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Austrian plant sciences saved from wallflower status

Austrian Science Fund (FWF) : 08 September, 2003  (Technical Article)
Austrian research projects aimed at improving understanding of plants and their interaction with the environment are now being coordinated. The organisation responsible for this work is the Austrian Platform of Arabidopsis Research. The programme will enable the scientists taking part to join forces in contributing to a global research offensive targeting molecular processes in plants. APAR was established with assistance from the Austrian Science Fund.
The initiative for the formation of APAR, a consortium of five Austrian research groups at three different institutes, came from the 2001 Wittgenstein Prize winner, Professor Heribert Hirt. The move has opened the way for Austrian scientists to play a major role in a multinational research programme. These global efforts to gain an understanding of molecular processes in plants are being orchestrated by the Multinational Arabidopsis Steering Committee of which Hirt is the only Austrian member.

Monumental task
Explaining the need for project coordination, Hirt said: 'Arabidopsis or wall cress serves as a model organism in plant biology. Since 2000 we have known that Arabidopsis has 25,000 genes, not much less than the estimated 35,000 in humans. Unravelling the functions, modes of action and interactions of all these genes is a monumental task which can only be tackled by international collaboration through the MASC. Coordinating projects under APAR will mean that Austria can now make a contribution that is far greater than the sum of the results of the individual projects.'

APAR's main focus is on the functions of genes that are responsible for adaptation to changed environmental conditions. For instance, Hirt's team at the University of Vienna Institute of Microbiology and Genetics is studying the way in which the volatile plant hormone ethylene activates different reaction pathways in plants in response to stress, by tripping 'molecular switches'. His colleague at the Institute, Dr. Claudia Jonak, is looking at a specific form of stress, high soil salinity, and the mechanism by which this elicits adaptive responses in plants, via another type of switch. These projects are complemented by the research of another of Hirt's colleagues, Dr. Irute Meskiene, into the role of inhibitors that inactivate 'molecular switches', thus ensuring that the plant is not damaged by excessive responses. Since the switches are the molecules that regulate the main metabolic proteins, they could otherwise set off a cascading chain reaction.

Intelligent plant cells
These projects brought a new understanding of molecular processes in plants. 'There are only a few processes in which a stimulus acts on a single molecule, and then only has one effect,' said Hirt. 'Mostly, the stimulus is the net result of different, simultaneous processes that prompt one or more responses. Plant cells process information like a neural network and enable plants to adopt 'intelligent' patterns of behaviour.'

APAR also includes a project on cell division in plants, at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, Vienna (Dr. Maria-Theres Hauser), and one concerning chromosome stability, at the Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology, Austrian Academy of Sciences (Dr. Karel Riha).

APAR will be looking to expand its operations when the Gregor Mendel
Institute's building, currently under construction at the Campus Vienna Biocenter site, is completed in 2005. 'We hope to have ten groups in APAR before the next two years are out', Hirt said. 'We will then be able to make a still more important contribution to the global plant genome research drive. The FWF's financial support for APAR has prevented the Austrian plant sciences community from being seen as a 'wallflower' by colleagues abroad.'
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