2016 Plant Science Round Up

Another fantastic year of discovery is over – read on for our 2016 plant science top picks!


Zostera marina

A Zostera marina meadow in the Archipelago Sea, southwest Finland. Image credit: Christoffer Boström (Olsen et al., 2016. Nature).

The year began with the publication of the fascinating eelgrass (Zostera marina) genome by an international team of researchers. This marine monocot descended from land-dwelling ancestors, but went through a dramatic adaptation to life in the ocean, in what the lead author Professor Jeanine Olsen described as, “arguably the most extreme adaptation a terrestrial… species can undergo”.

One of the most interesting revelations was that eelgrass cannot make stomatal pores because it has completely lost the genes responsible for regulating their development. It also ditched genes involved in perceiving UV light, which does not penetrate well through its deep water habitat.

Read the paper in Nature: The genome of the seagrass Zostera marina reveals angiosperm adaptation to the sea.

BLOG: You can find out more about the secrets of seagrass in our blog post.



Plants are known to form new organs throughout their lifecycle, but it was not previously clear how they organized their cell development to form the right shapes. In February, researchers in Germany used an exciting new type of high-resolution fluorescence microscope to observe every individual cell in a developing lateral root, following the complex arrangement of their cell division over time.

Using this new four-dimensional cell lineage map of lateral root development in combination with computer modelling, the team revealed that, while the contribution of each cell is not pre-determined, the cells self-organize to regulate the overall development of the root in a predictable manner.

Watch the mesmerizing cell division in lateral root development in the video below, which accompanied the paper:

Read the paper in Current Biology: Rules and self-organizing properties of post-embryonic plant organ cell division patterns.



In March, a Spanish team of researchers revealed how the anti-wilting molecular machinery involved in preserving cell turgor assembles in response to drought. They found that a family of small proteins, the CARs, act in clusters to guide proteins to the cell membrane, in what author Dr. Pedro Luis Rodriguez described as “a kind of landing strip, acting as molecular antennas that call out to other proteins as and when necessary to orchestrate the required cellular response”.

Read the paper in PNAS: Calcium-dependent oligomerization of CAR proteins at cell membrane modulates ABA signaling.

*If you’d like to read more about stress resilience in plants, check out the meeting report from the Stress Resilience Forum run by the GPC in coalition with the Society for Experimental Biology.*



Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.

This plant root is infected with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Image credit: University of Zurich.

In April, we received an amazing insight into the ‘decision-making ability’ of plants when a Swiss team discovered that plants can punish mutualist fungi that try to cheat them. In a clever experiment, the researchers provided a plant with two mutualistic partners; a ‘generous’ fungus that provides the plant with a lot of phosphates in return for carbohydrates, and a ‘meaner’ fungus that attempts to reduce the amount of phosphate it ‘pays’. They revealed that the plants can starve the meaner fungus, providing fewer carbohydrates until it pays its phosphate bill.

Author Professor Andres Wiemsken explains: “The plant exploits the competitive situation of the two fungi in a targeted manner, triggering what is essentially a market-based process determined by cost and performance”.

Read the paper in Ecology Letters: Options of partners improve carbon for phosphorus trade in the arbuscular mycorrhizal mutualism.



The transition of ancient plants from water onto land was one of the most important events in our planet’s evolution, but required a massive change in plant biology. Suddenly plants risked drying out, so had to develop new ways to survive drought.

In May, an international team discovered a key gene in moss (Physcomitrella patens) that allows it to tolerate dehydration. This gene, ANR, was an ancient adaptation of an algal gene that allowed the early plants to respond to the drought-signaling hormone ABA. Its evolution is still a mystery, though, as author Dr. Sean Stevenson explains: “What’s interesting is that aquatic algae can’t respond to ABA: the next challenge is to discover how this hormone signaling process arose.”

Read the paper in The Plant Cell: Genetic analysis of Physcomitrella patens identifies ABSCISIC ACID NON-RESPONSIVE, a regulator of ABA responses unique to basal land plants and required for desiccation tolerance.



