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Scientists discover plant 'nourishing gene': good news for global food production
A team of EU-funded British and French researchers has identified the 'nourishing gene' in charge of transferring nutrients from plants to seeds. This new discovery, presented in the journal Current Biology, could help increase global food production while it also has implications for food security.
For the first time the researchers were able to identify the gene, named Meg1, which regulates the optimum amount of nutrients flowing from mother to offspring in maize plants.
The study was funded in part by the European Commission through the 'Harnessing plant reproduction for crop improvement' action of the Food and Agriculture domain of the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) framework. COST coordinates different national research programmes at the European level; it is supported by the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. The main aim is to reduce fragmentation in European research investments and open the European Research Area (ERA) up to worldwide cooperation.
Meg1, unlike the majority of genes that are expressed from both maternal and paternal chromosomes, is expressed only from the maternal chromosomes. This unusual form of uniparental gene expression, called imprinting, is not restricted to plants; it also occurs in some human genes known to regulate the development of the placenta to control the supply of maternal nutrients during foetal growth.
Although scientists have known for a while of the existence of such imprinted genes in humans and other mammals, this is the first time a parallel gene to regulate nutrient provisioning during seed development has been identified in the plant world.
The results from this new study mean that scientists can now focus on using the gene and understanding the mechanism by which it is expressed to increase seed size and productivity in major crop plants.
One of the study authors, Dr Jose Gutierrez-Marcos from the University of Warwick, said: 'These findings have significant implications for global agriculture and food security, as scientists now have the molecular know-how to manipulate this gene by traditional plant breeding or through other methods to improve seed traits, such as increased seed biomass yield. This understanding of how maize seeds and other cereal grains develop - for example in rice and wheat - is vital as the global population relies on these staple products for sustenance. To meet the demands of the world's growing population in years to come, scientists and breeders must work together to safeguard and increase agricultural production.'
Another study author, Professor Hugh Dickinson from Oxford University, comments: 'While the identification of MEG1 is an important discovery in its own right, it also represents a real breakthrough in unravelling the complex gene pathways that regulate the provisioning and nutritional content of seeds.'
Although most desirable crop traits are polygenic, no plant breeding tools exist that allow the efficient fixation of multigenic traits over successive generations. Among several reproductive system-related strategies for fixation of desirable agronomic traits, one of the best choices is clonal seed production. This enables the instantaneous fixation of the complete genome of the best plants.
The overall goal of COST is to allow for a synergy of interrelated European and international expertise to better understand the mechanisms of sexual/apomictic plant reproduction and to facilitate the application of this increased knowledge in the development of new approaches for agriculture and food industry, in order to increase crop productivity.
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Data Source Provider:University of Warwick
Document of reference:Costa, L. M. et al., 'Maternal Control of Nutrient Allocation in Plant Seeds by Genomic Imprinting', Current Biology, 2012. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.11.059
Subject index:Coordination, Cooperation,Life Sciences,Scientific Research
Programme Acronym: MS-FR C , MS-UK C
Record control number (RCN):34232