20 February 2012
Changes in the genetic make-up of plants are being examined by molecular biologists whose studies represent a major step forward in efforts to understand how shifts in environmental conditions will affect the future growth and survival of crops.
Research over the past decade has revealed much about how plants respond to variations in light caused by vegetational shading, as well as the effects of rising temperatures on crop productivity. Yet these studies have ordinarily focused on one environmental factor at a time. By examining their combined impact at the molecular level, biologists from the University of Bristol are developing a more complete understanding of what determines plant survival.
Their findings could have important implications for horticultural and agricultural crop reproduction by equipping scientists with the knowledge needed to predict which factors will limit – and by implication which could promote – plant growth.
"Basic scientific research is extremely important and is how great discoveries are made. Quite often, you don't know what the future applications of your findings might be and the impact of such studies can be felt decades later,” says Dr Kerry Franklin, Royal Society Research Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences. “This particular area of research could have implications for agriculture and horticulture, especially in view of climate change, but we need to fully understand how biological systems work before we can create effective solutions to problems."
The rate and direction in which plants grow is largely determined by how they respond to change in light and shade. During shading, plant stems become elongated and leaves elevate upwards in an attempt to overtop competing vegetation. But while this may give plants a competitive edge over their neighbours, the physiological resources expended on elongation limits their biomass and plant yield by diverting energy away from the growth of leaves and harvestable organs.
As well as focusing on plant photomorphogenesis – or light-mediated growth –Dr Franklin is interested in how temperature change alters cell signalling pathways and gene expression, as observed in the plant model Arabidopsis. Intriguingly, plant responses to high temperature mimic those to shading, suggesting that light and temperature may share signalling pathways.
“The majority of research to date has focussed on plant responses to a single environmental stress. This is obviously experimentally more simplistic but does not represent natural environments, where many stresses would be perceived simultaneously. Through investigating the molecular integration or ‘crosstalk’ between multiple environmental signals, we aim to provide a greater understanding of how plants survive in the real world.”
Further studies by Dr Franklin’s research group into how plants react to changes in moisture will investigate why some survive in hot climates, while others perish. Working with experts from the University’s School of Engineering Mathematics, Dr Franklin aims to develop sophisticated mathematical modelling techniques that will identify how plants regulate leaf temperature in warm environments: “While individual research effort can considerably advance understanding of targeted problems, the combination of skills and thinking offered by multidisciplinary collaborations can really help us address the big questions.”
Please contact Aliya Mughal for further information.
Basic scientific research is extremely important and is how great discoveries are made. Quite often, you don't know what the future applications of your findings might be and the impact of such studies can be felt decades later. This particular area of research could have implications for agriculture and horticulture, especially in view of climate change, but we need to fully understand how biological systems work before we can create effective solutions to problems.