Trouble in the breadbasket
The Ukraine conflict and wheat import
April 5, 2022
Ukraine is one of the biggest producers of maize, wheat, and barley, covering around 30% of the worldwide supply. The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has made an end to the export of these grains to Western Europe. Although France, Germany, and Belgium are also substantial grain producers, these countries experienced bad harvests in the past couple of years – thank you, hot and dry summers. As a result, wheat reserves in Western Europe are low and the production of bread, pasta, and animal feed largely depends on imports.
Wheat is a profitable crop for farmers to grow, but the yield – as in many other crops – is highly dependent on environmental changes, such as increased temperatures. We talked to Ive De Smet from the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology, who works on the biology of how wheat and other plants respond (or not) to high temperatures.
Ive, can you tell us why someone decides to start working on wheat?
During my 5-year BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship at the University of Nottingham, I was exposed to the local and national wheat research community. I realized the importance of this crop for Europe and the untapped potential to study signaling pathways directly in a relevant crop that could guarantee food security. So, when I started my own lab at the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology (in 2013), I introduced wheat as a central crop for our high-temperature-related research.
The little plant thale cress, or Arabidopsis thaliana, is a preferred model organism in plant research. Do you expect to find the same signaling mechanisms in Arabidopsis and wheat?
It is important to note that in our work we prefer to explore conserved mechanisms that are preserved in evolution because of their importance for reproduction, growth and survival. For this, we do comparative phosphoproteomics – comparative analysis of proteins with a phosphate group attached to their structure – in several plant species and focus on those candidate proteins that are differentially regulated in multiple species. As such, we have been able to reveal similar mechanisms acting in Arabidopsis and wheat. Having said that, I am convinced that exploring signaling directly in an economically relevant plant or crop allows us to pinpoint the corresponding functional proteins – in contrast to trying to translate Arabidopsis findings to other plants. To do that, we also started to characterize wheat-specific signaling components.
The million-dollar question: how does a changing climate affect signaling in wheat?
Temperature changes can occur at different scales: climate change leads to increased temperature, local heatwaves, daily fluctuations in temperature, and so on. Plants need to respond to all these different changes. Such responses often require switch-like signaling mechanisms that can alternate when environmental conditions suddenly change. Kinase-mediated phosphorylation relays are ideal for this. Protein kinases are major regulatory components in almost all cellular processes in eukaryotic cells, including plant responses to environmental stresses. Through phosphorylation – adding phosphate groups – kinases regulate the activity, localization, interactions, and other features of target proteins. However, hardly any kinases are known to play a role in high temperature signaling and very few targets of protein kinases have been identified. As a counterpart of these kinases, phosphatases remove phosphate groups, allowing very dynamic changes in protein phosphorylation status to control the output. This means that the response to temperature – and by extension any environmental stress – in wheat depends on the interplay between kinases and phosphatases. How that happens exactly is what the Functional Phosphoproteomics group is trying to figure out as it will lend us a hand in developing crops that are more resistant to climate change.
So, there are still puzzle pieces in the mechanism of heat response that we need to put into place?
Absolutely. Several research groups are doing great work and have identified temperature-sensing mechanisms, but we are only starting to scratch the surface of the possible plant thermosensors. We have contributed in recent years to some of the early signaling associated with high-temperature-mediated plant growth, but we still need to figure out the intricate details of these signaling cascades. Doing this will help us guarantee food security, especially under a changing climate. A major challenge is to develop climate change-ready crops and to turn our findings into suitable applications. Understanding the temperature sensing and signaling mechanisms on an organ-specific level will assist in addressing this issue.
Learn more about Ive De Smet’s research?