Facing Future Challenges

Our young researchers in the spotlight

In March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth synthesis report. Needless to say that this report did not paint a pretty picture. More extreme weather conditions like droughts and heatwaves are occurring globally. Even with a strong reduction of greenhouse gasses, it could take up to 30 years to see global temperatures stabilize. We are in it for the long run! The world needs to find ways to secure food and reduce carbon emissions for the decades to come. Luckily, we have bright young minds at the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology. These researchers, at the beginning of their careers, make it their mission to tackle the challenges facing us in the next decades. Let us shine a spotlight on them.

Plants and heat stress 

Soybean and wheat are commonly found on our plates. Think pasta, bread, yogurt, and many more. As temperatures continue to rise, the regions where soybean and wheat are traditionally cultivated are at risk. We are already witnessing significant changes in weather patterns, often resulting in weaker plants. Farmers are adjusting their planting schedules and experimenting with new techniques to overcome these challenges and prevent potential decreases in yield. ​ 

At the functional phosphoproteomics research group of Ive De Smet, scientists are working on understanding how these crops respond to stress and what the underlying molecular mechanisms are. PhD student Cássio Lima and post-doc Tingting Zhu are comparing different varieties of soy and wheat to capture their ability to withstand these climate challenges. The mechanisms behind a plant's heat tolerance are complex and involve various biochemical and physiological responses; factors like temperature can have an effect on the structure and phosphorylation of proteins. Phosphorylation is a common biological process that often leads to activation (or deactivation) of an enzyme. Thus, temperatures can have a crucial impact on the functional role of these proteins.

Our goal is to tap into the knowledge on stress response embedded within the different varieties. This understanding will enable us to determine the specific factors that grant different varieties their distinct levels of tolerance - Cássio Lima
Postdoc Tingting Zhu (left) and PhD student Cássio Lima (right)
Postdoc Tingting Zhu (left) and PhD student Cássio Lima (right)

The goal of Cássio and Tingting is to identify phosphorylation events that occur when plants sense high temperatures, determine which proteins are involved, and uncover how these responses contribute to successful adaptation to higher temperatures. By studying a diverse range of soybean and wheat varieties, they map out different responses and their impact on plant stress biology. Their research aims to enhance our understanding of heat tolerance in these crops and to use this knowledge to develop strategies to improve their resilience in view of climate change. 


Plants and drought stress

Although heat and drought are often linked, they are two very different physical phenomena. This means they also trigger different physiological responses in plants. To gain insights into the ingenious mechanisms that plants develop to cope with drought, Tom Van Hautegem analyzes maize leaf growth under mild drought and rehydration conditions using custom-made, automated phenotyping platforms and advanced microscopic analysis. ​ 

Tom is a biologist who works as a postdoctoral researcher in the Systems Biology of Yield lab headed by Dirk Inzé and Hilde Nelissen. The research in the lab focuses on a detailed analysis of genes and networks underlying leaf growth in maize as well as a functional analysis of perturbation of these genes in lab and field conditions. Since climate change is affecting the food supply, it is Tom’s passion to contribute to developing climate-resilient crops for sustainable agriculture.

Postdoctoral researcher Tom Van Hautegem
Postdoctoral researcher Tom Van Hautegem

The data from his research showed that the activity of the cell division zone, which regulates the growth period of the maize leaf, is crucial for full organ growth recovery upon rehydration. Modulating the expression of certain growth-regulating genes in the cell division zone of the maize leaf enables plants to fully recover from drought conditions by extending the growth period. Through genome editing, Tom is screening for new molecular players involved in drought tolerance. “The knowledge obtained in this project will strengthen our attempts to stabilize crop yield in a changing climate” says Tom.


Plants for biofuels 

The latest report of IPCC clearly stated that human activity is an undeniable factor in climate change. A major contributor is the use of fossil fuels, releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Where our three researchers above try to find solutions for the effects of climate change, Nette De Ridder from the lab of Bio-energy and Bio-aromatics led by professor Wout Boerjan tries to tackle one of the causes of climate change. ​ “Our research group focuses on the switch from a fossil fuel economy to an economy based on biological materials” says Nette.

We specifically focus on the genetic modification of plants to be used as a basis for a more bio-based economy - Nette De Ridder
PhD student Nette De Ridder
PhD student Nette De Ridder

Nette is an industrial engineer in biochemistry and is currently in the third year of her PhD. In her research, she tries to edit lignin – a key structural molecule that is quite ‘tough’. An efficient release of sugars in plants is the basis for a bio-based economy. Lignin is the most important limiting factor in the process, because it blocks the efficient release of these sugars. Normally, lignin needs to be broken down with high concentrations of chemical products and high temperatures. Nette tries to edit the composition of lignin in such a way that sugars from plants can be released more easily, making it more economically profitable and more environmentally friendly. For this research, Nette uses poplars, as these trees grow well on soils not suitable for agriculture. ​ 


Plants and…..cold stress?

This might feel a bit contradictory. When talking about climate change, we often mention global warming. Why do we talk about cold stress then? On the one hand, climate change leads to unpredictable weather, like sudden immense rainfall or bursts of cold. Abnormally cold weather during the crop growing season will increase all over the world, leading to failed harvests. On the other hand, summers are noticeably warmer and drier. Newly introduced plants – such as the soy in the Soy in 1,000 gardens project in Flanders– ​ still suffer from cold stress in their early and late stage of growth due to the cold climate conditions in spring and autumn. ​ ​ 

Postdoctoral researcher Qian Ma
Postdoctoral researcher Qian Ma

Qian Ma is a postdoctoral researcher at the Brassinosteroids research group of professor Jenny Russinova. This group studies plant hormones and the role they play in plant growth and adaptation to changing conditions. Qian recently identified a novel frost-protective compound. Now, this compound is being used to reveal the whole molecular signaling pathway that mediates the freezing tolerance response. Once all the molecular components are identified, the research group knows what genes to target for bioengineering cold-resilient crops. QIan envisions that the knowledge obtained from his research will help design a strategy to improve soybean’s cold tolerance through CRISPR-Cas gene editing. 

Steve Bers

Steve Bers

Science Communications Expert, VIB

About the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology

The VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology wants to gain insight into how plants grow and respond to the environment. Scientists study how leaves and roots are formed, which micro-organisms live on and around the plant and which substances the plant makes. They map out the genetic diversity of the plant kingdom. This knowledge can lead to sustainable innovations in agriculture and food.



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