Knoblauch with phloem

Professor Michael Knoblauch shows off a microscope image of phloem tubes. Image credit: Washington State University.

Sometimes revisiting old ideas can pay off, as a US team revealed in June. In 1930, Ernst Münch hypothesized that transport through the phloem sieve tubes in the plant vascular tissue is driven by pressure gradients, but no-one really knew how this would account for the massive pressure required to move nutrients through something as large as a tree.

Professor Michael Knoblauch and colleagues spent decades devising new methods to investigate pressures and flow within phloem without disrupting the system. He eventually developed a suite of techniques, including a picogauge with the help of his son, Jan, to measure tiny pressure differences in the plants. They found that plants can alter the shape of their phloem vessels to change the pressure within them, allowing them to transport sugars over varying distances, which provided strong support for Münch flow.

Read the paper in eLife: Testing the Münch hypothesis of long distance phloem transport in plants.

BLOG: We featured similar work (including an amazing video of the wound response in sieve tubes) by Knoblauch’s collaborator, Dr. Winfried Peters, on the blog – read it here!



Ancient barley grain

Preserved remains of rope, seeds, reeds and pellets (left), and a desiccated barley grain (right) found at Yoram Cave in the Judean Desert. Credit: Uri Davidovich and Ehud Weiss.

In July, an international and highly multidisciplinary team published the genome of 6,000-year-old barley grains excavated from a cave in Israel, the oldest plant genome reconstructed to date. The grains were visually and genetically very similar to modern barley, showing that this crop was domesticated very early on in our agricultural history. With more analysis ongoing, author Dr. Verena Schünemann predicts that “DNA-analysis of archaeological remains of prehistoric plants will provide us with novel insights into the origin, domestication and spread of crop plants”.

Read the paper in Nature Genetics: Genomic analysis of 6,000-year-old cultivated grain illuminates the domestication history of barley.

BLOG: We interviewed Dr. Nils Stein about this fascinating work on the blog – click here to read more!



Another exciting cereal paper was published in August, when an Australian team revealed that C4 photosynthesis occurs in wheat seeds. Like many important crops, wheat leaves perform C3 photosynthesis, which is a less efficient process, so many researchers are attempting to engineer the complex C4 photosynthesis pathway into C3 crops.

This discovery was completely unexpected, as throughout its evolution wheat has been a C3 plant. Author Professor Robert Henry suggested: “One theory is that as [atmospheric] carbon dioxide began to decline, [wheat’s] seeds evolved a C4 pathway to capture more sunlight to convert to energy.”

Read the paper in Scientific Reports: New evidence for grain specific C4 photosynthesis in wheat.



CRISPR lunch

Professor Stefan Jansson cooks up “Tagliatelle with CRISPRy fried vegetables”. Image credit: Stefan Jansson.

September marked an historic event. Professor Stefan Jansson cooked up the world’s first CRISPR meal, tagliatelle with CRISPRy fried vegetables (genome-edited cabbage). Jansson has paved the way for CRISPR in Europe; while the EU is yet to make a decision about how CRISPR-edited plants will be regulated, Jansson successfully convinced the Swedish Board of Agriculture to rule that plants edited in a manner that could have been achieved by traditional breeding (i.e. the deletion or minor mutation of a gene, but not the insertion of a gene from another species) cannot be treated as a GMO.

Read more in the Umeå University press release: Umeå researcher served a world first (?) CRISPR meal.

BLOG: We interviewed Professor Stefan Jansson about his prominent role in the CRISPR/GM debate earlier in 2016 – check out his post here.

*You may also be interested in the upcoming meeting, ‘New Breeding Technologies in the Plant Sciences’, which will be held at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, on 7-8 July 2017. The workshop has been organized by Professor Jansson, along with the GPC’s Executive Director Ruth Bastow and Professor Barry Pogson (Australian National University/GPC Chair). For more info, click here.*



Phytochromes help plants detect day length by sensing differences in red and far-red light, but a UK-Germany research collaboration revealed that these receptors switch roles at night to become thermometers, helping plants to respond to seasonal changes in temperature.

