Living on the edge: How plants escape shade – University of Copenhagen

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09 August 2016

Living on the edge: How plants escape shade

A grant from the Danish Council for Independent Research will allow researchers from Copenhagen Plant Science Centre to better understand how shade influences plant development at the tissue level. The project could improve crop plant performance and contribute to a more sustainable agricultural production in the future.

Growth as a survival mechanism
In contrast to animals, plants have a sessile lifestyle. Instead of moving to a place with optimal growth conditions, they cope with adverse environmental conditions by modifying e.g. their shape and growth patterns. These adaptive traits have obvious advantages in natural habitats but are detrimental in modern agriculture due to dramatically reduced food crop productivity.

Stephan Wenkel from Copenhagen Plant Science Centre, University of Copenhagen has just received a grant from the Danish Council for Independent Research to study how basic patterning and adaptive growth responses are connected in plants.

Outcompeting the neighbour
“If a plant does not get enough sunlight, for instance in fields where crops are growing very close together, the lack of light can trigger a growth spurt in the plant. It will try to outcompete neighbouring plants by growing taller. The plant will use its energy in the competition for sunlight instead of producing yield.

"This is of course not optimal for a sustainable agricultural production, “explains Stephan Wenkel. “It is therefore very important that we understand the signalling networks, so we can improve plant performance in sub-optimal conditions. Especially in the face of a worldwide decline in arable land.”

Arabidopsis thaliana.

Balancing the leaf shape
Shade sensitive plants such as the Arabidopsis plant will often accelerate growth of leaves in order to outcompete shade-causing competitor plants. Two sequence-specific DNA-binding factors are involved in forming the leaf shape of Arabidopsis: REVOLUTA (REV) specifies the cells in the upper surface of the leaf, and KANDI1 (KAN1) specifies the cells in the lower surface.

Both of these transcription factors mutually repress each other and act antagonistically to maintain a proper outgrowth of the leaf. In addition, the two factors act also antagonistically in the promotion of growth in response to shade. The Wenkel lab will study these two patterning factors to better understand, how tissue patterning is affected in shade conditions.

Limited knowledge on the tissue level
“In this project, we will study light and shade responses on the tissue level”, Stephan Wenkel says. “There is already a solid body of literature on leaf development and growth responses to shade. But we still don’t know a lot about the response to light and shade on the tissue level. We will among other things make an atlas of gene expression changes that occur in response to shading. This will hopefully contribute to the future development of shade-resistant plant species.”

About the project
Stephan Wenkel from Copenhagen Plant Science Centre, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen has received a grant of 2.572.320 DKK from the Danish Council for Independent Research for the project “Adaptogenomics – Identification of cell-type specific gene-regulatory modules”.

The Wenkel lab 2016.