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European Commission earmarks €12 million for plant growth research

Plants are invaluable sources of food, medicine, renewable materials and energy. But we still know relatively little about the biological processes that make them grow. The European Commission is devoting €12 million to AGRON-OMICS, a plant research consortium spearheaded by Pierre Hilson and Dirk Inzé of the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) and the Universityof Ghent. The goal of this 5-year initiative led in collaboration with other top European research institutes, including the Warwick Systems Biology Centre, is to understand the network of biological processes involved in leaf growth.

Plants: crucial but still poorly understood

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of plants in our daily life. They provide us with food, medicine, and renewable sources of materials and energy. It’s therefore sobering to realize that, in comparison to cancer for example, we still know very little about the mechanisms involved in plant growth. Although key factors have been identified, researchers do not yet understand how their action is orchestrated, nor how the growth process is coordinated across the successive levels of organization: from molecules, to cells, organs and finally entire organisms. In particular, leaves are exquisite solar-driven molecular machines for carbon assimilation and essential determinants of ecosystem productivity. Given their crucial role for mankind, we must improve our knowledge about the biology of plants.

But, times are changing and novel technologies are now being developed to systematically study complex biological processes. Pierre Hilson, Dirk Inzé and their colleagues in the Department of Plant Systems Biology, in collaboration with nine other top European research institutes, have set out to perform an in-depth study of leaf growth in the model plant species Arabidopsis thaliana. To support their efforts, these scientists launched an initiative called AGRON-OMICS (Arabidopsis GROwth Network integrating OMICS technologies). In the coming five years, this network of major European players in plant biology will perform experiments to identify the molecular components controlling growth and build mathematical models to explain how these components interact.

The significance of the initiative also caught the attention of the European Commission, which is providing €12 million toward its success. With the exception of the Arabidopsis genome initiative, this is arguably the largest grant ever awarded in this area of research, and a clear indication of the social importance of a deep understanding of life processes in plants.

‘Arabidopsis GROwth Network integrating OMICS technologies’

The mission of AGRON-OMICS, a multidisciplinary research program focusing on the plant model Arabidopsis thaliana, is to enhance the understanding of plant growth through and to enable system-level studies. The project will create knowledge for industrial applications and will yield data, tools, resources and novel technologies for use by the European research community.
The consortium is structured according to two main axes: (1) the biological functional modules at the core of the research activities of the laboratories involved that cover all the main known molecular pathways involved in the regulation and implementation of leaf growth; (2) the technology platforms shared across the partners that were chosen to record variables describing Arabidopsis growth at all relevant levels, from the macroscopic analysis of organ size and shape, to the in-depth analysis of molecular cell components.
The key concept driving AGRON-OMICS is the generation of multiple data types derived from growing leaves and their delivery into a framework in which these data can be shared, compared, integrated and analyzed.

Coordinator: VIB-UGent, Belgium
Pierre Hilson, Dirk Inzé, Geert De Jaeger, Gerrit Beemster, Martin Kuiper
Pierre Hilson is the head of the Functional Genomics Division in the Department of Plant Systems Biology under the direction of Dirk Inzé.


Institut National de Recherche Agronomique, Institut Jean-Pierre Bourgin, France

Herman Höfte, Christian Meyer, Jean-Denis Faure, Olivier Loudet

Warwick Systems Biology Centre, Coventry, Great Britain

Vicky Buchanan-Wollaston, Jim Beynon, David Rand

Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Pathology, Germany

Lothar Willmitzer, Mark Stitt, Thomas Altmann

Laboratoire d’écophysiologie des plantes sous stress environmentaux, Institut National de Recherche Agronomique, Montpellier, France

Christine Granier, François Tardieu, Thierry Simonneau

Universidad Miguel Hernandez, Spain

José Luis Micol, María Rosa Ponce

Unité de Recherche en Génomique Végétale, Institut National de Recherche Agronomique, France

Claire Lurin, Sébastien Aubourg

John Innes Centre, Norwich, Great Britain

John Doonan, Michael Bevan

Maia Scientific, Belgium

Johan Geysen, Kris Ver Donck, Marc Moeremans

Plant Research International, the Netherlands

Gerco Angenent

Laboratory of Plant Biotechnology, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Switzerland

Wilhelm Gruissem

Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Germany

Detlef Weigel

Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, Germany

George Coupland

Nottingham Arabidopsis Stock Centre
, Great Britain

Sean May