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How the dragon got its ‘snap’

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10 November 2010

Scientists at the John Innes Centre and the University of East Anglia are pioneering a powerful combination of computer modelling and experimental genetics to work out how the complex shapes of organs found in nature are produced by the interacting actions of genes. Their findings will influence our thinking about how these complex shapes have evolved.

  Computer model of the growth of a snapdragon flower.

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"How do hearts, wings or flowers get their shape?" asks Professor Enrico Coen from the John Innes Centre. "Unlike man-made things like mobile phones or cars, there is no external hand or machine guiding the formation of these biological structures; they grow into particular shapes of their own accord.

"Looking at the complex, beautiful and finely tuned shapes produced by nature, people have often wondered how they came about. We are beginning to understand the basic genetic and chemical cues that nature uses to make them."

So, how does this happen? In a recent breakthrough, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), scientists on Norwich Research Park have begun to answer this question, using the snapdragon flower as a convenient subject.

In the snapdragon flower, two upper petals and three lower petals form defined shapes, precisely coming together to form a tube with a hinge. When a bee lands on the lower petals the hinge opens up the flower, allowing access to nectar and pollen. The shape of petals is known to be affected by four genes, but precisely how these genes work in combination to produce the specialised flower shape, and how this shape evolved, was unknown. The same is true for many organ shapes, but the snapdragon flower provides a good system to study this problem, as it is genetically well characterised and growth can be followed at the cellular level.

By changing when and how the genes involved in growth are turned on and off, and tracking how these changes affect the development of shape over time, the researchers got pointers as to how genes control the overall shape. They then used computer modelling to show how the flower could generate itself automatically through the application of some basic growth rules.

A key finding was that genes control not only how quickly different regions of the petal grow, but also their orientations of growth. It is as if each cell has a chemical compass that allows it to get its bearings within the tissue, giving it the information needed to grow more in some directions than others. Genes also influence the cell's equivalent of magnetic poles; key regions of tissue that chemical compasses point to. Publishing in the journal PLoS Biology, the researchers show how these principles allow very complex biological shapes to generate themselves.

"We are now trying to get a better understanding of exactly how the chemical compasses work and determining the molecular nature of the poles that coordinate their orientations," said Professor Enrico Coen of the John Innes Centre.

The study also throws light on how different shapes may evolve. In the computational model, small changes to the genes that influence the growth rules produce a variety of different forms. The shape of the snapdragon flower, with the closely matched upper and lower petal shapes, could have arisen through similar 'genetic tinkering' during evolution. Evolutionary tinkering could also underlie the co-ordinated changes required for the development of many other biological structures, such as the matched upper and lower jaws of vertebrates.

ENDS

Notes to editors

Genetic Control of Organ Shape and Tissue Polarity, Green AA, Kennaway JR, Hanna AI, Bangham JA, Coen E (2010) Genetic Control of Organ Shape and Tissue Polarity. PLoS Biol 8(11): e1000537. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000537.

Quantitative Control of Organ Shape by Combinatorial Gene Activity, Cui M-L, Copsey L, Green AA, Bangham JA, Coen E (2010) Quantitative Control of Organ Shape by Combinatorial Gene Activity. PLoS Biol 8(11): e1000538. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000538.

Funding: This work was funded grants from Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council BB/D017742/1 to EC and BB/F005997/1.

About JIC

The John Innes Centre (JIC), www.jic.ac.uk, is an independent, world-leading research centre in plant and microbial sciences with over 500 staff. JIC is based on Norwich Research Park and carries out high quality fundamental, strategic and applied research to understand how plants and microbes work at the molecular, cellular and genetic levels. The JIC also trains scientists and students, collaborates with many other research laboratories and communicates its science to end-users and the general public. The JIC is grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

About BBSRC

BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

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

5 November 2009

Scientists from the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK and the University of Freiburg in Germany have uncovered a gene in plants that is responsible for controlling the size of seeds, which could lead to ways of improving crops to help ensure food security in the future.

Increasing seed or grain size has been key in the domestication of the crops used in modern agriculture, and with a growing world population, further increasing the yield of crops is one goal of agricultural research. Michael Lenhard, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), has identified a gene in the model plant Arabidopsis that determines overall seed size, and is now investigating how this could be used to for the improvement of crops.

Publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team from the John Innes Centre, an institute of the BBSRC, demonstrated that the gene acts locally at the base of the growing seed. It produces an as yet unidentified mobile growth signal that determines final seed size. If the gene is turned off, smaller seeds are produced, but crucially if the gene is turned on at a higher level than normal, seeds a third larger in size and weight are produced. This is the first time such a reciprocal effect on seed size has been observed, and points to the fundamental importance of this gene in plant development.

More work is now needed before this research can be applied to crop plants. One effect of increasing the seed size in the experimental plants was to decrease the total number of seeds produced, so there was no overall increase in yield. The scientists did notice an increase in the relative oil content of the larger seeds, so the effects of altering this gene in oil seed rape is currently being investigated.

Unravelling this gene’s role in determining the final seed size will also be important for other strategies for increasing yield, an example of how fundamental plant science can inform and drive efforts to ensure food security

Professor Mike Bevan, Acting Director of the John Innes Centre, said “This work shows how JIC's focus on understanding the mechanisms controlling plant growth can have immediate useful application for crop improvement.”

