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Scientists show that plants have measure of the shortest day

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17 December 2009

It is not only people who feel the effects of short winter days – new research funded by BBSRC has shed light on how plants calculate their own winter solstice.

A study led by the University of Edinburgh used computer models of a plant known as mouse-ear cress to examine how the plant’s internal clock – which regulates the plant’s daily activities – is affected by changes in day length from winter to summer.

It is hoped that the findings will help scientists develop crops that can cope with climate change.

Scientists found a complex connection between the genes that create this internal rhythm – known as a circadian clock – and the genes that cause the plant to flower. The findings give researchers a greater understanding of how daylight affects the daily rhythms of the plant. The rhythms of gene activity shift as daylight changes with the seasons. This gene activity in turn affects seasonal changes in plants, such as flowering.

The study with researchers from the University of Warwick, which drew on data from labs in Europe, the US and Japan is published in the journal Cell.

Professor Andrew Millar, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, who led the study, said: “By understanding how flowering genes work together in a simple plant, we stand a much better chance of understanding how the same genes operate in more complex crops, such as barley and rice.

“Our systems biology approach, which combines mathematical modelling with experiments, gives a new way to explain how a plant’s internal rhythms react and respond to a changing environment. The same approach could be applied to understand how seasonal variations affect breeding in animals, such as sheep.”

“We’re interested in whether all plants have evolved a similar way of sensing day length, and whether the strategy is the same in plants and animals.”

For more information see external contacts below.



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 £450M 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.

External contact

Professor Andrew Millar, School of Biological Studies

tel: 0131 651 3325

Catriona Kelly, Press and PR Office

tel: 0131 651 4401


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299