The global demand for plant-derived products, such as feed and food, is increasing dramatically. It is hard to fathom, but in the coming decades three billion additional people will have to be fed while less arable land is available. Furthermore, crop productivity will be hampered by climate change. In particular drought is expected to have major consequences for crop yield. Plants also start to plan an important role in supplying a sustainable, CO2-neutral source for the ever-increasing energy needs.
There is an obvious and urgent need to further increase crop productivity. As yield is the most important trait for breeding, a considerable amount of (eco)physiological research has been conducted on yield performance of crops. In contrast, surprisingly little is known about the molecular networks underpinning crop yield and plant organ size; partly because of its multifactorial nature in which many physiological processes, such as photosynthesis, water, mineral uptake and stress tolerance, determine the resources available to produce new cells, tissues and organs.
Albeit plant growth and stress tolerance are obviously high-complex processes, novel approaches collectively called "systems biology" allow us to better understand this complexity. It is our ambition to decipher the molecular networks underpinning yield and organ growth, both under standard as well as mild drought stress conditions, in Arabidopsis and the C4 crop maize. Systems biology will ultimately provide a holistic view enabling the optimalization of plant productivity, either by advanced plant breeding or genetic engineering.
Molecular mechanisms regulating organ size
Size control of multicellular organisms poses a longstanding biological question that has always fascinated scientists. Currently the question is far from being resolved because of the complexity of and interconnection between cell division and cell expansion, two different events necessary to form a mature organ. Because of the importance of plants for food and renewable energy sources, dissecting the genetic networks underlying plant growth and organ size is becoming a high priority in plant science worldwide. Our long term goal is therefore to unravel the molecular pathways that govern leaf size in Arabidopsis.
Computational approaches to unravel leaf growth
High-throughput technologies generate huge amounts of data, representing the active components of the cell, e.g. genes, proteins, metabolites and the interactions between them in particular developmental stages, tissues or environments.
Focusing on leaf growth, we develop and apply computational approaches to construct networks of the players that are relevant to growth and development of the leaf to better understand the regulatory processes involved.
Systems biology of drought tolerance in Arabidopsis
The 'systems biology of drought' project aims to increase yield by tackling what is known as the yield gap, which is the difference between theoretical yields, usually very high for crops, and actual yields, often only a fraction of the theoretical yield because of stresses limiting plant growth.