You are here
Séminaire Philbio - 12 - Sabina Leonelli
Sabina Leonelli, University of Exeter - What's in a name? The Globalisation of Plant Descriptors and Its Relevance to Biological Research
Within the last two decades, plant science has increasingly sought to apply fundamental biological insights and new techniques developed through laboratory studies of model organisms to research on crops. This move was accompanied by a growth in efforts to (1) move research outside of the standard laboratory environment and into hybrid spaces (such as field stations, farm platforms and smart glasshouses) that are perceived to better capture features of the ‘natural environment’; (2) integrate agronomic research with ‘basic’ plant science, so as to harness cutting-edge insights into molecular mechanisms and related technologies to increase food security; (3) study plant species of economic and cultural interest to parts of the world other than Europe and the United States, such as cassava and bambara groundnut; (4) increase knowledge about gene-environment interactions, using phenotypic traits as conduits to understand the impact of genetic modifications and/or environmental changes on plant structures and behaviors; and (5) produce ‘global’ infrastructures and venues where data, germplasm and knowledge about plant species used in different parts of the world can be shared and discussed. This paper will discuss the epistemic implications of these trends, focusing on the issues arising from attempts to share phenomic data about crops across different locations, and particularly between high-resourced and low-resourced research environments. In particular, I discuss the case of the Crop Ontology and its efforts to document and link the diversity of tools, terminologies and variables used to describe widely diverse species in different parts of the world. I argue that such practices do not relate in straightforward ways to traditional taxonomic practices, and in fact defy existing understandings of systematisation in biology and beyond. Here is a case where reliance on a universal approach to identifying and labelling traits has repeatedly proved problematic, and yet the attempt to articulate semantic differences is generating new ways to develop and communicate biological knowledge.