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Systems Biology Seed Research

University of Freiburg Part of International „virtual Seed“ Network – 1.7 Million Euros in Funding

2 November 2009

What happens to plant seeds when they germinate? That is the topic a team of researchers headed by plant physiologist PD Dr. Gerhard Leubner of the Department of Biology II, coordinator of the Freiburg subproject, and Prof. Dr. Mike Holdsworth (University of Nottingham), who submitted the main proposal, will be investigating together with the Freiburg Biomechanics Group, led by Prof. Dr. Thomas Speck, and five other international research groups. The „virtual Seed“ (vSEED) consortium of the universities of Freiburg, Nottingham, Leeds (both Great Britain), and Wageningen (Netherlands) took first place in a field of 54 applicants in the „European Research Era-Net Plant Genomics” competition. They will receive 1.7 million euros in funding in the next three years for a total of eight laboratories and several postdoctoral positions. The network aims to exploit the possibilities offered by modern methods of systems biology to explain the molecular, physiological, and mechanical processes of plant seeds in their entirety and bring these three levels together through the use of mathematical modeling.

One of the main functions of seeds is to enable plants to spread into new environments. In addition, the seed stage of a plant’s life cycle is the point at which it is best protected against drought: A seed can remain dormant for years waiting for optimal environmental conditions for germination. An understanding of seed biology is not only a matter for fundamental researchers, but is also important for the agricultural and food industries. How is it possible for a seemingly lifeless entity to suddenly sprout and produce an entire plant? These processes are controlled by a complex network of molecules which react to environmental influences, change the mechanical characteristics of the seed coat, and enable the young plant to break through at just the right moment. „Biologists and mathematicians need to work together to produce an integrative and comprehensive view of the various levels of these processes by means of systems biological modeling. And precisely that is the goal of the interdisciplinary virtual Seed project,“ says Dr. Gerhard Leubner, head of the research group for plant physiology.

For the next three years, the four European partners of the consortium will take on the task of providing a mathematical description of the dynamic processes involved in the germination of seeds of the closely related plants Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress) and Lepidium sativum (garden cress). The funding will be provided by the national research organizations of the three participating countries, in Freiburg by the German Research Foundation (DFG). In the area of biomechanics, experts from Freiburg and Nottingham will work closely together: Leubner’s group will be researching which hormones control germination and dormancy. The plant physiologist and his team have also developed an apparatus for measuring the mechanical changes the seed coats undergo while the seeds are germinating.