Two researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research receive prestigious ERC Starting Grant

November 22, 2022


Charles Underwood, group leader in the department of Chromosome Biology and Ruben Garrido-Oter, group leader in the department of Plant-Microbe Interactions, have both been awarded a prestigious and highly competitive starting grant from the European Research Council (ERC). With an overall funding of €3 million, both projects will make strong contributions to the field of plant science.

The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research with the aim to encourage and support creative researchers of all nationalities within Europe. The ERC Starting Grant scheme funds excellent and innovative projects of outstanding early career research leaders.


In the project ASEXUALEMBRYO Charles Underwood will explore the molecular mechanism of natural apomixis, and build on these insights to develop novel breeding technologies.

Just like humans, most plant species reproduce by sexual reproduction where half of the genetic material comes from the mother and half comes from the father. Some plant species, including dandelions, citrus and mangos, have abandoned sex and can produce seeds that contain genetic material from the mother alone. These clonal seeds arise by a process called apomixis.

In nature, apomixis allows clonal transmission of favorable, hybrid genotypes through seeds over unlimited generations. Yet in agriculture new hybrid seeds must be recurrently produced on an annual basis at high cost. The introduction of apomixis in hybrid crops would allow stable inheritance of hybrid vigor through seeds, and eradicate the need to continuously re-make hybrids by crossing.

“It is very exciting to receive this grant from the European Research Council. It will allow my research group to discover how plants clone themselves through seeds by apomixis. The introduction of apomixis into crops has the potential to make hybrid seeds readily available for all, and facilitate sustainable, high-performance agriculture around the world,” says Charles Underwood.


The goal of the project PHYCOSPHERES, led by Ruben Garrido-Oter, is to employ a newly developed reductionist host-microbiota system to study the structure and functions of terrestrial phycospheres and identify the core ecological principles that explain the overlap between the root and phycosphere microbiota.

Microscopic algae release organic compounds to the region immediately surrounding their cells, known as the phycosphere, constituting a niche for colonization by heterotrophic bacteria. These bacteria consume algal photoassimilates and provide beneficial functions to their host, in a process that resembles the establishment of microbial communities associated with the roots and rhizospheres of land plants.

Using gnotobiotic systems and synthetic communities composed of phycosphere bacteria, Ruben and his team will study the genetic and molecular mechanisms that drive host-microbiota interactions in C. reinhardtii, as well as their evolutionary origins. They will design and build synthetic phototrophic microcosms based on terrestrial phycospheres using bioreactors to explore the ecological and molecular mechanisms underpinning microbiota diversity, stability and functions.

 “If successful, this project has the potential to reveal fundamental principles governing the dynamic behavior of microbial communities”, explains Ruben Garrido-Oter, “particularly those associated with a photosynthetic host.“

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