ENDS

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Nikolai Adamski and Michael Lenhard examining Arabidopsis (323KB)


 

Notes to editors

Reference: Local maternal control of seed size by KLUH/CYP78A5-dependent growth
Signalling, PNAS.

Funding: BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship.

About the John Innes Centre

The John Innes Centre, www.jic.ac.uk, is an independent, world-leading research centre in plant and microbial sciences with over 800 staff. JIC is based on Norwich Research Park and carries out high quality fundamental, strategic and applied research to understand how plants and microbes work at the molecular, cellular and genetic levels. The JIC also trains scientists and students, collaborates with many other research laboratories and communicates its science to end-users and the general public. The JIC is grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

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 £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

Andrew Chapple, John Innes Centre

tel: 01603 251490

Zoe Dunford, John Innes Centre

tel: 01603 255111

11 October 2005

The following stories appear in the October 2005 edition of Business, the quarterly magazine of research highlights from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).


Controlling 'superpests'
Scientists have developed a new technique that helps make pesticides more effective by removing insects’ ability to exhibit resistance. Their research will extend the effective life of current pesticides, reduce the amount that needs to be sprayed and remove the need for farmers to move to stronger and more harmful chemicals. The new technique relies on applying a chemical to block the insect’s processes that can degrade a pesticide. With the pests newly rendered helpless farmers can apply pesticide to kill them.
(Page 13)

Contact:
Dr Graham Moores, Rothamsted Research, Tel: 01582 763133 ext 2483, e-mail:graham.moores@rothamsted.ac.uk


Fruit fly studies open new avenue in cancer research
Researchers have discovered a family of amino acid transporters that are powerful growth promoters in fruit flies. When the transporters were overexpressed in a fly, its cells became hypersensitive to insulin-like molecules in the body that have a long-term role in promoting cell growth in development and cancer, and the cells grew excessively. If the equivalent genes in humans have the same effect then this discovery could lead to new drugs or even dietary advice that could block their activity and slow down the growth of tumours.
(Page 20)

Contact:
Dr Deborah Goberdhan, University of Oxford, Tel: 01865 282662, e-mail: deborah.goberdhan@anat.ox.ac.uk


Gene delivery vehicle for skeletal regeneration
UK scientists are working on new methods to regenerate cartilage and bone by delivering genes to stem cells within the body to instruct them to turn into bone cells. The new research will use tiny nanoscopic systems that cross the surface of a stem cell and then deliver the genes into that prompt the cell to turn into a bone cell. This method of gene delivery could provide significant healthcare benefits as trauma, degenerative disease and bone loss with old age all lead to patients needing orthopaedic procedures that require new bone.
(Page 26)

Contact:
Professor Richard Oreffo, University of Southampton, Tel: 023 8079 8502, e-mail: roco@soton.ac.uk


'Ending up' with antibody production
Scientists are pioneering a new technique to produce large numbers of antibodies quickly and reliably and this is being used to help the study of dangerous bacteria. The new technique harnesses the unique properties of the C-terminus of a protein to produce a large number of antibodies that will only bind to a specific protein. The antibodies can then be used to identify, count and track the proteins. Proteins are central to many areas of bioscience research as they are often the targets for vaccines, the raw materials for bioprocessing or are employed as environmental biomarkers. Production of panels of antibodies that previously took years may now be possible in just weeks.
(Page 14)

Contact:
Dr Rob Edwards, Imperial College Hammersmith Hospital, Tel: 020 8383 2055, e-mail:r.edwards@imperial.ac.uk


Building proteins on demand
A multidisciplinary team of researchers is developing new tools to direct the evolution of proteins, a move that will help the search for new anti-HIV drugs. The scientists have developed an efficient methodology for generating every possible mutation of a single protein and then assembling this into a library to identify which variations are resistant to drugs and which are not. This information can then be used to develop and validate new drugs.
(Page 9)

Contact:
Dr Cameron Neylon, University of Southampton, e-mail: d.c.neylon@soton.ac.uk


Bringing physical forces to bear
World-leading laser facilities at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire will be harnessed for biological studies thanks to joint funding from two Research Councils. A new laser system will study the bonds between atoms by looking at the unique frequency of their vibration. The new system will be able to take measurements of these ‘vibrational fingerprints’ at a scale so small that they will by able to study how cells repair damaged DNA, how proteins fold and develop new ways of detecting cancerous and pre-cancerous cells.
(Page 6)

Contact:
Professor Tony Parker, CCLRC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Tel: 01235 445109, e-mail: a.w.parker@cclrc.ac.uk


‘Model gut’ moves to commercialisation
Researchers at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich are moving closer to turning ten years of research on the workings of the human gut into a computer controlled model that will enable scientists to predict the digestive processes of human gut using real food and medicines. The result will be a revolutionary research tool that will enable researchers to examine the physical, chemical and biochemical functions of the gut as a whole.
(Page 3)

Contact:
Zoe Dunford, Institute of Food Research, Tel: 01603 255111, e-mail: zoe.dunford@nbi.ac.uk

ENDS

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 £380 million 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. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk