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Scientists uncover how poppies prevent inbreeding

26 March 2007

Scientists at the University of Birmingham have uncovered how the field poppy prevents self-pollination, a form of inbreeding that if unchecked would result in a shrinking gene pool and unhealthy offspring. The researchers, led by Professor Vernonica Franklin-Tong, have found that the poppy use a common 'enzyme switch', phosphorylation, as one of its key weapons to prevent self-pollination. The work is a significant step in understanding a key mechanism in plant biology and could provide a major boost for plant breeders.

Most flowering plants run the risk of pollinating themselves, rather than receiving pollen from another plant via an insect. The basic anatomy of many plants means pollen sacs are situated right next to the female reproductive parts. Accidental self-fertilization is a real risk. When a flowering plant is pollinated the pollen germinates and develops a pollen tube which grows through the stigma and female tissues and then enters the plant's ovary to effect fertilization. The Birmingham team, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), has found that when genetically identical pollen comes into contact with the field poppy's stigma, it triggers several chemical signals for inhibiting growth of the pollen tube. With tube growth halted fertilization cannot take place.

By adding phosphate to key enzymes involved in pollen tube development the plant effectively stops the pollen tube from growing, explains Professor Franklin-Tong at the University's School of Biosciences.

"Most plants require pollen from another plant to successfully pollinate. Accidental self-pollination would lead to unhealthy and less successful offspring. To avoid this plants need robust ways to stop self-pollinating activity," says Franklin-Tong.

"Our research has found that the field poppy has developed a particularly successful way of doing this. Pollen tubes require high metabolic activity, so inhibiting a key enzyme involved in driving these "high metabolism" processes is a very successful way of stopping pollen tube growth."

A better understanding of plant mechanisms against self-pollination could improve plant breeding. The possibility of selectively switching the self-pollination control on or off could make it much easier and cheaper to produce hybrid plants and seed.

Professor Franklin-Tong comments: "At the moment plant breeders must use expensive and time-consuming manual techniques to ensure new strains of plants do not self-pollinate. This is to ensure the traits they want come from both parent plants. If we could switch on the mechanism to guard against self-pollination we could drastically reduce the cost and time of developing new plant varieties."

ENDS

Notes to editors

This research features in the April 2007 issue of BBSRC Business, the research highlights magazine of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

Images

Click on the thumbnails to view and download full-size images.

Insects can easily cause accidental self-pollination in poppy (Papaver rhoeas), where anthers and stigma sit close together (200 KB)

Larger Image

One of the researchers, Natalie Hadjiosif, emasculating immature poppies for hand pollination (326 KB)

Larger Image

These images are protected by copyright law and may be used with acknowledgement of Vernonica Franklin-Tong.

External contact

Prof Vernonica Franklin-Tong, University of Birmingham

tel: 0121 414 3702

Kate Chapple, Press Officer, University of Birmingham

tel: 0121 414 2772 / 07789 921164

Ben Hill, Press Officer, University of Birmingham

tel: 0121 414 5134 / 07789 921163

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Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

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Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382