How plants adapt to environmental change

environmental change
Exposure of grapes to freezing temperatures increases their sugar content. German winemakers exploit this adaptive response for the production of Eiswein, a specific class of dessert wine. Foto: photo 5000 /

Unlike animals, plants cannot actively choose or change their habitats, but must adapt their physiology in response to fluctuations in ambient conditions. The new transregional Collaborative Research Center hosted by LMU will be devoted to elucidating the cellular processes that provide the basis for this adaptability and identifying the molecular switches that control it. As its title (“The Chloroplast as a Central Node in the Acclimation of Plants”) implies, TRR 175 will focus in particular on the role of the photosynthetic organelles. The researchers involved in the interdisciplinary, multicenter venture plan to investigate how plants react to short- and long-term fluctuations in temperature and light intensity.

Recent work has revealed that the chloroplasts – the organelles in which photosynthesis takes place – play a critical, two-fold role in the initiation and coordination of acclimation processes in green plants: They not only serve as sensors that register alterations in environmental parameters, but also initiate the physiological responses that enable plants to cope with such changes. “Our goal is to obtain a comprehensive understanding of how plants adapt to new environmental conditions. To do so, we will use strategies drawn from systems biology to dissect how chloroplasts function as tiny intracellular organs in this context,” says Dario Leister, who holds the Chair of Plant Molecular Biology at LMU and is the designated Coordinator of the new CRC.

In fact, the researchers hope to gain a sufficiently detailed picture of the underlying mechanisms to enable them to trigger these adaptive programs in a targeted fashion. This would in turn permit the development of novel breeding programs designed to select for crop plants that can cope better with climatic fluctuations than the varieties now available.

The new CRC formally gets underway on July 1st 2016. Funding amounting to a total of some 9 million euros for an initial period of 4 years has been approved by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. In addition to teams at LMU as designated host university, researchers based at the Humboldt University in Berlin, the Technical University in Kaiserslautern and the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology in Golm will take part in the project.