Junior ERC grant is going to the Botany Department
Changes in the structure of genetic information, which is the basis of an organism’s life, take place through mutations of varying magnitude. An organism can become a “mutant” by either changing just one “letter” of its genetic code, or by multiplying the text of its entire genetic “library”, i.e. of all the chromosomes in the cell nucleus at once. In the second case, this is called whole genome duplication (WGD), which creates a genome with multiple chromosome sets known as a polyploid genome. It turns out, especially in the case of angiosperms, that such a multiplying of chromosomes is more common than rare. But how does the entire process of creating genome-wide mutations work at a molecular level? Do polyploid plants thrive better in new or unfavorable environments? And lastly – in what way does WGD affect the creation of new species and thus transformations in the structure of biodiversity?
All of these questions are not only interesting to botanists and biologicial theorists. It is important to remember that plants with polyploid genomes include many or even most domesticated plants, including those that are absolutely essential for human nutrition (wheat, rice, sugar cane, potatoes, strawberries and many others). “At one time, people unwittingly tamed polyploidization to obtain other useful crops,” explains Filip Kolář of the Charles University Faculty of Science. Another group that probably utilizes the positive effects of polyploid genomes are invasive plants. The doubled inventory of genetic variations expands the possibilities of responding to new environments and thus improves the ability to colonize. And it is precisely the ecology of biological invasion that comprises a considerable portion of biological research with important economic results. “Despite this importance, genome research tends to avoid polyploids because of the complicated nature of their genomes, and we know virtually nothing about the evolutionary processes ongoing in natural populations,” stated Filip Kolář from the CU FS Botany Department.
The goal of the “Double Adapt” project, which just received an ERC junior grant, is to research the evolutionary significance of genome duplication. Research will be conducted on a multiple hierarchy of levels: genomes, individuals, populations and entire species. To investigate such a wide range of questions, it is necessary to apply both precise knowledge of ecology and population dynamics of plants in the wild, as well as a combination of evolutionary experiments and the newest approaches in the field of plant genomics. To test all of the hypotheses presented, Filip Kolář selected six different plant species that have both diploid and naturally polyploid specimens in the wild. “I deliberately selected species for the study that have a small genome and occur in various states of ploidy in the Central European region. They thus represent comparable ‘natural laboratories’ enabling us to examine the results of these mutations under natural conditions,” Kolář said. Data obtained from the wild populations will be compared with those obtained by the team from mutant plants that they prepare themselves and propagate under laboratory conditions.
Website of Filip Kolář’s group at CU FS: https://botany.natur.cuni.cz/ecolgen/
About the European Research Council (ERC)
The European Research Council was founded by the European Union in 2007 to support the organization of excellent research advancing the boundaries of various scientific fields. Each year it selects and supports the best and most creative researchers, regardless of nationality, to lead projects in Europe. It offers four central areas of support: start-up, consolidation, advanced and synergy grants, with a focus on funding early-career researchers falling under the first two categories above. The rigorous selection process includes an interview of applicants, where they defend their projects in front a panel of top scientists in the given field from all over the world.
Filip Kolář, Ph.D. has been studying the evolution of plants for many years. In his work, he combines traditional knowledge of the ecology and biogeography of flora in Europe with new genomic population approaches. Thanks to this, he is able to choose suitable model groups to answer various questions regarding the evolutionary biology of plants (and at the same time remain in the field for at least part of his work). In addition to the results of genome duplication, he is investigating the significance of refuges for the emergence of new species, both edaphic (serpentine) and historical (glacial refuges). He also examines the adaptation of species to the challenges of changing environments in mountainous areas of Europe, Africa and South America. He is a member of several national and international teams, many of which he helped put together. He is intensively devoted to teaching at the CU FS Department of Botany, especially training students in the master’s and doctoral programs. For many years he was also a co-organizer of the competition for high school students in the Biology Olympics.