NCU biologists fight with the effects of drought
Very few people are able to imagine that they can look into the interior of a plant and see a 3D film directed by the very nature. Emilia Wilmowicz, Dr. habil., NCU Professor from the Faculty of Biological and Veterinary Sciences is telling us about drought, lupin and polished "diamonds".
Your students won Diamond Grants in 2019 and 2020. You lure very talented people.
- It is not me who lures, but an intriguing issue of the research that I have been conducting for many years. Young people do not like boredom, and plants which have long been considered boring are not so at all. Incapable of moving, they have developed mechanisms which allow them to survive in unfavorable conditions which they are constantly being exposed to. Biologists' task is to learn about these defense mechanisms and to take advantage of the natural repository of knowledge in order to design treatments, for instance agrotechnical treatments, which we will be able to use in practice in the future. Students can get fascinated with new issues which have not been researched so far. What is more, beginning the work in my team and continuing the research over the topics which have been analyzed for a few years, on the basis of the results obtained so far, they can put forward their own research hypotheses and carry out their own ideas.
Are you working with many enthusiasts?
- Currently, I am a research supervisor of two students who are writing their bachelor`s dissertations, six students working on their masters' and two persons who are making their doctoral theses. Most of all, they are people who like diversity, starting from working in the field, collecting the research material, then spending long hours in labs on experimenting and applying precise biochemical, microscopic or molecular biology methods. The students know that I demand hard work. But with the thought that “hard work pays off", most of them present the effects of their work at scientific conferences, both here in Poland and abroad. I also believe that what else they find exceptional is the fact they participate in developing measurable results of our work, that is making scientific publications. Not hiding my enthusiasm, I have been watching how with great involvement they keep writing to me their experimental papers, research articles, and recently even a book chapter. I think that the people who turn to me care to acquire ground knowledge and develop the one they gained during their studies, master their own research workshop, and develop the skills of analytical solving of the scientific issues they challenge. The first in this group was Aleksandra Florkiewicz, who is a laureate of Diamond Grant entitled "In the search of markers of soil drought stress applicable in the selection of yellow-flowered European lupin of increased yielding potential". As a student of 1st cycle of studies, she joined into the research on the impact of soil draught stress on the functioning of root warts of yellow-colored European lupin, which is now being continued by Sebastian Burchardt, this year's Diamond Grant laureate awarded for the research on "Impact of soil drought stress on the alterations in metabolism and track of transduction signal of jasmonates in the root of yellow-colored European lupin and on the modification of the root microbiome".
One discovery triggers off another…
- Exploring knowledge on a concrete issue requires initial experiments. It is the results that we acquire that become the basis of the new hypotheses and drawing further directions of research. The strength of my students is good team work. My students know that a difficult task executed alone will definitely be executed with the support of the others. This gives them the sense of peace and security, which is so important in research work and, at the same time, it teaches them responsibility for the whole team. The specificity of the research which I carry out requires outdoor work. This is time consuming, but also due to the harvest season of further research materials at the end of June, it is very demanding in terms of weather conditions – high temperatures, scorching heat, lack of shade, etc. Each of my students when working in such conditions and doing field work does realize if they will follow this path or if they will do with writing their theoretical dissertation only. What is more, lab work requires good manual skills which not everyone possesses.
Do the best stay?
- Those who stay are those who like this style of work and can get fascinated with what they do. Moreover, these must be people resistant to getting disheartened as not always does the precisely designed initial plan turn out to be the right one and to offer measurable effects in the form of interesting results. Then, they must not break down. The ways of achieving every assigned aim may always be corrected and entirely changed. This however requires persistence and consistence.
All started in 2011 with a scientific grant within a Multi-Year Program (2011-2015) financed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Development of Rural Areas (MRiRW), the main aim of which was to enlarge the acreage of Polish crops rich in proteins, which initially were to refill and later replace the resources used in fodder production.
And everything began with yellow-colored European lupin.
- All started in 2011 with a scientific grant within a Multi-Year Program (2011-2015) financed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Development of Rural Areas (MRiRW), the main aim of which was to enlarge the acreage of Polish crops rich in proteins, which initially were to refill and later replace the resources used in fodder production. The basic source of protein are to be pulses, the most worth considering is lupin. Professor Wojciech Święcicki, Dr. habil. of the Institute of Plant Genetics of Polish Academy of Sciences in Poznań was the coordinator of the research area we belonged to, whereas the NCU supervisor was then professor Jan Kopcewicz, Dr. habil. Our aim was to learn molecular and hormonal mechanisms of blooming and fruition of leguminous plants.
