18 December 2002

Discovery of a gene that controls nodule development lays the groundwork for the creation of designer plants in future, according to Professor Peter Gresshoff from the School of Life Sciences at The University of Queensland.

This discovery coincides with a $10 million Australian Research Council funding injection for a Centre of Excellence for Integrative Legume Research at UQ, which combines teams from Melbourne, Newcastle and the Australian National University.

Contributions from member universities and state governments matched the ARC funding, resulting in a major $20 million five-year biological science research effort.

After two decades of legume research, Professor Gresshoff has identified the NARK gene that controls nodule growth in soybeans and this discovery represents a breakthrough in scientific understanding of how plants control their development.

The NARK (nodule autoregulation receptor kinase) gene controls long-distance communication and signaling in soybeans, and the research findings are published in the current issue of Science magazine.

Professor Gresshoff said the definitive aspect of the NARK gene is that it operates in the leaf or shoot and uses long-distance signalling to control what happens in the roots.

He said that understanding plant communication means researchers will increasingly be able to investigate causality, not just correlation of events, which is a much more powerful tool for plant breeding and improvement.

“It means we will eventually be able to genetically engineer or breed plants that suit our environmental or production requirements,” Professor Gresshoff said.

“We need plants that are very deep-rooted and therefore drought or salt tolerant, plants that are genetically pruned to suit current growing practices, or have multiple or single branches depending on requirements (tillering in wheat vs single stalk in sugar cane).”

During the next three years, the research team hopes to identify some of the signal substances moving up and down in the legume plant and how they control lateral root branching, and within a five-year time frame to genetically alter the structure of roots.

Plants are a powerhouse of our planet – they harvest energy from the sun and fix nitrogen from the air, and provide fuel as wood and fossil oil – in fact everything that we eat ultimately has come from plants.

And although plant research has been a “poor cousin” to human/animal research, Professor Gresshoff has welcomed the funding of the Centre for Excellence saying there are huge biomedical implications in further understanding plant communication.

Professor Gresshoff and UQ research colleague Dr Bernie Carroll used techniques of chromosome walking or positional cloning to discover the NARK gene, making them the first in the world to do positional cloning of a soybean gene.

For more information, phone Professor Gresshoff on 07 3365 1806 or 0412 749 084