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Wolfgang Busch: Environmental Impact on Plant Development

Wolfgang Busch: Environmental Impact on Plant Development
Group leader, Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology
Recommended by Magnus Nordborg, Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology

Busch.jpgPlants are resilient organisms. They can withstand temperatures that fluctuate some 10 degrees to 20 degrees a day. As he was studying the heat shock response in plants, Wolfgang Busch realized that plants made a great model for studying how environmental changes affect development.

"Think of a bonsai tree and the wild relative, which can be gigantic," Busch said. "Just by changing the environment, cutting some braches over a long period of time, you get a very different phenotype, and the whole organism needs to be coordinated to respond to [those] cues."

Busch is currently using plant roots as a model to study how growth and development is modulated. Previous work, he said, has searched for switches that turn processes on and off, but he is looking for more of a dial that affects how growth and development is regulated.

While Busch receives core funding from his institute, he has sought additional support. He's found, though, that newer investigators using more novel approaches can run into difficulty getting their application by more established researchers.

Paper of note

In November Busch's lab published its first paper. He and his team reported in Nature Genetics that they combined genome-wide association mapping with confocal microscopy to home in on genomic regions linked to certain cell traits.

In particular, they found that a new F-box gene, KUK, appears to regulate the length of the meristem and of cells, and various KUK alleles were linked to natural differences observed in root length.

"If you remove those genes, we basically get less cell division and less expansion of cells. If we make too much of the gene, we basically get more cell division and the cells are much larger," Busch said.

This knowledge of the different alleles linked to differences in this trait, he added, could be become part of a toolbox to engineer plants.

Looking ahead

Busch said that he'd like to see the field become more quantitative. In the past, he noted, it was difficult to score phenotypes quantitatively, but advances in high-throughput image acquisition and processing have made that process less onerous.

Along with that, he added that heterogeneity of phenotypes will have to become better valued.

"The field will need to become more quantitative, and heterogeneity needs to be appreciated more to really learn about the biological systems," he said.

And the Nobel goes to…

Busch would like to win the Nobel Prize for engineering non-leguminous plants to fix nitrogen by building a structure onto the plants that attract the nitrogen-fixing Rhizobium bacteria.

"The idea would be to understand plant biological systems to bring in complete modules that cause the plant to do something new," he said, adding that those plants could help enrich depleted soil.

Photo courtesy Gregor Mendel Institute