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Reaching for the Sun: How Plants Work – an interview with author John King


Reaching for the Sun jacket imageWhat first led you to become interested in the study of plant science?

At school and, later, as an undergraduate student, I encountered mentors who encouraged an interest in, at first, natural history, then, general plant biology, and, finally, the more specialized field of plant physiology and biochemistry. This interest continued to grow during my years as a graduate student, becoming, in time, an academic career in plant biology.

Plants demonstrate considerable variety of form and colour, and thrive in all corners of the globe – is there a realm of plant science that particularly interests you?

My own fascination is with how plants work at the most fundamental level. In my research career, I focused on plant metabolism using such tools as biochemical mutants and molecular biological techniques to investigate how plants manufacture the molecules they require for their everyday needs, such as those involved in DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis, vitamin production – including folic acid – and some of those used by plants to defend themselves against attack by fungal diseases.

Reaching for the Sun is accessible to the non-specialist as well as the student – what was your aim for the book? What can a potential reader expect?

My aim in writing the first edition was to provide knowledge of how plants work to the informed layperson who has some background knowledge of plant biology. The green organisms are the bedrock of the biosphere in that they are the primary producers of the foods nearly all other living things must have. Their ability to capture energy from the sun and use it to form complex organic molecules from simple inorganic compounds like carbon dioxide and water is a miracle of nature. Yet there are many books with a focus on the wonders of animals and animal life but not nearly as many on plants and their lifestyles; I decided I could help to rectify this imbalance.

The seventeen chapters in the first edition covered many aspects of the inner workings of plants. I approached the subject from an historical point of view thinking that showing how our knowledge of how plants work had evolved over time would carry the less well informed reader towards increasing understanding of these unique and critically important organisms.

Parts 1-4 in the second edition cover the same major topics as the first but also includes new information consistent with recent advances in knowledge. To make this edition accessible, still, to the non-specialist, some more advanced information is kept separate in Boxes. If non-specialists wish to skip this source of information, they can do so without losing the thread of discussion in the main text. More knowledgeable students can use the Boxes as a source of additional information.

Part 5 deals with the great global geological and biogeological cycles of five of the most important elements needed by plants: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. The first chapter in this section charts how these natural cycles operated in the four and a half billion years or so of the Earth’s existence before humans began having a significant global impact. The second chapter highlights some of the effects human activities are having on these cycles and, then, on plants, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution about 300 years ago.

How are the plant sciences set to deal with the consequences of such environmental changes?

Advances made in recent years in plant biology are huge and at all levels of plant life from the ecological to the molecular. At the level I am particularly interested in, unprecedented advances in knowledge are occurring at breathtaking speed.  Our understanding of how plants work at the most basic physiological and biochemical levels improves and expands daily, it seems.

I added Part 5 to the book because of my belief that students entering the plant sciences today need to understand how their planet has evolved during its eons of existence, how the activities of a rapidly growing human population are accelerating the pace of this evolution, especially its great elemental cycles, and what effects these imposed changes are having on plants at the most fundamental level. Any plant biology student in the 21st century needs to develop an understanding of and sensitivity to the impact of human activities on plants at all levels, including the physiological and biochemical. My aim was to provide a few clear examples of how human impacts on our land, water, and atmospheric resources are affecting how plants work. After all, the changes seen at the ecological level are often a reflection of the impact human-forced changes to the environment are having on the everyday activities going on in the cells of the plant.

John King is Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Saskatchewan