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Plants and animals live different lives. Unlike animals, plants as sessile organisms can’t fight and run away when confronted with adverse environment such as heat, drought, wounding or other forms of stress. Plants evolved different life strategy and react to these challenges typically by adapting their development and physiology. Therefore, plant development is characterized by a remarkable flexibility. More specifically, plants can do in terms of development much more than animals: They initiate and grow new organs such as leaves, roots and flowers even during their post-embryonic development; they keep permanent populations of stem cells throughout the whole life-span and they are able to change direction of their growth depending on external stimuli such as light, gravity and nutrition availability. This developmental plasticity provides plants with exceptional flexibility in terms of growth and survival. My main research interest is to understand this alternative form of life strategy and characterize these often profoundly different mechanisms of development granting plants their adaptation abilities.

Within the frame of the ERC funding we have obtained fundamental insights into mechanisms governing plant development. We further elaborated on the previous findings that many of plant developmental processes are mediated by the plant hormone auxin. Auxin is an extremely versatile signal and unique among plant signaling molecules. Unlike other plant hormones, it is transported from cell to cell in a directional manner through plant tissues and forms gradients and maxima that instruct plant development. We characterized this special auxin transport mechanism and showed that it not only mediates amazing variety of plant developmental processes but it can integrate diverse signals from the environment such as light, gravity. Thus this system of transport-driven auxin gradients plays in some aspects a role of nervous system in animals which is also responsible for integrating and processing signals and accordingly triggering an appropriate response. From these studies, the auxin transport system emerged as a universal mechanism providing positional and directional information for development in plant kingdom.

Our results are of a great importance to agriculture as they provide a basis for targeted engineering of plant architecture, e.g. for regulating root growth and branching to exploit less nutritious and arid soils or for regulation shoot branching and fruit formation including seed dispersal. The gained insights into the mechanisms of cell biological processes operating in plants, in particular how plant cell internalize substances from surroundings were crucial also for fields of plant immunity and nutrition management.

Furthermore, studies on auxin-mediated cell dedifferentiation, tissue regeneration and stem cell maintenance provide also fundamental insights into the general mechanisms of how cells co-ordinately self-organize into tissues and keep the balance of cell division and differentiation. On more practical side our insights into regulation of protein degradation and stability are valuable for production of medicinally important substances such as vaccines in plant systems. Thus our findings from developmental and cell biological studies have relevance also for cell biological studies in animal systems and for medical research.