When we feel cold, we get goosebumps and put on warm clothes. When it’s very hot, we start to sweat. Plants, too, sense the temperature and use this information to adapt to their environment. Researchers are puzzling over the mechanisms behind this and the way plants adapt to heat or cold. One of these researchers is Professor Philip Wigge, who recently accepted a chair at the University of Potsdam.
This visit to Germany will be a brief one for Philip Wigge. He will be giving a lecture on temperature sensitivity in plants at Freie Universität Berlin and taking care of some bureaucratic matter before flying back to his home country of Great Britain. He won’t be staying there for long, however. In a couple of weeks, the biochemist and plant researcher will be relocating from Cambridge to Potsdam, where he will become Professor of Plant Nutritional Genomics, and to Großbeeren, where he will be heading a department and working with his research team at the Leibniz Institute of Vegetable and Ornamental Crops (IGZ). How do plants sense and measure temperature, and how do they adapt to climate change? This is the big question guiding Wigge’s research.
“In agriculture we have known for centuries that plants are highly sensitive to temperature,” Wigge explains. A farmer knows their wheat needs a certain number of warm days to blossom and ripen, enabling them to anticipate the harvest date. Plants are therefore able to measure temperature across many scales, from minutes to days and months, and integrate this information to make key decisions, such as when to flower. Remarkably though, we don’t know the sensors by which plants measure temperature and pathways that enable plants to respond. “The underlying molecular mechanisms of many signaling pathways in plants remains unknown,” Wigge says.
He has been studying these mechanisms for years. His work is particularly relevant as climate change reveals the extent to which temperature affects vegetation. Over the past years, the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere has risen by about one degree Celsius. “By the end of the century, we are currently on track to see changes of as much as 4 ºC that will cause major disruption to natural and agricultural systems,” Wigge anticipates.
The consequences of this warming are already clearly visible: Many plants are starting to bud and blossom earlier, growing in new habitats that used to be too cold for them, or are being driven out of their natural habitats by other species. “These are dramatic changes,” Wigge underlines. Not only for wild plants, but for agriculture, too.
Agronomists estimate that with every degree of warming, global crop yields fall by 10%. Rice, wheat, corn, and other crops are already growing at their temperature limits in the world’s granaries. There is also an increasing danger of plants and their pollinators desynchronizing. Rising temperatures mean that plants will blossom too early, while their pollinating insects are still hibernating. Consequently, early bloomers will produce less fruit and seeds. For Wigge, this is a major motivation to encourage more research in this field and to understand these processes at the molecular level.
Not least, the objective of the research is to breed new crops that are better adapted to higher temperatures. Here, Wigge focuses mainly on breeding methods using new genome editing technologies such as CRISPR. The so-called genetic scissors can be used to modify the plant genome selectively and very precisely. “Classical breeding methods are very time-consuming and have to rely on trial and error,” Wigge says. “If we can combine precision agriculture, molecular biology, and genome editing with more conventional breeding methods, we will have great opportunities. This is particularly important in the context of climate change, because we will continue to experience rising temperatures and more extreme heat events.”
Wigge is just about to equip his future workplace at the IGZ in Großbeeren. “Plant science is developing into a more predictive than descriptive science,” he explains. Next-generation sequencing enables researchers to quickly analyze the entire genome of a plant and study the way in which genes are regulated. This helps predict how plants will react to certain stimuli like temperature at the molecular level. The current revolution in sequencing technology is occurring in parallel with a massive expansion in bioinformatics. Where it was customary to study one gene at a time, increasingly tens of thousands of genes are analyzed simultaneously. This requires new computational skills, but is greatly increasing our understanding and predictive ability.
Currently, Wigge and his team are searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack: A plant cell has about 30,000 proteins. Some of them are thought to be involved in the perception of temperature. One class of proteins is of particular interest: “Some proteins undergo a phase transformation, which means that a certain stimulus switches them from inactive state to an active one,” Wigge outlines. The researchers hope to identify exactly those proteins in the plant cell for which the phase transformation is triggered by temperature. In addition, they want to find out how DNA and proteins regulate each other.
This type of research requires an interdisciplinary team: Plant physiologists, geneticists, biophysicists, biochemists, and bioinformatics experts will all be bringing their resources to the table. Many of them have never worked with plants before. For the team leader, this mix is a great opportunity as well as a challenge. “All of these people need to work together, understand each other, and pursue a common goal.” And there is something else which he thinks is absolutely essential: “Curiosity is the most important personality trait of a researcher.”
Wigge himself is curious to find out more about plants as living beings that actively sense and respond to their environment and by no means “passively wait for the weather to get warmer”. Plants are able to sense their environment very precisely, anticipating the approaching seasons. Another point that fascinates the researcher is that “many of our festivals and holidays originate from key dates for farmers, reflecting the plant lifecycle. After all, our entire social development is based on agriculture. It was because a fraction of people were able to produce enough food for all that others could turn to the arts, medicine, or sciences.”
Prof. Dr. Philip A. Wigge studied biochemistry at the University of Oxford (GB) and earned his doctorate at Cambridge. In 2019, the Leibniz Institute of Vegetable and Ornamental Plants (IGZ) and the University of Potsdam appointed him Professor of Plant Nutritional Genomics.
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Text: Heike Kampe
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published online by: Alina Grünky
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