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Plant biologists discover gene that switches on 'essence of male'

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20 March 2009

Biologists at the University of Leicester have published results of a new study into plant sex – and discovered that a particular gene switches on ‘the essence of male’.

The study takes to a new level understanding of the genes needed for successful plant reproduction and seed production.

Professor David Twell and colleagues in the Department of Biology at the University of Leicester reported the discovery of a gene that has a critical role in allowing precursor reproductive cells to divide to form twin sperm cells.

Their study is reported in the journal Public Library of Science Genetics (PLoS Genetics) and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Professor Twell said: "Flowering plants, unlike animals require not one, but two sperm cells for successful fertilisation. One sperm cell to join with the egg cell to produce the embryo and the other to join with the central cell to produce the nutrient-rich endosperm tissue inside the seed.  A mystery in this ‘double fertilisation’ process was how each single pollen grain could produce the pair of sperm cells needed for fertility and seed production.

"We now report the discovery of a dual role for DUO1, a regulatory gene required for plant sperm cell production. We show that the DUO1 gene is required to promote the division of sperm precursor cells, while at the same time promoting their specialised function as sperm cells. It effectively switches on the essence of male.

"We show that DUO1 is required for the expression of a key protein that controls cell division and for the expression of genes that are critical for gamete differentiation and fertilisation.

"This work provides the first molecular insight into the mechanisms through which cell cycle progression and gamete differentiation are coordinated in flowering plants.

"This knowledge will be helpful in understanding the mechanisms and evolution of gamete development in flowering plants and may be useful in the control of gene flow and crossing behaviour in crop plants."

The researchers also report on the presence of genes closely related to DUO1 in a wide variety of flowering plants and even in lowly land plants such as moss, which suggests that DUO1 may be part of an ancient sperm cell regulatory network that evolved even before pollen and flowers appeared on the scene.

Interestingly, DUO1 is also related to a super class of Myb regulator proteins also present in animals that have an important role in controlling cell proliferation and that are implicated in certain human cancers such as leukemias. So like animal cell Myb proteins, DUO1 is needed for control of cell proliferation, but DUO1 is distinguished by its specific role in plant reproduction, namely its dual role in sperm cell production and switching on their ability to fertilize.

Professor Twell added that the study could help to unravel the evolutionary origins of plant sperm cells and provide new molecular tools for the manipulation of plant fertility and hybrid seed production – as well as to control gene flow in transgenic crops where the male contribution may need to be eliminated.

ENDS

Images

Images are available from pt91@le.ac.uk.

Notes to editors

For interviews, contact Professor David Twell (see external contact below).

Abstract background

The unique double fertilisation mechanism in flowering plants depends upon a pair of functional sperm cells. During male gametogenesis, each haploid microspore undergoes an asymmetric division to produce a large, non-germline vegetative cell and a single germ cell that divides once to produce the sperm cell pair. Despite the importance of sperm cells in plant reproduction, relatively little is known about the molecular mechanisms controlling germ cell proliferation and specification.

Abstract findings

Here, we investigate the role of the Arabidopsis male germline-specific Myb protein DUO POLLEN1, DUO1, as a positive regulator of male germline development. We show that DUO1 is required for correct male germ cell differentiation including the expression of key genes required for fertilisation. DUO1 is also necessary for male germ cell division, and we show that DUO1 is required for the germline expression of the G2/M regulator AtCycB1:1 and that AtCycB1:1 can partially rescue defective germ cell division in duo1. We further show that the male germline-restricted expression of DUO1 depends upon positive promoter elements and not upon a proposed repressor binding site.

Abstract conclusion

Thus, DUO1 is a key regulator in the production of functional sperm cells in flowering plants that has a novel integrative role linking gametic cell specification and cell cycle progression.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

About the University of Leicester

A member of the 1994 group of universities that share a commitment to research excellence, high quality teaching and an outstanding student experience.

  • Named University of the Year by Times Higher (2008) Shortlisted (2006, 2005) and by the Sunday Times (2007)
  • Ranked second to Cambridge for student satisfaction amongst full time students taught at mainstream universities in England
  • Ranked as a Top 20 university by the Sunday Times, Guardian,Times and UK Complete University Guide, published in The Independent
  • Ranked in world’s top 200 universities by Shanghai Jiao Tong International Index, 2005-08 and the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings
  • Ranked top 10 in England for research impact by The Guardian
  • Students’ Union of the Year award 2005, short listed 2006 and 2007

Founded in 1921, the University of Leicester has more than 20,000 students from 136 countries. Teaching in 18 subject areas has been graded Excellent by the Quality Assurance Agency- including 14 successive scores - a consistent run of success matched by just one other UK University. Leicester is world renowned for the invention of DNA Fingerprinting by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys and houses Europe's biggest academic Space Research Centre. The latest Research Assessment Exercise adjudged Leicester to have world leading research in every subject panel and identified Museum Studies (at 65%) as having the highest proportion of world leading researchers compared with any other subject area at any university in the UK. Leicester also emerged as having one of the highest proportions of staff who are research active in the UK, with approximately 93% of staff submitted for the exercise. The University's research grant income places it among the top 20 UK research universities. The University employs over 3,000 people, has an annual turnover of over £200m, covers an estate of 94 hectares

External contact

Professor David Twell, University of Leicester

tel: 0116 252 2281

Contact

Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382