Secret of flowering is unlocked, providing tool to raise crop productivity

05 Jun 2007 | News

Research lead

UK scientists have uncovered the final stage in the signalling pathway controlling flowering in plants, providing the tools to prolong or change flowering time and thus increasing agricultural productivity.

“The full potential of that discovery can now be realised by the agricultural and horticultural industries,” says Philip Wigge, one of the researchers from the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

Specifically, the scientists have identified how the signal that controls flowering is delivered to the shoot apex, the final piece in a puzzle that has been under investigation for the past 70 years.

It has long been known that exposing the leaves of a plant to light can trigger flowering in a darkened shoot. Research published by John Innes and a Swedish team in 2005 revealed that a gene called Flowering Locus T (FT) is essential to the process. But how the signal, dubbed “florigen”, travels from leaf to apex has remained a mystery.

One lab suggested messenger RNA was responsible, but that research was retracted last month. Other recent papers published in the journal Science from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Germany, identified the signal as FT protein, the protein encoded by the FT gene, and Japan’s Nara Institute of Science and Technology have shown the same system exists in rice.

This latest research confirms that FT protein is responsible, but also shows that it is able to move between cells from the leaf to the apex. Experiments with an immobile FT protein showed that the movement of the protein is crucial for flower development.

“Plants may be rooted to the spot,” said Wigge. “But for the first time we have shown that long-range communication within plants is essential for their development and reproduction.”

He added, “Flowering produces fruit, as well as seeds that are the raw ingredient for all cereal based foods. Controlling flowering means that we have the fundamental understanding needed to increase the productivity of rice, maize, wheat or any other crop by increasing the number of flowering cycles in a year.

“We can also switch off the signal to prevent flowering and therefore increase biomass for fuel production.”

In the horticultural industry, the findings could be used to keep gardens in bloom for longer.

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