Dr Philip Wigge explains: “Just as mercury rises in a thermometer, the rate at which phytochromes revert to their inactive state during the night is a direct measure of temperature. The lower the temperature, the slower phytochromes revert to inactivity, so the molecules spend more time in their active, growth-suppressing state. This is why plants are slower to grow in winter”.

Read the paper in Science: Phytochromes function as thermosensors in Arabidopsis.




A fossil ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) leaf with its modern counterpart. Image credit: Gigascience.

In November, a Chinese team published the genome of Ginkgo biloba¸ the oldest extant tree species. Its large (10.6 Gb) genome has previously impeded our understanding of this living fossil, but researchers will now be able to investigate its ~42,000 genes to understand its interesting characteristics, such as resistance to stress and dioecious reproduction, and how it remained almost unchanged in the 270 million years it has existed.

Author Professor Yunpeng Zhao said, “Such a genome fills a major phylogenetic gap of land plants, and provides key genetic resources to address evolutionary questions [such as the] phylogenetic relationships of gymnosperm lineages, [and the] evolution of genome and genes in land plants”.

Read the paper in GigaScience: Draft genome of the living fossil Ginkgo biloba.



The year ended with another fascinating discovery from a Danish team, who used fluorescent tags and microscopy to confirm the existence of metabolons, clusters of metabolic enzymes that have never been detected in cells before. These metabolons can assemble rapidly in response to a stimulus, working as a metabolic production line to efficiently produce the required compounds. Scientists have been looking for metabolons for 40 years, and this discovery could be crucial for improving our ability to harness the production power of plants.

Read the paper in Science: Characterization of a dynamic metabolon producing the defense compound dhurrin in sorghum.


Another amazing year of science! We’re looking forward to seeing what 2017 will bring!


P.S. Check out 2015 Plant Science Round Up to see last year’s top picks!

Now That’s What I Call Plant Science 2015

With another year nearly over we recently put out a call for nominations for the Most Influential Plant Science Research of 2015. Suggestions flooded in, and we also trawled through our social media feeds to see which stories inspired the most discussion and engagement. It was fantastic to read about so much amazing research from around the world. Below are our top five, selected based on impact for the plant science research community, engagement on social media, and importance for both policy and potential end product/application.

Choosing the most inspiring stories was not an easy job. If you think we’ve missed something, please let us know in the comments below, or via Twitter! In the coming weeks we’ll be posting a 2015 Plant Science Round Up, which will include other exciting research that didn’t quite make the top five, so watch this space!

  1. Sweet potato is a naturally occurring GM crop
Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop

Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop. Image from Mike Licht used under creative commons license 2.0

Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, found that 291 varieties of sweet potato actually contain bacterial genes. This technically means that sweet potato is a naturally occurring genetically modified crop! Alongside all the general discussion about GM regulations, particularly in parts of Europe where regulations about growing GM crops have been decentralized from Brussels to individual EU Member States, this story caused much discussion on social media when it was published in March of this year.

It is thought that ancestors of the modern sweet potato were genetically modified by bacteria in the soil some 8000 years ago. Scientists hypothesize that it was this modification that made consumption and domestication of the crop possible. Unlike the potato, sweet potato is not a tuber but a mere root. The bacteria genes are thought to be responsible for root swelling, giving it the fleshy appearance we recognize today.

This story is incredibly important, firstly because sweet potato is the world’s seventh most important food crop, so knowledge of its genetics and development are essential for future food supply. Secondly, Agrobacterium is frequently used by scientists to artificially genetically modify plants. Evidence that this process occurs in nature opens up the conversation about GM, the methods used in this technology, and the safety of these products for human consumption.

Read the original paper in PNAS here.

  1. RNA-guided Cas9 nuclease creates targetable heritable mutations in Barley and Brassica

Our number two on the list also relates to genetic modification, this time focusing on methods. Regardless of whether or not we want to have genetically modified crops in our food supply, GM is a valuable tool used by researchers to advance knowledge of gene function at the genetic and phenotypic level. Therefore, systems of modification that make the process faster, cheaper, and more accurate provide fantastic opportunities for the plant science community to progress its understanding.

