Unravelling the secrets to achieving high-yield plants
Understanding the basic mechanics of plant growth could help Europe increase crop yield while decreasing the need for pesticides - a vitally important consideration given our growing demand for sustainable food. An EU-funded project has made significant advances in this respect, by shedding new light on the behaviour of certain plant hormones and their role in achieving successful crops.
The European Bravissimo project focused on 'brassinosteroids' (BRs), specific plant hormones that control aspects of plant growth and development. Scientists were already aware that these hormones have a positive effect on the quality and productivity of crops, and that they can increase crop resistance to stress and disease.
The Bravissimo project’s major contribution in this field has been to successfully unravel the mechanism of brassinosteroid hormones that regulates 'stomata' development. Stomata are microscopic pores by which plants breathe and release water.
“When rain is scarce, for example, the pores will close to prevent the plant from wasting water while an automatic drought-protection mechanism is triggered into action,” explains Jenny Russinova, project coordinator of the EU-funded Bravissimo project. Brassinosteroids play an important role in determining the number of leaf stomata, but the underlying mechanism has not been well understood, until now.”
This breakthrough has important implications for environmental research and for the protection of plants, and the results have since been published in the prestigious science journal Nature Cell Biology. In a wider sense, better understanding of BRs could lead to innovative new agricultural practices.
“Like human steroid hormones, brassinosteroids are crucially important, since a lack of this hormone can lead to the development of extremely small plants,” explains Dr Russinova. “Brassinosteroids offer the unique possibility of increasing crop yields through both changing plant metabolism and protecting plants.”
Adapting to change
Dr Russinova and her colleagues believe that a better understanding of BR function could provide the basis for developing plant varieties better adapted to anticipated environmental change, and more resistant to disease. This could have significant economic implications.
“Plants are the basis of European industries with an annual turnover of more than 1 trillion euros, and they will continue to play an even more important role in our economies in the future,” says Dr Russinova. “Over the next 20 years, the challenge for European agriculture will be to satisfy the growing demands for producing food in a sustainable manner.”
At the beginning of the project, the tomato was selected as an ideal species for analysis, and also as a model system for fruit production. Together with scientists from Crop Design, a BASF Science Company, known genes involved in the BR pathway were reviewed and several candidates have since been selected for functional tests on rice.
Dr Russinova credits her involvement in the project as a crucial step in her research career. “Being a coordinator of Bravissimo was an extremely useful experience for me because I learned how to communicate and collaborate with different research teams,” she acknowledges. “I interacted with many young researchers, who introduced me to new ways of approaching certain scientific challenges. I also learned what interests them, and how they see their career development.”
By creating new opportunities and developing potential new technologies for agriculture, the ground-breaking Bravissimo project supports the EU’s stated Horizon 2020 goals of creating growth and jobs through research.
As group leader at the VIB Department of Plant Systems Biology at Ghent University, Dr Russinova is currently working on the interaction between plant cells and brassinosteroids. Unravelling this, she says, will be another important step towards the development of effective strategies for producing high-yielding plants.