The study of plants has been one of the go-ahead sciences of recent years and has continuing prospects for rapid expansion in the new millennium, says Colin Turnbull of Imperial College, London. The driving force, he argues, can ultimately be traced to a single issue: the rapidly expanding human population

Quite simply, despite continuing excess food supply in Europe, the equation of global food production and current land use does not balance. Worldwide views strongly advocate the absolute imperative of sustainability of agriculture, both in economic and in environmental terms. Plant sciences therefore now embrace an enormously wide range of study areas, from biotechnologies that generate more efficient or nutritious crop plants to the increasing resurgence of organic and traditional farming practices.

The unbelievable expansion in information available on plant genes has scarcely yet been exploited. Databases are updated daily and the sheer volume of data has spawned whole new disciplines, such as bio informatics, necessary simply to find the needle of relevant information from the growing haystack. In practical terms, some intriguing links are emerging, for example the clear evidence that certain GM (genetically modified) crops with intrinsic resistance to major pests or diseases are actually very much in tune with one of the goals of organic farming, namely to reduce usage of potentially hazardous agricultural chemicals. Unexpected bedfellows indeed!

Studying Plant Sciences

Plant Sciences and related disciplines such as horticulture offer many fascinating subject areas; most degree programmes have built-in flexibility of a range of specialist options, founded on a core built around science subjects.

Entry to BSc (or sometimes MSc) courses in Plant Sciences and Horticulture is typically based on A levels or equivalent in sciences and/or mathematics, although many other combinations are possible. Plant science is a branch of biology but many students enter university without A level biology, using the foundation year to provide a grounding in the basics of how living organisms function. Typical entry standards for Imperial College at Wye range from 20 to 26 points at A level, depending on the course type.

Current issues

Horticulture is literally 'cultivation in gardens' but nowadays it is a subject that is embracing the production of fruit, vegetables and ornamental plants, together with landscape, amenity and environmental issues. Horticulture in the UK is a major and valuable (£2 billion annual turnover) sector of essentially rural industries but with links through almost every facet of life, from foods to cut flowers, leisure pursuits such as gardening and even the turf on which so many popular sports are played. Despite its high profile, the industry is more than ever subject to intense pressures from competitors in Europe and further afield (did you know that most cut flowers such as roses now come from countries as far away as Kenya?), from downward pressure on prices exerted by supermarket chains and from end-consumers with greater knowledge of plants and higher expectations of quality. Paradoxically, there are probably greater than ever opportunities in horticulture, many involving breakthroughs based on plant sciences. These might range from the seemingly trivial but potentially lucrative desire to create blue roses or carnations where none existed previously, to enlisting the aid of natural plant products in the fight against damaging pests and diseases or to generating crops better adapted to the new environments brought about by global climate change.

There is burgeoning interest in 'bio-prospecting' ­ for example finding new plants with medicinal or nutritional qualities. Some aspects are specific to one crop but many are generic, so knowledge from one 'model' plant can easily be extended to many crop species. An example of the latter is the study of plant architecture ­ the enormous diversity of shapes and forms that characterise different plant types. Why do plants such as sunflowers grow as a tall single stem without any branches whereas others such as pot chrysanthemums produce many short flowering stems on each plant? Recent research on garden pea and antirrhinum (snapdragons) has identified a small number of genes that control branching and it is predicted that many of these genes will be found in every plant species. Gaining control of such genes by switching them on or off gives for the first time the potential to modify the degree of branching to suit the use of the plant. Plantation timbers as a renewable resource yield greater usable biomass if the amount of wood is maximised by having a single straight trunk uninterrupted by major branches. Many field and orchard crops do not currently have architectures that enable most effective capture of light for photosynthesis, often with lower leaves being heavily shaded by those at the top of the plant. Efficient photosynthesis is a key to increasing crop yields per hectare especially where land area available for cropping is limited.

Future prospects

The need for food and related plant products is not diminishing. There is therefore a pressing need for a new generation of highly skilled professionals to support plant-related industries, through research, innovation and business acumen. In the past it has often been said that scientists make poor business people and are the worst marketers of their own ideas. Nowadays, many universities address this issue by integrating business studies and economics options into science courses. The concept of 'Science into Practice' is an exciting one and such courses are certainly worth a look for prospective students seeking a slightly different degree with an excellent range of career options at the end.

For Further Information

Details of Plant Science courses at Imperial College can be obtained from:

Dr Ava Yeo, Academic Administrator, Department of Biology and Biochemistry, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, Imperial College Road,London SW7 2AZ

Information on degrees in Plant Sciences/Horticulture at all UK universities can be accessed through the UCAS database at: