Study on the evolution of sexual reproduction in plants receives 2.6 million euros

Posted by pt91 at Jul 02, 2015 03:10 PM |
University of Leicester involved in study of plant sperm cells

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 2 July 2015

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The University of Leicester is part of a major European and US project studying the evolution of sexual reproduction in plants.

The research will allow the identification of genes useful to the agricultural industry, with the aim of improving the reproduction of crop species, and ultimately to increase their yield.

The consortium coordinated by Jörg Becker, group leader at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC; Portugal), has received funding of 2.6 million euros for 3 years. The project is funded under the scope of ERA-CAPS, a European network dedicated to support of research activities in Plant Sciences.

The economic importance of seed plants is that they are our main source of food, fibre and other industrial raw materials. However, our capacity to generate sufficient food, animal feed and energy is increasingly compromised by human population expansion, competition for land use, rapid biodiversity loss and predicted global climate change. It is crucial to study the process of sexual reproduction in higher plants to overcome fertilisation barriers and increase crop yields.

The premise of this project is to use species representing key stages in plant evolution to explore ancestral mechanisms of gamete specialisation and fertilisation. The selected species are the liverwort, Marchantia, the moss, Physcomitrella and the earliest living relative of flowering plants, Amborella trichopoda. In the research group overall they will establish reproductive gene networks for these plants and complement these with studies of gene networks in the important food crops, rice, maize and tomato.

David Twell, Professor of Plant Biology, who is heading Leicester’s contribution to this project said “My expertise is on pollen development and the discovery of genes which control the production of plant sperm. My team in the Department of Genetics, will explore how fertile sperm are made by flowering plants and compare this process with that which occurs in relatives of the earliest land plants, known as bryophytes – the mosses and liverworts.

“By studying reproduction in these early land plants we hope to understand the evolution of the gene networks which control sexual reproduction and identify which elements are important for crop fertility.

“By comparing gene networks in important crop plants such as maize and tomato with those in the earliest relatives of the flowering plants we hope to find new genes and achieve a greater understanding of genes which may be affected by environmental stress such as heat and drought.

“This large-scale cooperative project, which will use the latest genetic technologies, presents us with a unique opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the evolution of sexual reproduction of economically important plant species.”

Professor Twell also acknowledged the University of Leicester’s Botanic Garden, which will provide the essential growth facilities, enabling participation in this exciting project.

Jörg Becker said: “Our project will deliver the first comprehensive view of the molecular evolution of plant sexual reproduction and will provide insights into the origins of fertilisation in flowering plants. This will be a crucial step in our quest to develop tools to manipulate plant reproduction in our favour and to improve crop productivity.”

ERA-CAPS was launched in 2012 on the basis that funding comes from the respective funding agencies of each participating country. In addition to Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (Portugal), the other participating institutions are Gregor Mendel Institute (Austria), University of Regensburg (Germany), University of Leicester (UK), MPI Molecular Plant Physiology (Germany), University of Warwick (UK) and Brown University (US).

Funding to support research at Leicester in the ERA-CAPS programme is provided by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Further information:

ERA-CAPS Project - Evolution of Sexual Reproduction in Plants

Professor Twell’s previous research discovered important genetic circuits that operate in flowering plants:

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