Strength in shoulders

No scientist works in isolation, but not all scientists can inspire the collaborations needed for more modern research. Good mentors have never been more important.

This month, Nature Plants is publishing two genome sequencing papers — although concerning very different plants. Both, however, are the basis of highly valuable industries, even though neither is a food crop.

The first Article describes a genome assembly of the Para rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) by a collaboration of 42 researchers from a number of groups based mainly in China (16073). H. brasiliensis, as the name suggests, is a native of Brazil but its large-scale cultivation there was hampered by leaf blight. Indeed, after seeds of H. brasiliensis were removed from Brazil by the English adventurer Henry Wickham in 1876 — or smuggled out, as he claimed — the commercial growing of rubber moved to southeast Asia. The anthropological effects of this genome and its exploitation are explored in an accompanying News and Views article (16083).

The second genome is of the ornamental flower Petunia hybrida (16074). Strictly speaking, this is not a single genome, but two: the 57 researchers have sequenced P. axillaris and P. inflata, the parental plants that were first crossed in the early 1800s to create the polyploid, hybrid petunias from which our modern varieties have been developed. There is a lot to be learned from these genomes about the evolution of this flower and that of the Solanaceae in general — colour and scent variability, self-incompatibility and circadian rhythms, for example — much of which is explored in the detailed Supplementary Notes that accompany the Article.

Although petunia is arguably the world's most popular bedding plant, this is not the reason that it has been put under such intense genomic scrutiny. Petunia has another life as an important scientific model organism, the history of which is explored by Alexander R. van der Krol and Richard G. H. Immink in their Comment article (16082). And, in acknowledgement to that long history, the authors of the petunia genome Article have included a dedication to Tom Gerats: “in honour of his lifelong contributions to petunia research, and we thank him for generously sharing his vast knowledge with all of us.”

From the first paper on which he was an author (Theor. Appl. Genetics 53, 157–167; 1978), Gerats was intrigued by the genetics of petunia and particularly how its flower colour is controlled. He received his PhD in 1984 from the University of Amsterdam for studies on petunia flavonoids and transposons. He subsequently worked at the Free University in Amsterdam and the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) in Ghent, before taking up a professorship at the Radboud University Nijmegen. His research has been central to the understanding of flower development and the role of inhibitory RNAs, and he has acted as a champion for Petunia as a model plant.

Despite the importance of his research, Gerats authored relatively few research papers — fewer than 100 in his entire career — reflecting a concentration on quality over quantity. But he is one of those most valuable of scientists whose influence is evident as much in the people they have inspired as in the work they have done themselves.

Plant science seems particularly blessed with such inspirational mentors. Another would be Frederick M. Ausubel of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. His own research is nothing less than exceptional, but his list of former graduate students and post-doctoral fellows reads like a ‘Who's Who’ of plant molecular biology: Sharon R. Long (Stanford University, USA), Jonathan Jones (The Sainsbury Laboratory, UK) and Joanne Chory (Salk Institute for Biological Studies, USA), to name but a few.

Richard Evans Schultes, also of Harvard, is seemingly never referred to without the epithet of father of ethnobotany. In happy coincidence with this month's rubber genome paper, during World War II he was involved in an American effort to find leaf-blight-resistant wild relatives of H. brasiliensis as most of the rubber-growing areas of southeast Asia were under Japanese occupation. Probably his most famous scientific student is E. O. Wilson, but his work on hallucinogenic plants in traditional cultures led him to also influence 1960s counterculture writers such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.

Ray J. Wu, who was Professor of Molecular Genetics and Biology at Cornell University, was also a great mentor. In the early 1970s he developed the first method for determining DNA sequences using a location-specific primer extension strategy, although it was Fred Sanger and Walter Gilbert who won the 1980 Nobel prize for a development of that approach. In the 1980s, Wu initiated the China–US Biochemistry Examination and Application (CUSBEA) programme, which brought over 400 students from China to pursue PhD degrees in the US. Among the plant biologists who benefited are Xinnian Dong (Duke University, USA), Xuemei Chen (University of California, Riverside, USA) and Xingwang Deng (Peking University, China).

Enid MacRobbie has been a pioneer of the field of biophysics since her PhD, in which she was the first researcher to use radioisotopes to measure ion fluxes in plants. She has been at the forefront of studies of ion transport in plants (particularly their involvement in the movement of stomata). In 1987 she became the first woman scientist to occupy a Personal Professorship at the University of Cambridge. MacRobbie, like Gerats, has a relatively small number of research publications; she encouraged her collaborators and students not to include her as a co-author on their publications. Leading plant physiologists who have profited from such selfless supervision while passing through her lab include Dale Sanders (John Innes Centre, UK), Michael Blatt (University of Glasgow, UK), Mel Tyree (University of Alberta, USA) and Mark Tester (King Abdullah University, KSA).

A most important and least-rewarded activity in a lab is the encouragement, support and mentoring of scientists early in their careers. In acknowledgement of this, Nature presents annual Awards for Mentoring in Science, recognizing outstanding scientific mentorship. In 2015, one of these awards went to the plant biologist and Dean of the School of Advanced Agricultural Sciences at Peking University, Xingwang Deng. Given the richness of the examples provided by the likes of Gerats, Ausubel, MacRobbie and others, future years should see many more plant scientists similarly honoured.