The daily light/dark cycle of plants: possible benefits for agriculture

Richard (known as Glen) Uhrig, currently Assistant Professor at UAlberta’s Department of Biological Sciences, became interested in the circadian clock and light signalling of plants during his post-doctoral fellowship in Switzerland. There, he worked with world renowned plant scientist Dr. Wilhelm Gruissem at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology on a multi-national EU Seventh Framework-funded project call TiMet Metabolism, which sought to better understand how the circadian clock is connected to plant metab

Glen’s own EU Marie-Curie Plant Fellows Co-Fund and NSERC post-doctoral fellowship-funded work spun out of this, and aimed to understand how and when proteins and cellular processes are regulated post-translationally over a 24-hour diurnal cycle. He explains it this way. “Humans have a circadian clock to govern physiological processes. Similarly, plants have a circadian clock but, to them, it’s a matter of survival.”

Through this work, he acquired a number of large datasets that are the foundation of his research program at UAlberta as well as a number of exciting leads.

“It’s very fundamental work” he says. “But we are looking at new avenues that could be relevant to agriculture.”

The circadian clock controls numerous cell processes including aspects of plant metabolism. When you understand how these processes are regulated at a high level, you can start to engineer or breed plants for specific traits. The possibilities are mind-boggling.

Among the findings are a number of cellular processes that are fluctuating dynamically at the protein level over the course of a 24-hour photoperiod. One of these processes is how well plants take up nitrogen and how much nitrogen they need to grow well. In most crops, nitrogen is provided in the form of high-energy fertilizers but the plants need carbon (from sunlight) to assimilate it. Glen’s lab found that a number of the core and related proteins for assimilating nitrogen are regulated by multiple post-translational modifications. These then correlate with the presence or absence of available carbon for assimilating nitrogen.

In the meantime, Glen is relishing the idea of starting a research program, and exploring unique niches—of which beef genomics is one. Shortly after arriving at UAlberta (he’s only been here six months), he reached out to Gentec CEO Graham Plastow and attended Gentec’s annual conference in October. Discussions may lead to another cloak-and-dagger collaboration that would integrate Glen’s expertise in proteomics and genomics into a large scale project called 5-dimensional omics that aims to create a comprehensive understanding of Alberta agriculture at the molecular level; from ground to grocer genomics.

“I’m taking advantage of opportunities to meet people such as Graham and beef producers,” he says. “The conference was eye-opening. Here’s a group of people specifically interested in engaging with academics and in using cutting-edge science. Probably, most people think these two groups don’t talk—but a lot of interesting ideas come to light when those connections are made.”

Posted in Academic.