Metabolomics is providing us with a unique insight into the biodiversity of plant metabolism. This is hugely valuable information because many of the reasons we use / need / exploit / love plants relates specifically to their biochemical content. Diversity in this biochemical content determines key differences for example, in taste, fragrance, pigmentation, durability, shelf life etc. Knowing about this diversity is one thing but understanding the genetic and environmental factors which are causal to it is quite another.
For this reason, researchers of Plant Research International work on a number of projects where we are making use of the model plant Arabidopsis to help us define the molecular mechanisms behind biochemical diversity. This knowledge will then be applied in different projects aimed at some of our most important crops such as rice, tomato and potato.
Arabidopsis as model
Although not a crop, Arabidopsis is helping us understand better natural plant biodiversity, much of which relates to important phenotypic traits relevant to how plants cope with their environment (stress tolerance) and their chemical composition. Arabidopsis is part of the cabbage (Brassica) family and hence all results can be readily translated to this diverse set of crops. However, much plant biochemistry is conserved across the plant kingdom and so relevance to other crops is evident.
Within both the Centre for Improved Plant Yield (www.cipy.nl) and the Netherlands Metabolomics Centre (www.metabolomicscentre.nl) researchers are working together with plant geneticists and physiologists to use metabolomics to characterise biochemical variation between a wide range of natural Arabidopsis variants and experimental mutants. Furthermore, we are also using equivalent approaches to determine how this variation is influenced by for example, sub-optimal growth conditions and targeted genetic changes.
From model to crop
The approaches described above are readily translatable to the crop situation. Consequently, building upon our expertise from Arabidopsis research we are already performing equivalent broad metabolomics-based analyses with populations of both commercial tomato cultivars as well as unique populations of tomato hybrids made between the cultivated tomato (Solanum lycopersicon) and wild species such as S. pimpenellifolium. These hybrids contain just a fraction of the genetic compliment from the wild species and hence, any metabolic differences detected which are related for example, to disease resistance, taste or appearance can also be linked to this part of the wild species genome. This knowledge is invaluable for improved plant breeding strategies.