The Cas9 system is a method of genome editing that can make precise changes at specific locations in the genome relatively cheaply. This novel system uses small non-coding RNA to direct Cas9 nuclease to the DNA target site. This type of RNA is small and easy to program, providing a flexible and easily accessible system for genome editing.

Barley in the field

Barley in the field. Image by Moldova_field used under creative commons license 2.0

Inheritance of genome modifications using Cas9 has previously been shown in the model plants, Arabidopsis and rice. However, the efficiency of this inheritance, and therefore potential application in crop plants has been questionable.

The breakthrough study published in November by researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory and John Innes Centre both in Norwich, UK, demonstrated the mutation of two commercial crop plants, Barley and Brassica oleracea, using the Cas9 system and subsequent inheritance mutations.

This is an incredibly exciting development in the plant sciences and opens up many options in the future in terms of genome editing and plant science research.

Read the full paper in Genome Biology here.

  1. Control of Striga growth

Striga is a parasitic plant that mainly affects parts of Africa. It is a major threat to food crops such as rice and corn, leading to yield losses worth over 10 billion US dollars, and affecting over 100 million people.

Striga infects the host crop plant through its roots, depriving them of their nutrients and water. The plant hormone strigolactone, which is released by host plants, is known to induce Striga germination when host plants are nearby.

In a study published in August of this year the Striga receptors for this hormone, and the proteins responsible for striga germination were identified.

Striga plants are known to wither and die if they cannot find a host plant upon germination. Induction of early germination using synthetic hormones could therefore remove Striga populations before crops are planted. This work is vital in terms of regulating Striga populations in areas where they are hugely damaging to crop plants and people’s livelihoods.

Read the full study in Science here.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed. Image from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture used under creative commons license 2.0

  1. Resurrection plants genome harvesting

Resurrection plants are a unique group of flora that can survive extreme water shortages for months or even years. There are more than 130 varieties in the world, and many researchers believe that unlocking the genetic codes of drought-tolerant plants could help farmers working in increasingly hot and dry conditions.

During a drought, the plant acts like a seed, becoming so dry that it appears dead. But as soon as the rains come, the shriveled plant bursts ‘back to life’, turning green and robust in just a few hours.

In November, researchers from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre in Missouri, US, published the complete draft genome of Oropetium thomaeum, a resurrection grass species.

O. thomaeum is a small C4 grass species found in Africa and India. It is closely related to major food feed and bioenergy crops. Therefore this work represents a significant step in terms of understanding novel drought tolerance mechanisms that could be used in agriculture.

Read the full paper in Nature here.

  1. Supercomputing overcomes major ecological challenge

Currently, one of the greatest challenges for ecologists is to quantify plant diversity and understand how this affects plant survival. For the last 500 years independent research groups around the world have collected this diversity data, which has made organization and collaboration difficult in the past.

Over the last 500 years, independent research groups have collected a wealth of diversity data. The Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) are collecting and collating these data together for the Americas using high performance computing (HPC) and data resources, via the iPlant Collaborative and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). This will allow researchers to draw on data right from the earliest plant collections up to the modern day to understand plant diversity.

There are approximately 120,000 plant species in North and South America, but mapping and determining the hotspots of species richness requires computationally intensive geographic range estimates. With supercomputing the BIEN group could generate and store geographic range estimates for plant species in the Americas.

It also gives ecologists the ability to document continental scale patterns of species diversity, which show where any species of plant might be found. These novel maps could prove a fantastic resource for ecologists working on diversity and conservation.

Read more about this story on the TACC website, here.

Providing For Our Brave New World

The Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) published a special issue in June entitled ‘Breeding plants to cope with future climate change’

The Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) published a special issue in June entitled ‘Breeding plants to cope with future climate change

By Jonathan Ingram

The Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) recently published a special issue entitled ‘Breeding plants to cope with future climate change’.

More often than not, climate change discussions are focused on debating the degree of change we are likely to experience, unpredictable weather scenarios, and politics. However, regardless of the hows and whys, it is now an undeniable fact that the climate will change in some way.

