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Protecting the food crops of the future

Biologists are investigating how to control when plants flower - to help farmers reap a bumper harvest.

The University of Leeds team will also investigate whether the flowering process can be made more robust and able to withstand predicted changes in the climate.

Professor of Plant Development at the University, Brendan Davies, says: "Flowers are vital to the plant reproduction process as pollination leads to the development of the fruit, where the seeds are found. Everything that we eat comes from flowering plants - even the food that is fed to livestock. This means that the long-term future of the world's food supply would be greatly enhanced if we could predict and control flowering. Farmers need to be able to plan when their crops should be harvested and so our study has major significance for agriculture."

As part of a three-year European project called BLOOM-NET, the research team has been awarded 288,000 through the EU to look into how minute changes in the way genes are expressed in plants can have a huge impact on when they flower.

Working with computer modelling experts, the plant scientists will build a digital model that ultimately should be able to predict the impact of changes in genetic structure in the 'shoot apical meristem' a small cluster of just a few cells that eventually produce the entire plant, including its flowers. The model will also calculate the impact of changes in external factors such as climate.

Professor Davies says: "Flowers are a plant's reproductive organs and it is essential for breeding programmes and crop harvests that farmers and breeders are able to predict when flowering will take place. This has been done for centuries by taking note of weather patterns and varying light levels, but we can now improve on these predictions by adding in other factors such as minute changes in genetic make-up.

"We now know a great deal about how the genes that control flowers operate. What we want to find out is how the expression of these genes, that is the order in which they are turned on and off, helps to create a flower at a specific time and in specific environmental conditions. It we could predict, or even control this process, then over time we may be able to help farmers improve the quantity and quality of their harvests."


Contact: Jo Kelly
University of Leeds

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