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Unravelling chloroplast inheritance in wheat

Copyright: Huw Jones/Rothamsted Research
News from: Rothamsted Research

A new study from the BBSRC strategically-funded institute Rothamsted Research reveals the way that chloroplasts are passed from one generation to another in wheat via only the maternal parent.

Chloroplasts are important structures in plant cells that perform photosynthesis and mature from small precursors called plastids. Wheat, like many other plants, inherit their chloroplasts only from their mother via the egg cell. However, the mechanism that leads to this was not known. Scientists at Rothamsted Research and colleagues at The University of Manchester labelled plastids in wheat with a green fluorescent protein (GFP) and observed them in developing pollen grains. They show for the first time that plastids are degraded in mature sperm cells just prior to fertilisation. The study is published in the journal Protoplasma.

All chloroplasts present in a plant arise from the plastids inherited from the egg and/or sperm cell at fertilisation depending on the plant species. It has been hypothesised that in wheat this occurs by ‘cytoplasmic stripping’ at fertilisation, whereby all the cellular material except the DNA of the sperm cell stays outside the egg cell at the point of fertilisation.

Dr Anil Day, The University of Manchester said: “This is very interesting work and provides a possible explanation for something that has remained a matter of open discussion in the community. We have shown that plastids are actually degraded in mature sperm cells just prior to fertilisation rather than simply being stripped away with the rest of the cytoplasm.”

Dr Lucia Primavesi, Rothamsted Research scientist who did the detailed microscopy work, said: “We labelled the plastids with GFP and observed them in developing pollen grains. We saw labelled plastids in immature sperm cells but they were undetectable in mature sperm cells.”

Professor Huw Jones, senior investigator at Rothamsted Research, added: “In contrast to chromosomes of sperm and egg cells that combine during sexual reproduction, the DNA in specialised small organelles in the cell such as mitochondria and chloroplasts is almost exclusively inherited from only one parent or the other. This fundamental observation applies to both plants and animals (including humans). There is considerable uncertainty over the evolutionary pressures that have led to this situation and over the precise methods that various species use to achieve it. This paper finally elucidates the mechanism for wheat chloroplasts and offers opportunities to exploit this understanding in future plant breeding”.


Notes to editors

Publication: Primavesi et al. 2016. Visualisation of plastid degradation in sperm cells of wheat pollen. Protoplasma doi:10.1007/s00709-015-0935-x

Rothamsted Research contacts:

  • Huw Jones
  • Lucia Primavesi

External collaborators:

  • Elizabeth Mudd, The University of Manchester
  • Anil Day, The University of Manchester
  • Huixia Hu

About Rothamsted Research

We are the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for nearly 170 years. Our mission is to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production. Our strength lies in the integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in plant, insect and soil science. Rothamsted Research is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2014-2015 Rothamsted Research received a total of £35.5M from the BBSRC.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £509M in world-class bioscience in 2014-15. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see:
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see:

Tags: crops genetics plants Rothamsted Research press release