Public Release: 

Study on the evolution of plant reproduction receives 2.6 million euros

Project coordinated by a Portuguese Research Institute

Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia

This news release is available in Portuguese.

A European and US consortium coordinated by Jorg Becker, group leader at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia (IGC; Portugal), has now received funding of 2.6 million euros for 3 years to study the evolution of sexual reproduction in plants. The project is funded under the scope of ERA-CAPS, a European network dedicated to support research activities in Plant Sciences. This study 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 economic importance of seed plants cannot be overemphasized, as 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 therefore crucial to study the process of sexual reproduction in higher plants to overcome fertilization barriers and increase crop yields.

The project now funded brings together several leading experts in plant reproduction. The eight collaborating partners are Jorg Becker, Frederic Berger, Thomas Dresselhaus, Stefanie Sprunck, David Twell, Marek Mutwil and Jose Gutierrez-Marcos, from Europe, and Mark Johnson, from the US. Using species ranging from mosses to flowering plants as study models, the researchers aim to understand the main steps in the evolution of plant reproduction, including ancient mechanisms of gamete development and fertilization.

Jorg Becker says: "This project presents us with a unique opportunity to maximize synergies and avoid duplication of research efforts. Each partner brings to the project their unique and complementary technical capabilities that should allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the evolution of sexual reproduction of economically important plant species."

To achieve this, the researchers intend to study the evolution of regulatory networks important for male and female gamete development, pollen tube growth and fertilization mechanisms in flowering plants. They will compare the activity of gene networks in early land plants, such as mosses, with those in important crops like maize and tomato. This comparative genomics approach will help to identify key mechanisms in plant reproduction and reveal if they are ancient or new innovations. Jorg Becker and his group at IGC will study the development of sperm cells in the moss Physcomitrella patens and how some changes that are not written directly into the DNA might be transmitted upon fertilization.

"Our project will deliver the first comprehensive view of the molecular evolution of plant sexual reproduction and will provide insights into the origins of fertilization in flowering plants. This will be a crucial step in our quest to develop tools to manipulate plant reproduction in our favour and improve crop productivity", says Jorg Becker.

ERA-CAPS was launched in 2012 on the basis that funding comes from the respective funding agencies of each participating country. This is the first time that Portugal gets on the map of ERA-CAPS and not only as partner, but as project leader. In addition to Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia (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).

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Funding to support research at IGC in the ERA-CAPS programme is provided by Fundacao para a Ciencia e a Tecnologia (FCT).

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