A New Year in plant science


The New Year is an interesting watershed in any aspect of life, offering the opportunity to revisit the achievements of the previous year and to consider plans for the year ahead. For New Phytologist, 2007 was our busiest year ever in terms of manuscript submissions, with a 20% increase being recorded compared with the previous year. However, our service to the authors remains undiminished, with an average time-period of only 28 d from receipt of a manuscript to the first decision from the Editor. The combination of speed, efficiency and accuracy in dealing with submissions is the result of a large team, all of whom are thanked profusely. The team consists of an Editorial Board of 21 Editors, the Central Office with five staff, 69 Advisors to the board and more than 1200 Referees who reviewed manuscripts in 2007 – a total of 1295 devoted to publishing quality plant science research.

What might come the way of New Phytologist in this New Year? We have relied on the opinions of the Editorial Board for a glimpse of a future with new and emerging opportunities in plant science research. Although the interests and expertise of the board are very broad, there was a rather widespread view that very large data sets of biological information will increasingly underpin new synthetic and systems understanding. The most obvious area is in molecular plant science, where high-throughput technologies and reducing costs for DNA sequencing, for a wide range of plant and fungal species, provide the underpinning for insight into how plants work, from the cell to the whole organism. Genomic data are increasingly complemented by other ‘omic’ approaches, such as transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics. These data sets also create a problem in terms of accumulating, managing and interpreting them. However, they also provide completely new opportunities for understanding how interacting networks work and respond, not only to environmental challenges but in major processes that are poorly understood, such as developmental epigenetics and plant signalling.

The level of genetic and molecular detail varies considerably, with some model species, such as Arabidopsis thaliana, particularly well quantified. However, association genetic approaches offer a means for identification of the genes that cause adaptive variation, even in virtually wild taxa such as Pinus. Although it is clear that the large majority of genes are common in their basic functions between widely different species, it may not be the case that the same phenotypic functions emerge.

Interactions between plants and other organisms, such as in mycorrhizal associations, but also with fungal endophytes and insects, are important but difficult to study; here again the data provided by mass-sequencing technologies will provide novel catalogues of processes occurring within and between organisms and in response to the environment. This rapidly growing field of ecosystem-level, multi-organism genomics has been termed ‘metagenomics’.

Progressing from sequence collections to whole-system understanding uses new tools of bioinformatics, mathematical statistics and simulation modelling. This development is a feature of many aspects of plant science, not just genomics. In ecosystem studies the increased resolution and measurement of organismal activity, in both time and space, indicates a complex array of responses. Just like the equivalent in accumulating molecular sequences, this new proliferation of data results from new technologies, and just like the molecular area it still remains to be determined how this complexity of responses determines the response of the ecosystem, as a whole, to environmental changes. It is notable that new understanding in plant physiology, in particular the controls of photosynthetic carbon dioxide exchange, is now quite central to parallel fields of research such as hydrology, meteorology and atmospheric chemistry, yet this was very rare, even over a decade ago.

So we see another exciting year ahead with a whole suite of emerging opportunities providing a new raft of papers to further the development of plant science. We look forward to seeing them in New Phytologist.