Plants are developmentally labile. Unlike animals, their shape changes according to the environment. For example, if a shoot gets eaten or broken, side shoots will emerge to replace it. These responses require cells in the plant to detect and respond to signals from the environment, such as proteins from pathogens that trigger the plant’s immune system. Plant cells also respond to signals from other plant cells. An extreme example arises during germination when the pollen tube and ovule interact to coordinate pollen tube burst and delivery of the sperm nuclei. Here multiple signals are involved both from the female gametophyte and the male gametophyte.
Receptors on the cell surface detect many diverse signals to monitor the environment surrounding each cell, with over 600 receptor-like kinases present in the model plant, Arabidopsis. We are interested in the functions of a subset of these proteins, the malectin domain receptor-like kinases, and uses a combination of molecular biology, genetics and cell biology to investigate how they contribute to plant development and environmental responses.
Plants not only respond to immediate environmental conditions but can also ‘remember’ past conditions, and even the environment in which their parent(s) grew. As the DNA sequencing of a plant changes only very slowly, the memory of the recent past is via chemical changes to the DNA that affect its function (epigenetics).
These epigenetic mechanisms can regulate gene expression and also keep immobile the transposable elements (otherwise known as jumping genes for their ability to move within a genome). Together with a number of collaborators in Sheffield and Germany, we are now investigating how these epigenetic mechanisms elements contribute to plant adaptation to stress and also to the evolution of plant genomes.