Video transcript: The plant that doesn’t feel the cold

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January 2010

Dr Philip Wigge sitting in lab
My name is Philip Wigge, I work at the John Innes Centre, and our group is interested in how plants sense temperature.

This is actually quite a simple question, you would think, and you would think we already know this but we actually don't. And it's important because plants grown at different temperatures have hugely different responses and scientists have already found that the way plants grow has already been affected by climate change, so as it gets warmer plants grow more quickly and they flower earlier, for instance.

This is very important because it also affects crop plants, so the yields of crop plants actually go down quite significantly when the summer is very hot. So plants are very sensitive to hot summers, for instance. So if we're going to breed plants that can withstand climate change and continue producing cereals and crops at high temperatures then we need to understand how temperature is sensed.

And so we've taken a very simple approach in our lab to understand how plants sense temperature. What we've done is created a plant that gives off light in response to temperature. So these plants are quite remarkable. If you grow them at high temperature they give out more light, and if you grow them at low temperature the amount of light goes down. And that gives us a very straightforward way to identify components that are involved in temperature perception. So if we then find plants that are unable to switch on these light genes at higher temperature or they switch on these genes all the time then we know we have plants which have difficulty sensing temperature correctly. And what we've done is we've used these mutants that are unable to correctly sense temperature to identify components that are involved in temperature perception.

What's very exciting is these components appear to be conserved across a number of different organisms: even with yeast it appears to use the same pathway for sensing temperature. So what that tells us is we may well be able to use these genes in crop plants to change how these plants sense temperature, and if we can do that we may be able to breed crops that are resistant to climate change.