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A step closer to understanding the 'switch' that triggers flowering in plants

July 28, 2016

Scientists at the John Innes Centre have taken another crucial step towards understanding how plants initiate flowering.

This new development uncovers a previously unidentified step in the process of vernalisation, which links an important gene responsible for flowering time to the proteins that regulate it.

This new finding could contribute towards the development of new varieties of crops adapted to produce the food we need in a changing climate.

Decades of research have already gone into understanding the process of 'vernalisation', how plants sense periods of low temperature, and 'remember' this information in order to control the timing of flowering. It ensures plants avoid flowering during the destructive winter months, and instead flower during the warm spring and summer months when they have ample time and sunlight to produce seeds. Understanding vernalisation is therefore of vital importance to the success of commercial crops such as oil-seed rape and broccoli, among many others.

This remarkable process relies on plants 'remembering' how much time has elapsed in low temperature conditions, through the gradual modification of a specific gene found in plant cells.

Previous research has shown that flowering is suppressed by a gene called FLOWERING LOCUS C (FLC). During periods of cold temperature, proteins around which the gene is wrapped are progressively modified and this shuts off expression of the gene, eventually enabling the plant to make the switch from the 'growing' stage to the 'flowering' stage of development.

While research has identified the regulators involved in shutting off the FLC gene, no research had managed to work out how these regulators identify their correct target.

In this new work, the team of scientists led by Professor Caroline Dean at the John Innes Centre let genetics show them the way. They studied a population of mutated plants and found an individual that failed to correctly respond to cold. They then tracked down where the mutation occurred in this individual, and found it to be a single base pair change within the FLC gene.

Further experiments successfully identified how the protein VAL1 recognizes the DNA sequence within the FLC gene. In the plant which failed to correctly respond to cold, the mutation prevented that recognition, so FLC could not be shut off.

Professor Caroline Dean said, "This exciting new development provides the first glimpse of how regulators in a cell identify which target genes to switch off. At FLC a specific sequence is recognized and without this sequence FLC won't be suppressed and the plant will never flower."

The paper, co-authored by Argentinian visitor Dr Julia Questa and published in Science, also outlines how the team investigated the binding site of VAL1 in the FLC genes of several closely related Brassica species and found it to be conserved, suggesting this type of regulation has been evolutionary conserved for the control of flowering.
-end-
This research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and a European Research Council Advanced Investigator Grant.

Notes to editors

1. The paper 'Arabidopsis transcriptional repressor VAL1 triggers Polycomb silencing at FLC during vernalization' is published in Science this week.

2. Images to accompany this press release can be downloaded from: http://bit.ly/28nL4Ph

3. If you have any questions or would like to interview Professor Dean, please contact:

Geraldine Platten
T: 01603 450 238
E: Geraldine.platten@jic.ac.uk

4. About the John Innes Centre

The John Innes Centre is an independent, international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology.

Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature's diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health and wellbeing, and engage with policy makers and the public.

To achieve these goals we establish pioneering long-term research objectives in plant and microbial science, with a focus on genetics. These objectives include promoting the translation of research through partnerships to develop improved crops and to make new products from microbes and plants for human health and other applications. We also create new approaches, technologies and resources that enable research advances and help industry to make new products. The knowledge, resources and trained researchers we generate help global societies address important challenges including providing sufficient and affordable food, making new products for human health and industrial applications, and developing sustainable bio-based manufacturing.

This provides a fertile environment for training the next generation of plant and microbial scientists, many of whom go on to careers in industry and academia, around the world.

The John Innes Centre is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2014-2015 the John Innes Centre received a total of £36.9 million from the BBSRC.

The John Innes Centre is the winner of the BBSRC's 2013 - 2016 Excellence With Impact award.

5. About the BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (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: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes

6. For further information about the European Research Council go to: https://erc.europa.eu/about-erc

John Innes Centre

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