Studying the Importance of Biological Rhythms for the Ecological Performance of Plants – Thanks to Funding by the European Research Council (ERC)

February 29, 2012    No. 2/2012 (94)

Ian Baldwin, director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, receives an Advanced Grant of the European Research Council – funding which is highly valued by European researchers. The council in Brussels will provide him with a total of 2.49 million euros for new jobs for scientists and technicians as well as laboratory equipment to work on a research project with plants called "Clockwork Green". The planned ecological field experiments in the United States will include plants genetically modified to make their internal circadian clock out of tune with their environment at each stage in their life cycle. The central question of the 5-year project starting in April 2012 is whether these “arrhythmic” plants whose circadian clocks no longer work can survive in the wild. In other words, much like the night-shifted dysfunctional character in the movie Clockwork Orange whose behavioral abnormalities could be elicited by Beethoven’s music, in Clockwork Green Baldwin and his team of researchers will use genetic and chemical tools to elicit arrhythmicity and study its consequences for a native plant in its native community.

The"ClockworkGreen" team (from left to right): Michael Stitz, Susan Kutschbach, Emmanuel Gaquerel, Eva Rothe, Mario Kallenbach, Martin Schäfer, Felipe Yon, Meredith Schuman, Shuqing Xu, Christoph Brütting, Sang-Gyu Kim, and Ian Baldwin. Copyright: MPI for Chemical Ecology/Angela Overmeyer

Ecological Performance is all about timing

Whether an organism survives or dies in a particular habitat depends on whether it can do the right thing at the right time. In other words, timing is essential for survival. All organisms have a cellular clock and in many species from the different kingdoms of fungi, insects, plants, and even in humans, the mechanism of the molecular clock is becoming increasingly well understood. The circadian biological clock is thought to guarantee an optimal adaptation to prevailing environmental conditions but this has never been examined before in an organism growing under real world conditions.

Plants – primary producers

Plants are the foundation of most terrestrial food chains. They use solar energy to produce sugars, starch, protein and fat, on which all heterotrophic life forms depend: fungi as well as rabbits consuming leaves. The circadian rhythms of plants are well studied: leaf movements, the opening and closing of stomata, and photosynthetic metabolism, are all processes regulated by an endogenous clock. Daily cycles can also be clearly seen in the patterns of gene expression. Interestingly, more than 30% of all plant genes (plant genomes typically harbor 25,000 genes) are under circadian regulation. However, the function and circadian regulation of most of these genes is still unknown. What role do they play for the plants’ survival and reproduction and how crucial is the circadian control of their expression?

These are the central questions in the project "Clockwork Green". Transgenic tobacco plants will be used whose biological clocks no longer work, because one of the many “clock genes”, such as NaTOC1, has been silenced. These plants will be released in their natural habitat, the Great Basin Desert in Utah, USA, where they will grow together with wild and unmodified tobacco plants on field plots at the Lytle Ranch Preserve. This work will be conducted under the close and constructive regulatory oversight of APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service). All stages of plant development – from germination to seed formation in the flowers – will be studied. In addition, different ecological parameters, such as the intensity of infestation by herbivores and microbial pathogens, will be defined and the behavior of pollinators will be observed. Simultaneously, genetic, metabolic and physiological measurements will be conducted in “rhythmic” and “arrhythmic” plants.

The results will offer valuable clues to which genes are regulated by the biological clock and which are required for optimal plant growth and development. It is possible that different genes take over vital functions depending on the stage of life (germination – leaf development – flower formation – pollination – seed filling). The “timing” of plant growth plays an important role in agriculture – for example for synchronized seed germination or flowering in grains and oilseeds. Therefore the project may produce interesting results with applications in agriculture.

About the European Research Council

With the launch of the EU Seventh Research Framework Program (FP7) in 2007 a new institution started its operations: the European Research Council (ERC). The ERC funds basic and frontier research and aims to encourage excellent scientists to break new grounds in science and technology, but also in humanities. Max Planck’s notion that “insight must precede application” may have significantly influenced considerations to fund leading research in Europe fundamentally and generously. The EU commission provides a total of 7.5 billion euros to the ERC, which will be invested into cutting-edge research until 2013. This is equivalent to 15% of the entire research funding in the 7th Framework Program. Scientists can expect up to 2.5 million euros for their projects, in case they have been recognized as particularly eligible for funding by an international scientific committee. The scientific excellence of the applicants and the originality of their research projects are the primary selection criteria. This year, 13% of all applicants were successful, 52 of the coveted ERC Advanced Grants went to German universities and research institutes. [JWK/AO]


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