ERA-CAPS Collaborators: Jörg Becker (Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, Oeiras, Portugal), Frederic Berger (Gregor Mendel Institute, Vienna, Austria), Thomas Dresselhaus and Stefanie Sprunck (University of Regensburg, Regensburg, Germany), David Twell (University of Leicester, Leicester, United Kingdom), Marek Mutwil (Max Plank Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, Potsdam, Germany), and Jose Gutierrez-Marcos (University of Warwick, Warwick, United Kingdom)

The key agricultural products derived from corn, rice, wheat, and tomato all require successful reproduction by fertilization. The ability to increase crop production in the coming years will depend on developing a better understanding of reproductive mechanisms. The goal of this project is to take what has been learned about the molecules that mediate fertilization in a model plant species (Arabidopsis) and extend this knowledge using a comparative genomic approach in seven plant species including corn, rice, and tomato. The expected findings will allow for the identification of specific mechanisms that are targeted by environmental stresses during sexual reproduction in crops and will assist in the selection of stress-resistant cultivars. The outputs of this project will provide a deeper understanding of the evolution of sexual reproduction of economically important plant species. In addition this project will provide cutting edge training in biological imaging, genetics and genomics in the context of a critical crop plant (tomato) for a diverse team of researchers that will include a post-doctoral fellow and an undergraduate researcher. Importantly, this research team will be benefit from participation in this large, multidisciplinary and international effort comprising eight laboratories from five nations.

Research during the past five years has delivered tremendous new insights into gamete physiology and the mechanisms involved in fertilization in Arabidopsis. This progress has established the view that gametes are hyper-differentiated cell types with highly specific transcriptional profiles. Advances in microscopy based on fluorescent reporters and live cell imaging have also transformed research capability and provided insights into the mechanisms involved in gamete delivery, interaction and activation of seed development. Yet, the understanding of the complexity of double fertilization that characterizes flowering plants is far from complete and lacks any knowledge about the origin of mechanisms that predate double fertilization. In this project, emerging models representing key stages in plant evolution will be used to provide insight into the ancestral mechanisms of gamete differentiation and fertilization. Gene co-function networks will be identified from expression atlases for several plant species that include the liverwort Marchantia, the moss Physcomitrella and the extant basal flowering plant Amborella. These will be complemented with co-function networks from Arabidopsis and the economically important crops maize, tomato and rice and used to study the conservation of gene co-function networks governing male and female gametogenesis, pollen tube growth and fertilization mechanisms in flowering plants. Moreover, these investigations will provide novel molecular markers of fertility in crops. It is expected that this project will result in identification of fertilization factors that were lost from ancient angiosperms during the evolution of monocots (grasses) and eudicots and those which have evolved de novo in the angiosperm lineage. All data produced will be freely and continuously shared within the consortium. Specifically, RNAseq datasets will be accessible through a consortium database as well as through publicly available data repositories.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS)
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Thomas Okita
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Brown University
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