There are so many legumes…
- We focused on the research of lupin because of its economic and environmental-economic meaning. Lupin grows protein-rich seeds with an agreeable composition of amino acids, and it is capable of symbiosis with root nodule bacteria which, by atmospheric nitrogen fixation, increase soil fertility and at the same time decrease the necessity of artificial fertilization. Despite these many advantages, the crops of lupin in Poland occupy a small area. This happens due to its lowered yielding which results from premature flower abscission. This has made it an excellent research material to analyze processes which are the focus of our interests, which is organ cutting-off.
Something had to be done with this abscission
- It was necessary to learn the mechanism and to characterize the factors which affect lupin flowers abscission. In the initial stage, we were running research on white-colored, yellow-colored and narrow-leaved lupin. Detailed analysis however we continued only on the variety Taper of yellow-colored European lupin, which, in comparison with the others, is characterized by a short growth period, low soil demands, even ripening and high resistance to anthracnosis, which is the most serious fungus disease of lupin. Simply speaking, it is the most attractive to farmers. Premature flower cutting-off inhibits the creation of legumes and seeds which are the source of proteins...
…and farmers complain
- I and doctor Agata Kućko, who was then my doctoral student and now works as a scientist in Warsaw University of Life Sciences, initiated research on the localization of cutting-off area of yellow-colored lupin, and our scientific endeavor related to its characteristics and functioning has been still continued. Despite its being small, the area of abscission is a unique structure which enables the plant to remove organs. Therefore, its activity determines the number of the flowers sustained and at the same time the number of legumes and thus the yield itself. Initially, withing the grant from MRiRW, we established the time and place of the occurrence of the flower abscission area of yellow -colored lupin, but to learn the factors which it is activated by required the use of various and costly research techniques. In 2013having entered into cooperation with doctor Juan de Dios Alché from Estación Experimental del Zaidín in Spain, we prepared a Polish-Spanish project entitled "Participation of plant hormones in the control of generative organs abscission in Lupinus".
Did you succeed in winning a grant?
- The project won funds from a Spanish consortium eidA3-ceiA3 (The International Agrifood Doctorate School, Campus de Excelencia Internacional Agroalimentario), and the research which was made due to their funds became the basis of a doctoral dissertation by Agata Kućko, M.Sc. As a Spanish research supervisor, doctor Juan de Dios Alché was also a doctoral thesis co-advisor. We characterized the transformations which took place in the abscission area, as well as we identified genetic and hormonal factors which affected its formation and functioning. Having our cultivation then we already noticed that drought decreases the number of flowers sustained on plants. We made initial examination which, withing the cooperation with Cargill feed & Nutrition, Cargill Poland Sp. z o.o. were continued by Katarzyna Panek, M.Eng. We analyzed the influence of drought on the transformations in the flower abscission area which lead to the removal of these organs. At that time, we were joined in by a second-year biotechnology student Aleksandra Florkiewicz, who dealt with the influence of soil drought on the functioning of the root, especially on the growth of root warts, which are the structures that influence of lupin yielding. This research, which was then in its initial phase, seemed very important to us as the root is the first organ by means of which the plant receives the information about the onset of drought stress.
This was the first Diamond grant, but it referred to the abscission area, not the root…
- The topic of Aleksandra's bachelor thesis was very initial examination of the transformations in the root after the drought stress. Yet, at that phase, our knowledge on the issue was too fragmentary to set research hypotheses. On the other hand, the results of the research conducted on the area of yellow-colored lupin flower abscission in the context of drought were advanced and intriguing enough to serve as a basis to apply for Diamond Grant n the competition by MNiSW. The project relates to the search of soil drought markers which function in the yellow-colored lupin flower abscission area, and the funds we received allowed us apply a completely new experimental approach. The research on the influence of drought of lupin yielding is conducted on multiple layers and its participants are Grazyna Czeszewska-Rosiak, M.Sc. and Magdalena Wolska, M.Sc. When analyzing the transformations which undergo in the flower abscission area, we do not forget what happens at the same time in the root area. When Aleksandra was doing her Master studies, we were joined in by this year's Diamond Grant laureate Sebastian Burchardt. Carrying out the principles of his Bachelor's thesis, he was conducting research on the formation of oxidant stress which may lead to the onset of jasmonates – so called "stress" plant hormones. The fact that no one in Poland or in the world had not conducted any of such research on lupin, set grounds for creating Diamond Grant which referred to the transformations in the root after the onset of drought. It is necessary to point out that initial research is an element of every diamond grant. This research is conducted in a team, but also in cooperation with other research centers.
