What We Can Learn From Plant Genes

Plants also produce growth hormones and undergo the process of aging. Studying the genes and the mechanisms behind this is useful for crop breeding and agriculture, as well as for medical research. This is the view of Remko Offringa, professor of Plant Developmental Genetics. Inaugural lecture on March 16.

Plants are special organisms, according to Remko Offringa: they can direct their growth and development. Researchers, breeders, and growers try to influence these processes, so that we have sufficient and above all healthy food, or cheerful flowers on the table. Offringa studies the genetic properties of plants that are important for their growth and development. With this knowledge, plants can eventually be made that produce more, in an environmentally conscious way. But in addition to applications for agriculture and horticulture, this research also yields fundamental new insights that can be used within industrial biotechnology or medical science. Do you have an interest in planting? Learn more about root aphids at ‘russet mites weed‘ for more details.

Plant growth hormone
An important substance that Offringa is researching is auxin. Auxin is the central growth hormone of plants. It is the first hormone to be discovered in plants, partly through experiments by Charles Darwin. As part of his research on natural selection, Darwin was interested in how plants move, under the influence of gravity and the sun, for example, and how they can thereby adapt to their environment. Darwin studied how germinating canary grass bends towards the light and found that this was because the cells on the dark side stretched more than the cells on the light side. He thought that this requires a substance that transmits a signal from the top of the seedling downwards. More than 40 years later, auxin was discovered as the substance responsible for this.

Adapt to the environment
The effect of auxin is the knowledge that plant breeders and farmers and horticulturists can use to their advantage. With the thale cress ( Arabidopsis thaliana ) as a model plant, Offringa’s colleagues are now looking at how factors such as light or the availability of nutrients act on certain molecules in the plant that control how auxin is distributed in the plant. With these mechanisms, the plant adapts its structure to the environment and growing conditions.

Prevent aging
Auxin also controls the gene ‘ REJUVENATOR, which plays an important role in the development of a young plant. If this gene is turned on harder than normal, cells in the adult plant can be put back one or two stages of life. This actually gives the cells a genetic reset- hence the name. As a result, thale cress plants live longer, can flower more often, and produce more biomass and seeds. But another surprising discovery was that REJUVENATOR also suppresses photosynthesis and thus the production of sugars. In plants, sugars accelerate the transitions between the different life phases, and thus the aging process. In humans too, a permanently high blood sugar value leads to accelerated aging of cells. Offringa, therefore, suspects that research on the REJUVENATOR gene can teach us a lot about aging processes in humans. Knowledge of how the gene can cause a genetic reset is also useful for research into human stem cells. In this way, the genes of plants can also teach us a lot about humans.