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Plant molecular genetics for an environmentally compatible agriculture

Objective

The EU Biotechnology Programme (1992-94) work programme invited applications for the establishment of Projects of Technology Priority (PTP) that would secure added value for European R&D activities by helping participants in complementary projects covering different technologies of the EU supported research programme to coordinate their activities around specific objectives.
The PTP project 'Plant Molecular Genetics for an Environmentally Compatible Agriculture' was therefore conceived and implemented by AMICA to provide more scientific knowledge relevant to an environmentally sustainable agriculture, a topic of importantance for all of the member states as well as helping to enhance the continued competitiveness of European agriculture and related industries in the global market place. The project was established as a large multi-thematic programme, concentrating the scientific work programme around 15 research themes, and three local training involving 130 collaborating research teams from 11 member states. In fulfilment of the Biotechnology work programme, AMICA installed high levels of internal organisation to promote the development of the R&D infrastructure, the allocation of tasks to individual participants, the inclusion of training activities, and support to deserving groups penalized by geographic or academic isolation. Detailed final reports from each of these transnational, multidisciplinary collaborating groups of laboratories are contained elsewhere in this report. In addition to organising and managing the scientific programme of the PTP, AMICA instigated a range of management tasks which were inherent to the successful execution of the project. This PTP coordination overview will concentrate on these modalities, and highlight how added value and other benefits were realised, as well as noting some of the major scientific breakthroughs achieved during the contractual period.
Scientific Highlights
The breeding of plants for a more efficient, useful and environmentally compatible agriculture depends on creating plants with different growth habits, the ability to withstand better environmental stresses created by temperature and chemical variation, better abilities to sequester fertilisers from soils and better quality fruits and seeds for industrial processing and nutrition. The PTP has made many discoveries to enrich the fast growing pool of information that industries will use to breed new versions of crops with these improvements. Examples of some outstanding scientific success stories are detailed below:
(i) Modern breeding has given us high yielding hybrids, e.g. of maize (by crossing of some highly inbred lines). This phenomenon, known as heterosis, is well known but poorly understood. This programme attempts to correlate the capacity for high yield with the activity, or lack thereof, of certain genes.
(ii) That plant pathogenic bacteria harbour hrp (host resistance and pathogenicity) genes, some of which are highly conserved and related to genes found in animal pathogens and therefore renamed hrc (c for conserved), is not only very intriguing but the comparison also strengthens the idea that these genes are involved in a mechanism allowing the injection in the plant of chemical signals coming from the pathogenic bacteria. The importance of this work is to be measured in a medium to long-term time frame.
(iii) Plants have evolved regulated growth systems to compete with each other for sunlight. In agriculture this is not always advantageous. Transgenic tobacco plants expressing an oat PHYA gene have now been produced and shown to exhibit negative shade avoidance characteristics with reduced extension growth of stems and petioles when grown in close proximity to other plants. This manipulation of crop plant architecture has resulted in an significant increase in leaf biomass. Field trials have been carried out to advance this discovery.
(iv) The correct timing of flower formation and appropriate flower structures are a vital determinant of seed yield. Consequently flowering is being studied in detail. A gene involved in flower development has been isolated from barley. Remarkably this gene (Tumbra) shows similarity to tumour genes from humans and mice. The expression of this gene is connected to tumorous growth in plants indicating similarities between the growth of tumours in both plants and animals. The gene may be useful to help control plant cell proliferation and differentiation in plant propagation regimes.
(v) It is well known that steroids play a major influence on the development of animals. Through the analysis of a T-DNA insertion mutant of Arabidopsis affected in its growth, as well as its reactions to light, PTP research has demonstrated that certain ecdysone-like steroids (brassinosteroids) also play a major role in the regulation of a wide range of agriculturally important traits in plants (growth, defense mechanisms and reactions to light).
(vi) Plant growth is regulated by hormones such as ethylene. Manipulation of responses to hormones depends on defining the genes and pathways associated with the ethylene growth response. Studies have now demonstrated that binding of ethylene to its receptor within the plant, results in the activation of a small protein termed a G-protein. It has also been shown that the treatment of plants with ethylene leads to the initiation of a 'phosphorylation cascade' that activates steps that eventually change plant behaviour. Such observations have great significance because the small G-protein/phosphorylation cascade systems are known to be central to the control of many aspects of metabolism and development in yeast and animals, including humans. This is supported by the fact that 80% of human cancers are thought to be due to malfunctions of genes encoding small G-proteins. The plant discovery opens up ways of manipulating many aspects of plant architecture and responses.