Competition is not constructive and this is what my students know. Competition weakens and leads to the loss of time and energy which can be used in team work. Aleksandra, who was the first laureate of Diamond grant, inspired the rest of the group. Even a smallest success of each team member gives a lot of satisfaction and motivates the others.
Do your students compete with one another?
- Competition is not constructive and this is what my students know. Competition weakens and leads to the loss of time and energy which can be used in team work. Aleksandra, who was the first laureate of Diamond grant, inspired the rest of the group. Even a smallest success of each team member gives a lot of satisfaction and motivates the others.
Do you examine everything in Toruń?
- Cooperation with other centers is very important. A part of the project which refers to selecting a set of potential markers of drought is carried out in cooperation with Agata Kućko, Ph.D., from SGGW in Warsaw, with Małgorzata Kapusta, Ph.D. and Wojciech Pokora, Dr. habil. from the University of Gdańsk, Małgorzata Czernicka, Dr. Eng. From the University of Agriculture of Hugon Kołłątaj in Kraków, and with the support of doctor Tranbarger from Université de Montpellier in France. The analyses of the root will be additionally carried out in cooperation with Estación Experimental del Zaidín in Spain. Support of such a multiple group of specialists in their fields guarantees the increase of quality of the research which is necessary to further reach the aim of the project. For example, were it not for doctor Małgorzata Kapusta from UG we would not know what the abscission area of lupin flowers in a 3D picture looks like. Few people realize that it is possible to look into a plant and, with the use of immunocytochemical reactions record a film on the transformations which take place inside the plant.
To see the effects of our research and what they lead to.
- We are in the process carrying out our research, and what we see now is a fragment of a bigger whole. It is only when we have carried out all planned experiments, both on the level of proteome and of transcriptome that we will be able to deal comprehensively with the issue of defense mechanism of lupin which is triggered off as a response to drought stress. If we are able to select drought stress markers in the research conducted by Aleksandra, this knowledge can be used to select the varieties of lupin which are characterized by greater resistance to drought and thus more profitable to farmers. The global warming is to continue, we are under threat of drought which will endanger not only lupin but other plants as well. As some part of mechanisms which function in plants are universal, we cannot exclude that the results of our research will find applications for other plants, too.
Is Sebastian's research similarly advanced?
- As for Sebastian's research, we are at the very beginning, and despite the fact that “every beginning is a continuation", our knowledge at the moment is still residual. Being realistic, the first results which will enable us to evaluate sytemicly the plant's response to a stimulus such as drought will come in three or four years. In addition to learning the elements which regulate the formation and functioning of root warts, the culmination of our work will be selecting the strains of microorganisms which are capable of the production of biologically active compounds that increase the resistance of plants to this type of stressing agent. This knowledge can be applied in production of bio formulations that will increase the tolerance of the plant to water deficits and which will be widely used in agrotechnology.
Do plants get stressed?
- The key role in the response of a plant to such a shock as drought and the acquisition of resistance to such a stimulus is played by plant hormones. They take part not only in transferring information about the stress but they also take part in triggering defense and adaptation reactions. One group of such hormones are jasmonates which besides induction of synthesis of protective proteins, which, apart from taking part in adjusting the hydration condition of a cell, also protect the cell structures against drought. We have asked many questions: to what extent do jasmonates decide on the growth and functioning of the root of yellow-colored lupin which is grown in conditions of soil drought, can jasmonates increase tolerance of this variety to drought by protecting the cell membrane against the activity of reactional forms of oxygen, and finally if the changes in the level of jasmonates caused by drought stress do affect the modifications of the content of microorganisms on the surface of the root.
What is the conclusion?
- If we managed to confirm if in the reaction to soil drought there appear in the root such microorganisms which can survive in such conditions, and which facilitate the growth of plants and increase their resistance to this type of stress, we could settle what compounds are produced by these microorganisms and could be used as, for instance, vaccines in agriculture.
After Sebastian, will there be other diamond students?
- As I mentioned, in the Faculty of Biological and Veterinary Sciences of NCU in Toruń, there are plenty of young scientists who are willing to make spectacular discoveries. To a large extent this depends on financial resources spent on the development of science. Initial research for next grants is carried out with the centers mentioned before, but also in cooperation with scientists from Università degli Studi di Siena, Italy. Ideas and willingness to work still flourish…