We wish to determine whether and how a detailed understanding of molecular mechanisms defined in model plant species can be used to rationally manipulate selected traits in crop plants.
The primary scientific goal of the Department of Plant Developmental Biology (Director: George Coupland) is to study molecular mechanisms that regulate the responsiveness of plant development to environmental cues. In particular, a strong emphasis is placed on understanding the mechanisms controlling the transition to flowering in response to environmental signals and in explaining the diversity in flowering responses observed between species. These studies employ molecular-genetic, biochemical and cell biology-based approaches in the model species Arabidopsis thaliana to investigate the roles of key regulatory proteins in flowering. Of particular interest are the mechanisms by which seasonal changes in day length control flowering, the role of the endogenous circadian clock in measuring day length, the importance of chromatin structure in controlling the transcription of flowering-time genes and how the functions of regulatory proteins are modulated by phosphorylation or the attachment of the small protein ubiquitin. Researchers in this department also study how these processes have evolved in other plant species Here, the department focuses particularly 1) on the modifications of flowering pathways that took place during domestication of barley, 2) on how these pathways respond to abiotic stresses such as drought, and 3) the mechanisms by which distinct life histories, such as perennialism, have emerged during evolution as a consequence of alterations in the regulation of flowering.
The objective of the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics (Director: Maarten Koornneef) is to extend our knowledge of processes that determine crucial aspects of plant growth and development, including plant architecture, plant metabolism and seed dormancy, using genetic and genomic tools. In addition to the breadth of interspecies diversity found in plants, substantial genetic variation is present within species in nature or has been generated (selected for) by breeders. The application of molecular genetic methods has led to detailed insights into the molecular nature of the genetic differences and to a much better understanding of the processes underlying genetic differences in plant growth and development. This knowledge base provides new tools for plant breeders that will make plant breeding more efficient by using genetic markers that ‘tag’ genes for traits of interest. For further development of these tools, more detailed knowledge of the function of the genes that display variation in nature and of the molecular basis of agronomically relevant traits is needed. Much of the natural variation in traits of interest is determined by multiple genes, and therefore shows complex genetic behaviour. Hence, methods of computational genetics, such as quantitative trait locus (QTL) analysis and association mapping, are indispensable. It is expected that knowledge gained with these new tools will find practical application in plant breeding and will allow further improvement of crop plants.
Research in the Department of Plant Microbe Interactions (Director: Paul Schulze-Lefert) concentrates on fundamental molecular processes underlying interactions between plants and pathogens. The innate immune system of plants and mechanisms of microbial pathogenesis have a central role in the discovery programme. Researchers are pursuing an integrated approach that connects traditionally separate research territories like genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, and cell biology. Much of this work is focused on interactions between plants and filamentous pathogens such as fungi and oomycetes, two widespread classes of pathogenic microbes. Although the plant immune system ensures effective protection against most microbial pathogens, some intruders do succeed in colonising host plants. In such cases, plant immune receptors fail to recognise the pathogen, or the invader has evolved ways of suppressing immune responses. The goal is to define the regulatory network of the plant immune system in such detail that a prediction on how it will respond to specific changes in defined components is possible. This should provide insights into how the plant immune system can be modified, using molecular breeding techniques, so as to improve plant protection.
Research in the Department of Comparative Development and Genetics (Director: Miltos Tsiantis) aims to attain a predictive understanding of how biological forms develop and diversify, by using a combination of genetics, biological imaging, genomics and computational modelling. To empower their work scientists in the Department developed Cardamine hirsuta - a small crucifer related to the reference plant Arabidopsis thaliana - into a powerful genetic system. Comparative studies between these two species and other seed plants aids them in uncovering the mechanistic basis for plant diversity and helps them formulate general hypotheses about how morphology evolves.
Giving talented young scientists from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to prove themselves as leaders of independent research groups complements and expands the focus of the departments. The groups directed by these younger scientists operate outside the departmental structure and can pursue their own research topics for a period of up to five years. Currently three independent research groups supply extra know-how in chemical and quantitative crop genetics. Renier van der Hoorn leads the Plant Chemetics group, which is part of a collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Physiology in Dortmund. Benjamin Stich is head of the Crop Genetics group, which is based on a strong background in quantitative genetics.
Service groups are also independent of the departments and are headed by tenured scientists who perform research tasks, in addition to service duties which they carry out in collaboration with groups inside and outside the Institute. Elmon Schmelzer’s group deals with microscopy, Jürgen Schmidt’s group with mass spectrometry, Erich Kombrink operates at the interface of chemistry and biology, while Bernd Reiss’ group studies recombination and also takes care of issues relating to laboratory biosafety. Future orientation The development of "next-generation" sequencing technology provides novel opportunities for genome-based research that also deals with the issues of natural variation and biodiversity. Currently these technologies are being used for genome sequencing of several fungal species, and of Arabis alpine. They also find application in the area of gene expression. The establishment of a Genome Centre where next-generation sequencing will be used has been started in 2010. The existing departments and the new research group on fungal biodiversity recently approved by the Max Planck Society in the department of Plant Microbe Interactions will benefit from these facilities, as well as the new department that will be led by a new Director, whose appointment is underway.
Future discovery oriented plant biology at the MPIZ will utilise integrated approaches to elucidate networks of fundamental biological processes in plants. Multidisciplinary approaches bridging genetics, biochemistry, cell biology and bioinformatics will be essential for in depth understanding of the molecular mechanics of traits that are relevant to plant breeding. While genetic methods have proven invaluable for the dissection of complex plant traits, small molecules can significantly complement this toolbox.
Comprehensive analysis of thousands of plant samples is necessary to isolate one plant sample that exhibits a mutation, for instance in photosynthetic processes. For this reason the institute will endeavor over the next few years to further automate mutant and DNA analysis. Additional modernizations at the institute will be necessary in the area of climatic chambers and greenhouses where plants can be grown under controlled conditions. Furthermore, the detailed collection and evaluation of molecular research results will require the upgrading of data banks and networks. Bioinformatics is useful in applying statistical procedures for DNA sequence analysis to draw up extensive genetic maps. It also helps in the simulation of biological processes with regard to breeding applications.
Institute work will allow a steady contribution to achieving goals set out for breeding that were previously difficult or impossible to attain. Research will also provide a scientific basis for sustainable agriculture.