(vii) Xyloglucan oligosaccharides (XGOs) are natural plant growth regulators. PTP research has shown that XGOs promote plant growth by 'plasticising' cell walls, induce the production of ethylene, and can move from one part of the plant to another. This knowledge is confirming these molecules as powerful initiators of changes in plant growth patterns. PTP supported work has also demonstrated how a recently discovered enzyme, xyloglucan endotransglycosylase, which plays a major role in XGO action, acts in living plant cells to modify XGO structures.
(viii) A dream of plant breeders is to be able to disrupt specific genes and replace them with new versions. This has so far proved very inefficient in higher plants. Work using Physcomitrella patens as a model species has demonstrated for the first time efficient gene disruption in plants. Disruption of genes encoding adenine phosphoribosyl transferase and the chlorophyll a/b binding protein has been achieved. Gene targeting permits the possibility of disrupting the activity of genes in order to ascertain their precise function - something vital for the research community in this era of gene discovery.
(ix) Proteins and compounds such as certain sugars or amino acids derivatives are thought to exert a synergistic effect in protecting plant cells from irreversible damage caused by different abiotic stresses. In determining how the synthesis of these compounds is regulated the PTP has identified a barley protein that is synthesised in response to cold stress. It is a useful marker for breeders to measure cold tolerance. To discover valuable genes in protecting plants against stress many Arabidopsis mutants have been isolated with altered cold acclimation and freezing tolerance. By inserting specific genes plants with a modified response to heat shock have been made. These are significant advances towards the provision of crop plants with better resistance to common stresses limiting agricultural production.
(x) In order to understand how plants respond to potassium (K+) deficiency and high salinity, PTP has characterised the pathways by which plants take up K+ and Na+. It has identified enzymes within the cell that are particularly sensitive to Na+ and show that Na+ sensitive metabolic systems are involved in intracellular signalling and regulate the pathway of active Na+ excretion under high salinity.
(xi) To modify the ability of plants to withstand drought stress, it is relevant to understand which genes respond to drought to provide protection. Sixteen have been identified in maize in the PTP project and mapped on the maize genome to explore their coincidence with drought-linked loci detected by classical genetic mapping. Also decreases in invertase have shown to be an important early response to mild water stress.
(xii) Significant advances have been made in the analysis of starch synthesis in the potato tuber with the identification of proteins involved in determining the structural features of starch. Potato plants with modified starches have been produced by manipulation of genes encoding the proteins. This information can be applied by industry to produce specific starch types suited to the needs of specialised end-users.
(xiii) In an attempt to produce 'nutrient-dense foods' the PTP has been looking into how to increase the amounts of carotenoids in certain food crops. Many appropriate genes that can be introduced into plants in order to increase the amounts and types of carotenoids have been identified. Transformation of tomato with carotenoid biosynthesis genes from bacteria has been accomplished to make tomatoes with novel carotenoids. Also our fundamental understanding of the mechanisms in plants that control the level of these pigments in plant tissues has been increased.
(xiv) Bacterial genes specifying fructans have been inserted into sugar beet and plants created that synthesise fructans. This discovery opens up new commercial potential for fructan production in this crop.
(xv) Major genetic factors regulating kernel development and the utilisation of nitrogen in cereals have been identified to aid improved seed production.
(xvi) An important objective for agriculture is to optimise the uptake of NO3 fertiliser to enable different fertiliser regimes to be practised. Genes for membrane proteins that are likely components of the high affinity nitrate uptake system of barley have been isolated. The equivalent genes have also been identified from other plant species which will enable scientists to improve the efficiency in which crop plants capture nitrate from the soil.
(xvii) The identification of the high affinity transporters for nitrate opens the way to devise transgenic plants more efficiently taking up nitrate from the soil. This can be envisaged as a strategy to reduce the needs in nitrate fertilisers for major crops.
(xviii) Plants constitutively expressing nitrate reductase are less susceptible to water stress-induced depression of nitrate assimilation. This also can contribute to devise plants requiring less nitrate for their sustained growth in semi arid conditions.
(xix) Research carried out by one of the local training networks has resulted in the development of cDNA probes that can determine the developmental phase of tree material, which will act as a valuable tool in, (i) selection of tree material for micropropagation and (ii) determination of phase status prior to rooting and weaning. The PTP has also played an important role in helping to integrate the activities of geographically isolated groups with the rest of the European plance sceince community. As a direct result of the integrated collaboration between the Irish network and PTP Scientific Programme, the first European technology transfer meeting in plant biotechnology Phytosfere '97, was successfully held at University College Dublin. This meeting was a collaborative effort between AMICA, PIP, BioResearch Ireland and University College Dublin.
(xx) As a consequence of the fruitful cooperation established between researchers in Portugal and the other members of the PTP, and of the expertise acquired in plant molecular biology, several papers are being prepared. A confidential abstract to discuss the possibility patenting of one gene sequence has been submitted to the Plant Industrial Platform.


