Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

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Professor Ingo Heilmann
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Plant cells as small-scale assembly lines: new Research Training Group starts at the MLU

Nummer 118/2019 vom 17. Juli 2019
Growth for plant research in Halle: A new Research Training Group (RTG) opened at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) in July. Doctoral students are investigating how complex biochemical processes are controlled in subdivided rooms (so-called "compartments") of plant cells. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) is investing around four million euros in the RTG 2498 "Communication and Dynamics of Plant Cell Compartments".

Jasmonic acid is one of the best known plant hormones. It’s used as a fragrance in the cosmetics industry. "But it’s actually an alarm hormone that plants produce when they’re damaged," says Professor Ingo Heilmann from the MLU, spokesperson for the new RTG. If a plant registers that it’s being attacked by caterpillars, jasmonic acid is formed, which acts as a messenger to initiate various protective mechanisms that allow the plant to chemically repel the caterpillars.

It’s long been known that plants produce jasmonic acid, but we don’t yet know exactly how this is done. "Plants have the most complex cells of all living things," explains Heilmann. "Only plants have plastids in addition to their nucleus and mitochondria, and lots of different, complex processes take place at the same time in various compartments." The cell compartments are separated by membranes, as the processes inside them might otherwise interfere with one another. But the compartments still have to communicate to ensure the processes are perfectly coordinated: important plant-based substances are produced gradually across several cell compartments. This can be thought of as a sort of assembly line at a factory, where products are manufactured in several intermediate steps.

"The production of jasmonic acid is a prime example of one such multi-step process," states Heilmann. Many of the eleven sub-projects at the new RTG are also investigating how the production of other plant substances is controlled and how the workload is divided amongst the cellular compartments involved. Other working groups are focusing on how enzymes are precisely sent to certain areas to catalyse the necessary reactions there. "The compartments in plant cells are constantly in motion and temporarily interact with one another," says Heilmann. Until now, however, there have only been a few systematic studies and explanations for these dynamic processes. The work carried out at the new research training group aims to close this knowledge gap.

The doctoral students are working with a combination of various methods, from the observation of plant cells with high-resolution fluorescent microscopes to the analysis of protein distributions using state-of-the-art mass spectrometry, as well as genetic and biochemical experiments and analysis. The doctoral students will gain very broad, methodical expertise through their work in the new research training group. "It’s really pleasing to see the tremendous success of our international search for applicants, as we’ve filled seven of the eleven places with excellent candidates from abroad," says Heilmann. Once the first eleven students have completed their doctorate, another eleven positions will be made available.

The work carried out at the research training group may be basic research at the moment, but it could be a starting point for practical uses: "Our aim is to gain a better understanding of plants’ metabolic processes and defence mechanisms and to understand their genetic foundations," explains Heilmann. If we know which genes are responsible for each process, we’ll be able to apply this knowledge to breeding techniques. After all, one significant problem with many of today’s crops is that they’ve been cultivated over millennia in such a way that maximises yields but leaves some plants vulnerable to external influences. According to Heilmann, this is one of the reasons why so many pesticides are now used in agriculture. The basic research carried out at the university’s research training group could provide new approaches for the development of improvements.

The RTG is being run by Faculties I and II of Natural Sciences at the MLU and the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry (IPB) in Halle.

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