This JXB special issue focuses on the necessary and cutting edge research needed to breed plants that can cope under new conditions, which is essential for continued production of food and resources in the future.

The breadth of research required to address this problem is wide. The 12 reviews included in the issue cover aspects such as research planning and putting together integrated research programs, and more specific topics, such as the use of traditional landraces in breeding programs. Alongside these reviews, original research addresses some of the key questions using novel techniques and methodology. Critically, the research presented comes from a diversity of labs around the world, from European wheat fields to upland rice in Brazil. Taking a global view is essential in our adaptation to climate change.

Avoiding starvation

Why release this special issue now?

Quite simply, the consequences of an inadequate response to climate change are stark for the human population. In fact, as previously discussed on the Global Plant Council blog, changing climate and extreme weather events are already having an impact on food production. For example, drought in Australia (2007), Russia (2010) and South-East China (2013) all resulted in steep increases in food prices. However, a positive side effect of this was to put food security at the top of the global agenda.

A farm in China during drought. Reduced food production can cause steep rises in food prices leading to socio-economic problems.  Photo credit: Bert van Dijk used under Creative Commons License 2.0

A farm in China during drought. Reduced food production can cause steep rises in food prices leading to socio-economic problems.
Photo credit: Bert van Dijk used under Creative Commons License 2.0

Moving forwards, researchers and breeders alike will have to change their fundamental approach to developing novel varieties of crops. In the past, breeders have been highly succesful in increasing yields to feed a growing population. However, we now need to adapt to a rapidly changing and unpredictable environment.

Dr Bryan McKersie sums this up in his contribution to the special issue. He commented: “Current plant breeding methods use large populations and rigorous selection in field environments, but the future environment is different and does not exist yet. Lessons learned from the Green Revolution and development of genetically engineered crops suggest that a new interdisciplinary research plan is needed to achieve food security.”

Driving up yields

So which traits should we be studying to increase resilience to climate change in our crops?

A potentially important characteristic brought to the foreground by Dr Karine Chenu and colleagues (University of Queensland, Australia) is susceptibility to frost damage. Although seemingly counterintuitive at first, the changing climate could result in greater frost exposure at key phases of the crop lifecycle. Warmer temperatures, or clear and cool nights during a drought, would allow vulnerable tissue to emerge earlier in the spring (Gu et al., 2008; Zheng et al., 2012). A late frost could then be incredibly destructive to our agricultural systems, causing losses of up to 85% (Paulsen and Heyne, 1983; Boer et al., 1993).

As explained by Dr Chenu, “Finding frost tolerant lines would thus help to deal with frost damage but also with losses due to extreme heat and drought – as they could be avoided by earlier sowings”.

The authors conclude that a “national yield advantage of up to 20% could result from the breeding of frost tolerant lines if useful genetic variation can be found”. The impact of this for future agriculture is incredibly exciting.

This study is just one illustration of the importance of thinking outside the box and investigating a wide range of traits when looking to adapt crops to climate change.

You can find the full Breeding plants to cope with future climate change Special Issue of Journal of Experimental Botany here. Much of the research in the issue is freely available (open access).

Journal of Experimental Botany publishes an exciting mix of research, review and comment on fundamental questions of broad interest in plant science. Regular special issues highlight key areas.


Association of Applied Biologists. 2014. Breeding plants to cope with future climate change. Newsletter of the Association of Applied Biologists 81, Spring/Summer 2014.

Boer R, Campbell LC, Fletcher DJ. 1993. Characteristics of frost in a major wheat-growing region of Australia. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 44, 1731–1743.

Gu L, Hanson PJ, Post WM et al. 2008. The 2007 Eastern US spring freeze: increased cold damage in a warming world? BioScience 58, 253–262.

Paulsen GM, Heyne EG. 1983. Grain production of winter wheat after spring freeze injury. Agronomy Journal 75, 705–707.

Zheng BY, Chenu K, Dreccer MF, Chapman SC. 2012. Breeding for the future: what are the potential impacts of future frost and heat events on sowing and flowering time requirements for Australian bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) varieties? Global Change Biology 18, 2899–2914.