Funding Scheme

CSC - Cost-sharing contracts

Coordinator

JOHN INNES CENTRE
Address
Colney Lane - Norwich Research Park
NR4 7UH Norwich
United Kingdom

Participants (77)

AGRICULTURAL UNIVERSITY OF ATHENS
Greece
Address
75,Iera Odos 75
11855 Athens
ALBERT-LUDWIGS-UNIVERSITAET FREIBURG
Germany
Address
Schlaenzlestrasse 1
79104 Freiburg
AMICA SCIENCE EEIG
United Kingdom
Address
Norwich Research Park John Innes Centre, Colney
NR4 7UH Norwich
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
Greece
Address

54006 Thessaloniki
Association Générale des Producteurs de Maïs
France
Address

64121 Montardon
British Sugar plc
United Kingdom
Address
Colney Lane
NR4 7UB Norwich
CENTRE NATIONAL DE LA RECHERCHE SCIENTIFIQUE
France
Address
Place Jussieu 2, Tour 43
75251 Paris
CENTRE NATIONAL DE LA RECHERCHE SCIENTIFIQUE
France
Address
Avenue De La Terrasse 1Bètiment 23
91190 Gif Sur Yvette
CENTRE NATIONAL DE LA RECHERCHE SCIENTIFIQUE
France
Address
Rue De Général Zimmer 12
67084 Strasbourg
CENTRE NATIONAL DE LA RECHERCHE SCIENTIFIQUE
France
Address
Chemin De Borde-rouge Inra
31326 Aureville
CONSEJO SUPERIOR DE INVESTIGACIONES CIENTIFICAS
Spain
Address
144,Velazquez 144
28006 Madrid
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)
France
Address
205 Route De Narbonne
31077 Toulouse
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)
France
Address
15 Place Pierre Viala
34060 Montpellier
DANISH INSTITUTE OF AGRICULTURAL SCIENCES
Denmark
Address

8830 Tjele
Danisco A/S
Denmark
Address
1,Langebrogade 1
1001 København
Ente per le Nuove Tecnologie, l'Energia e l'Ambiente (ENEA)
Italy
Address
Via Anguillarese 201
00060 Santa Maria Di Galeria (Roma)
Enterprise Ireland - Trading as Bioresearch Ireland
Ireland
Address
Glasnevin
9 Dublin
FOUNDATION OF RESEARCH AND TECHNOLOGY - HELLAS
Greece
Address
Vassilika Vouton
71110 Iraklion
FREIE UNIVERSITAET BERLIN
Germany
Address
6,Albrecht-thaer-weg 6
14195 Berlin
Faculté des Sciences Agronomiques de Gembloux
Belgium
Address
Avenue Maréchal Juin
5030 Gembloux
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
Germany
Address
Untere Karspuele 2
37073 Göttingen
Heinrich-Heine-Universitat Dusseldorf
Germany
Address
Universitätstraße 1
40225 Düsseldorf
Horticulture Research International
United Kingdom
Address
Worthing Road
BN17 6LP Littlehampton
INSTITUT NATIONAL DE LA RECHERCHE AGRONOMIQUE
France
Address
Route De Saint-cyr Rd10
78026 Versailles
INSTITUT NATIONAL DE LA RECHERCHE AGRONOMIQUE
France
Address
Place Pierre Viala 2
34060 Montpellier
INSTITUTE OF PLANT GENETICS AND CROP PLANT RESEARCH
Germany
Address
Correnstrasse 3
06466 Gatersleben
INSTITUTO NACIONAL DE INVESTIGACION Y TECNOLOGIA AGRARIA Y ALIMENTARIA
Spain
Address
Km.7,carretera De La Coruça Km.7
28040 Madrid
INSTITUTO SUPERIOR TECNICO
Portugal
Address
1,Avenida Rovisco Pais 1
1049-001 Lisboa
ISTITUTO SPERIMENTALE PER LA CEREALICOLTURA
Italy
Address
Via Cassia 176
00191 Roma
Institut für Genbiologische Forschung Berlin GmbH
Germany
Address
Ihnestraße 63
14195 Berlin
JOHN INNES CENTRE
United Kingdom
Address
Norwich Research Park, Colney
Norwich
Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe Universität Frankfurt
Germany
Address

