As a developmental geneticist by training, Ottoline Leyser might have studied animals. But plants' ability to tune their development to their environment won her over completely.

  • 20
  • NOV
  • 2017

“I have always been drawn to plant systems because, unlike animal systems, plants have this extraordinary developmental plasticity,” Ottoline Leyser told a seminar audience at Rothamsted Research today.

“The same genotype can give rise to an extraordinary range of different phenotypes depending on the environmental conditions in which the plant is growing,” said Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

“So, the plant is not only doing all the things that animals normally do, which is this kind of very interesting iterative loop between the information in the genome and the information in the cell and in the organism to drive forward the developmental programme to produce something with two arms and two legs and a head or whatever but, on top of that, the plant is rolling in environmental information to modify that body plan according to the environment in which the plant is growing.”

It was an engaging introduction to the work of her research team, a talk that was streamed live from the Rothamsted Conference Centre before a large audience of senior researchers and PhD students, and is now available on the Institute's YouTube channel.

“The model that we work on to try to understand this process is the regulation of shoot branching in Arabidopsis and, in particular, we use Nitrogen supply as a really easy-to-manipulate environmental variable,” noted Leyser.

If two buds are growing, they are in competition: “You can almost see them arguing with each other about who gets to grow…there is this communication between them – and this is an important lesson for life,” said Leyser.

Ottoline Leyser. Rothamsted Seminar. Credit: Rothamsted Research

She looked up at the audience: “Communication is very important, but it takes time. This means you have to get out of your office, go and visit your neighbour, take time to communicate and the information will flow.”

Leyser described the plant model as “a very sensitive system for tuning growth and bud activity”, and is a system based on competition and reinforcement.

“And competition and reinforcement is really a very well-known self-organising design principle, which, for example, is the thing that re-wires your brain, it re-wires the synapses in your brain, according to how often they’re used, according to the environment.

“So, the behavioural principles that allow you, as an animal, to adapt your behaviour to the environment are pretty much the same that allow the plant to tune its development according to the environment.”

After the seminar, we recorded a video interview with Leyser (linked here), on the role of agriculture in the government’s new Industrial Strategy, which was announced the following week. For more on the strategy, go here.

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
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About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.