Promoting plant growth and health is essential to ensuring that global needs for food and feed can be met in an ecologically sustainable manner. The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health.

Faculty, graduate students, and visiting researchers gathered for the 2020 Translational Plant Sciences Symposium at Virginia Tech on Feb. 28 to discuss how their research is protecting plant health in the four areas of sustainability, environment, development, and monitoring and early warning systems.

“Up to 40 percent of food crops are lost due to plant pests, and human activities have altered ecosystems, reducing biodiversity and creating new niches where pests can thrive. It is imperative researchers work together to share their transdisciplinary research to promote plant health,” said Birgit Scharf, professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and co-organizer of the symposium.

To celebrate the International Year of Plant Health, the theme of the symposium was "Biotic factors promoting plant growth and health." This year's featured speakers were Carlos Gonzalez, professor at Texas A&M University; Ann Hirsch, professor at the University of California, Los Angeles; and Scot Hulbert, associate dean and professor at Washington State University.

The schedule also included graduate student talks and poster presentations by translational plant sciences postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate students.

“I was extremely impressed with the talks the students gave. It was clear the translational plant sciences program is recruiting amazing talent and mentoring them to be the next generation of plant biologists,” said Hulbert.

Professor Birgit Scharf introduces professor Ann Hirsch who spoke about her research on microbes that help plants grow in arid soil.
Professor Birgit Scharf introduces Professor Ann Hirsch, who spoke about her research on microbes that help plants grow in arid soil.

The Translational Plant Sciences Symposium is held annually to provide students and faculty the opportunity to gain thoughtful insight from leading experts and share current research with colleagues and students in this day-long event. This year it was organized by Scharf and Bo Zhang, assistant professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"The very high quality of the science presented by the invited speakers and by the translational plant sciences students underscores our capacity to promote sustainable food production for our rapidly growing population. Support from the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program has been essential for promoting the interdisciplinary collaborations that this wicked problem demands," said John McDowell, J.B. Stroobants Professor of Biotechnology in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

Translational plant sciences is both a graduate student recruitment program and a group of laboratories supported by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute with broad research topics advancing basic knowledge in the plant sciences interested in translating this knowledge into improved crop production. 

The research in translational plant sciences is diverse, with locations that range from the atmosphere to the rhizosphere, at scales that range from cellular networks to ecosystems. What unites the research is a sense of urgency that new tools are needed to ensure that global needs for food, feed and fiber will be met in an ecologically sustainable manner.

Researchers within the translational plant sciences group believe that basic molecular research is an important component of this imperative, as are projects that translate new knowledge into practical solutions for sustainable agriculture. Such research requires interdisciplinary collaboration, and much of the research takes place in teams within and beyond Virginia Tech. They are also committed to training students for diverse career opportunities in academia, industry, agriculture, and government. These commonalities underpin a remarkably strong, cohesive community that spans five departments and three colleges.

“While now mostly focused on molecular sciences, the translational plant sciences group plans to expand its activities by bringing along Virginia Tech researchers from a wide variety of fields," said Guillaume Pilot, associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and director of translational plant sciences. "Translational plant sciences is looking for engineers, applied scientists, researchers from the Virginia Extension stations, and food and computer science researchers, with the aim to increase collaborations, diversify our programs, and strengthen our community. This will also make our students more comfortable with interacting and collaborating with other disciplines, to prepare them better for the careers of tomorrow."

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