A major goal of evolutionary biology is to reconstruct evolutionary trajectories and outcomes from mechanistic descriptions of the interactions between organisms and their environment. This goal is rarely reached due to the complexity of these interactions and their effects on fitness. Recent advances in computer technology that facilitate the solution and optimization of large mathematical systems have now brought such models into reach. In MECHSYS, I propose to develop a computational framework that builds on biochemical and physical principles to reconstruct how the interaction of the environment with plant anatomy, water transport, photosynthesis, and metabolism shapes plant physiology and fitness. Mathematically, the model comprises thermal balances as well as the balances of metabolites and water in different plant organs and in the compartments of leaf cells, using net CO2 fixation per root area over multiple days as a proxy for fitness. For a given climate and soil, the model will estimate fitness based on anatomical parameters and on systems-level protein concentrations and enzyme regulation. These estimates will allow us to rationalize the evolution and/or predominance of different types of plants in specific habitats. We will validate the model against proteomics and metabolomics data from representatives of C3 plants and the much more water use efficient CAM plants, covering desert plants as well as epiphytes. Moreover, we will simulate evolutionary trajectories towards CAM photosynthesis and succulence, two traits whose evolution appears to be interlinked. Finally, we will utilize the model to propose optimal strategies for engineering crops to become more drought-resistant in increasingly hotter and drier climates. Overall, MECHSYS will establish, test, and apply a ground-breaking, mechanistic systems modelling framework for evolutionary plant biology, which will allow deep insights into the selective forces that shape plant physiology and evolution.
Fields of science
- HORIZON.1.1 - European Research Council (ERC) Main Programme