6000 Frankfurt Am Main
Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen
Germany
Address
Senckenbergstraße 17-21
35390 Giessen
LEIDEN UNIVERSITY
Netherlands
Address
64,Wassenaarseweg 64 Clusius Laboratorium
2333 AL Leiden
LUDWIG-MAXIMILIANS UNIVERSITY OF MUNICH
Germany
Address
1A,maria-ward-strasse 1A
80638 Muenchen
Landbouwuniversiteit Wageningen
Netherlands
Address
2,Dreijenlaan
6703 HA Wageningen
MAX-PLANCK-GESELLSCHAFT ZUR FOERDERUNG DER WISSENSCHAFTEN E.V.
Germany
Address
Ihnestrasse 73
14195 Berlin
MAX-PLANCK-GESELLSCHAFT ZUR FOERDERUNG DER WISSENSCHAFTEN E.V.
Germany
Address
Carl-von-linné-weg 10
50829 Koeln
National and Kapodestrian University of Athens
Greece
Address
Panepistimiopolis - Kouponia
15701 Athens
RAFFINERIE TIRLEMONTOISE S.A.
Belgium
Address
1,Aandorenstraat 1
3300 Tienen
ROTHAMSTED RESEARCH LIMITED
United Kingdom
Address
West Common
AL5 2JQ Harpenden, Herts
Royal Holloway and Bedford New College
United Kingdom
Address
Egham Hill
TW20 0EX Egham
Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
Germany
Address
Im Neuenheimer Feld 360
69120 Heidelberg
Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI)
United Kingdom
Address
Invergowrie
DD2 5DA Dundee
THE CHANCELLOR, MASTERS AND SCHOLARS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
United Kingdom
Address
South Parks Road
OX1 3RB Oxford
THE UNIVERSITY OF TUEBINGEN
Germany
Address
Wilhelmstrasse 5
72074 Tuebingen
UNIVERSIDAD DE CORDOBA
Spain
Address
S/n,avenida San Alberto Maquo S/n
14071 Cordoba
UNIVERSITAET BAYREUTH
Germany
Address
Universitätsstrasse 30
95440 Bayreuth
UNIVERSITAET KOELN
Germany
Address
15,Gyrhofstrasse 15
50931 Koeln
UNIVERSITAT DE VALENCIA
Spain
Address
S/n,c/ Dr Moliner S/n
46100 Burjasot
UNIVERSITE CATHOLIQUE DE LOUVAIN
Belgium
Address
2/20,Place Croix Du Sud 2/20
1348 Louvain-la-neuve
UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN
Denmark
Address
Oester Voldgade 3
1350 Koebenhavn K/copenhaegen
UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH
United Kingdom
Address
King's Building, Darwing Building, Mayfield Road
EH9 3Jr Edinburgh
UNIVERSITY OF HAMBURG
Germany
Address
Ohnhorststraße 18
22609 Hamburg
UNIVERSITY OF LEICESTER
United Kingdom
Address
University Road
LE1 7RH Leicester
UNIVERSITY OF READING
United Kingdom
Address
Whiteknights
RG6 2AS Reading
UNIVERSITY OF ROME "LA SAPIENZA"
Italy
Address
Viale Regina Elena 324
00161 Roma
UNIVERSITY OF YORK
United Kingdom
Address
Heslington
York
UTRECHT UNIVERSITY
Netherlands
Address
8,Padualaan 8
3584 CH Utrecht
Universidad Politecnica de Valencia
Spain
Address
14,Camino De Vera
46022 Valencia
Universidad Politécnica de Madrid
Spain
Address
Avda. Complutense
28040 Madrid
Universidad Pública de Navarra
Spain
Address
Campus Arrosadia
31006 Pamplona
Universidad de Murcia
Spain
Address

30071 Murcia
Universidad de Sevilla
Spain
Address
Apartado
41080 Sevilla
Universiteit Gent
Belgium
Address
35,K.l. Ledeganckstraat 35
9000 Gent
University College of Wales Aberystwyth
United Kingdom
Address

SY23 3DA E Aberystwyth - Dyfed
University of Cambridge
United Kingdom
Address
Downing Street
CB2 3EA Cambridge
University of Leeds
United Kingdom
Address
Woodhouse Lane
LS2 9JT Leeds
University of St Andrews
United Kingdom
Address

KY16 9TH St Andrews
Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II
Italy
Address
Via Foria 223
80139 Napoli
Universitá di Roma La Sapienza
Italy
Address
Piazza Aldo Moro 5
00185 Roma
Universität Bielefeld
Germany
Address
25,Universitätsstraße 25
33615 Bielefeld
Université de Lausanne
Switzerland
Address

1015 Lausanne
Université de Nice - Sophia Antipolis
France
Address
Parc Valrose
06108 Nice
Université de Paris XI (Université Paris-Sud)
France
Address
Ferme Du Moulon
91190 Gif-sur-yvette
Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Belgium
Address
2,Pleinlaan
1050 Bruxelles
Århus Universitet
Denmark
Address
10,Gustav Wieds Vej 10
8000 Århus