More than 6 million Euros for research of internal communication in plants

Plant researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, at the University Hamburg, and the John Innes Centre received a “Synergy Grant” of the European Research Council (ERC)

October 23, 2018
Objective of the € 6.1 million research project “Plant Mobile RNAs: Function, Transport and Features“, shortly PLAMORF, is the long-distance transport of distinct communication molecules in plant vascular bundles. The Synergy Grant is awarded to excellent junior scientists or, as in this case, established researchers with outstanding achievements. The funds will be awarded to teams of two to four scientists with promising new questions from all scientific disciplines. The research groups around Dr. habil. Friedrich Kragler of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology in Golm, Prof. Dr. Julia Kehr from the University of Hamburg and Prof. Dr. Richard Morris from the John Innes Centre in the UK, complement their expertise in the areas of cell biology/macromolecular transport, structural biology, mathematical modeling/bioinformatics in an exceptional manner.

In contrast to animals and humans, plants have neither a nervous system nor blood circulation. Nevertheless, nutrients, information and signals are transported within the plant. The long-distance transport of nutrients is taking place in the vascular bundles, which are located in the stem or in the trunk in case of trees. A distinction is made between the xylem, a woody vascular tissue, which serves the transport of water and inorganic salts and provides support function, and the phloem, in which – as it has long been known – photoassimilates such as sugar and nutrients are distributed in the plant. In addition, other small molecules with signaling function, such as hormones and various types of ribonucleic acids (RNA), as well as RNA-binding proteins (RBPs) are transported in the phloem. RNA acts not only in the conversion of genetic information into proteins, but special small RNAs are also directly involved in gene regulation. So far, little is known about how these RNA molecules are taken up into the phloem and released again at their destination. It is unclear how RNA transport is regulated and whether mobility between cells and tissues is specific or unspecific. To answer these questions and to clarify how RNAs reach their target tissue and what’s their destiny and function in the receiving cell types, are the objectives of the research project PLAMORF.

"In a first work package (WP1), the task of the research groups will be to identify mobile RNAs in the phloem and in single cells of grafted plants, to capture the motif that triggers the transport of the mobile RNAs and to analyze their signal function under phosphate and sulfate nutritional stress", explains Dr. Kragler the range of tasks. "In a second work package (WP2), we will be dealing with the identification and characterization of cellular factors that interact with mobile RNAs," adds Prof. Julia Kehr to the description of the workflow of the 6-years research project. Overall, in both work packages, scientists will apply new approaches and techniques that enable the creation of single-cell transcriptome profiles. This means, all genes of a single cell transcribed from DNA into RNA – thus the totality of all RNA molecules produced in a cell – will be detected to verify the presence of RNAs from distant tissues.

"In analogy to electronic data processing, we will develop mathematical models for the long-distance transport of communication molecules in plants," explains Prof. Morris. "In both work packages, integrating the cell biology of active genes with protein and RNA structures within the framework of information theory will be an indispensable component of success," he says, describing the strategy of the research team.

In addition to the scientific work, the team has planned a series of activities to bring the research topic to the public's attention. Main target groups of such communication activities are pupils, the general public, plant breeders, agriculture, politicians and, of course, other scientists.

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