Wolffia, also known as duckweed, is the fastest growing plant known, but the genetics of the success of this strange little plant has long been a mystery to scientists. Now, thanks to advances in genome sequencing, researchers are learning what makes this plant unique – and, during the process, discovering some fundamental principles of plant biology and growth.
A multi-research effort led by scientists from the Salk Institute reports new findings on the plant’s genome that explain how it can grow so quickly. The research, published in the February 2021 issue of Genome Research, will help scientists understand how plants make trade-offs between growth and other functions, such as removing roots and defending themselves against pests. This research has implications for designing entirely new plants that are optimized for specific functions, such as increased carbon storage to help address climate change.
“A lot of progress in science has been made thanks to really simple organisms, such as yeast, bacteria and worms,” says Todd Michael, first author of the paper and a research professor at Salk’s Laboratory of Plant Molecular and Cell Biology. “The idea here is that we can use an absolutely minimal plant like Wolffia understand the fundamental workings of what makes a plant a plant. “
Wolffia, which is found growing in fresh water on every continent except Antarctica, looks like tiny floating green seeds, with each plant only the same size as a pinhead. It has no roots and only a single fused stem-leaf structure called a frond. It breeds similarly to yeast when a daughter plants a bud away from the mother. With a double time of just one day, some experts believe Wolffia could become an important source of protein to feed the Earth’s growing population. (It is already eaten in parts of Southeast Asia, where it is known as khai-nam, which translates as “water eggs.”)
Understand in what adaptations WolffiaThe genome is responsible for its rapid growth, the researchers grew the plants in light / dark cycles, then analyzed them to determine which genes were active at different times of the day. (The growth of most plants is regulated by the light and dark cycle, with the majority of growth occurring in the morning.)
“Surprise, Wolffia only has half the number of genes regulated by light / dark cycles compared to other plants, “Michael says.” We think that’s why it’s growing so fast. It doesn’t have the regulations that limit when it can grow. “
The researchers also found that genes associated with other important elements of behavior in plants, such as defense mechanisms and root growth, are not present. “This plant has shed most of the genes it doesn’t need,” Michael adds. “It seems to have evolved to focus only on unbridled rapid growth.”
“Data on the Wolffia genome can give important insights into the interaction between how plants develop their body plan and how they grow, “says HHMI Researcher and Professor Joseph Ecker, who is also director of Salk’s Laboratory of Genomic Analysis and co-author of the journal.” This plant promises. to become a new laboratory model for studying the central characteristics of plant behavior, including how genes contribute to different biological activities. “
One focus of Michael’s lab is to learn how to develop new plants from scratch so that they are optimized for certain behaviors. The current study expands knowledge of basic plant biology and also offers the opportunity to improve crops and agriculture. By making plants more capable of storing carbon from the atmosphere at their roots, an approach initiated by Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative, scientists can optimize plants to help address the threat of climate change.
Michael plans to continue studying Wolffia learn more about the genomic architecture of plant development using this simplified plant to understand the networks that govern fate.
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Todd P. Michael et al, Genome and time-of-day transcription of Wolffia australiana link morphological minimization with gene loss and less growth control, Genome Research (2020). DOI: 10.1101 / gr.266429.120
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