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Hutton Seminar Series: Watching plant clock genes run the organism, to understand growth and selection in crops

Hutton Seminars
6 June 2018, 10:30am
at James Hutton Institute, New Seminar Room (Dundee) and Macaulay B (Aberdeen)
for scientists, students, researchers and anyone interested
Hutton Seminar Series 2018 badge

Life evolved on a rotating planet, where the day:night cycle affects almost all habitats on land. Plants actively predict and prepare for the changing light and darkness, using a 24-hour, biological timer. This daily clock is also a key part of the plant’s calendar, which controls seasonal flowering and hence the timing of seed production. Research in the lab model plant Arabidopsis thaliana has identified the few genes that build this circadian clock. The plant’s clock is unrelated to the animal clock genes that were highlighted by a 2017 Nobel prize. Research on several crops, including on barley at the James Hutton Institute, shows that their clock genes were altered during domestication and the spread of agriculture. To understand how the clock genes run plant growth, my group has built mathematical models of the clock genes at work, and how they control processes between germination and flowering, especially how leaves manage their daily sugar budget (Seaton et al. JRS Interface 2014; Mol Syst Biol 2015). We combined models from three biological areas into a Framework Model, which predicts biomass growth quantitatively (Chew et al. PNAS 2014), and explains why altered timing slows the growth of a late clock mutant (Chew, Seaton et al. bioRxiv 2017). This proof-of-principle needed the rich data from the Arabidopsis research community but it points beyond the geneticist’s genotype to phenotype gap, linking genome sequence to plant traits and field performance, to understand past crop selection and inform future crop improvement.

Andrew Millar has a longstanding interest in 24-hour biological clocks, which control processes ranging from the human sleep-wake cycle to seasonal flowering. He was elected an EMBO member, FRS and FRSE in 2010-2013 for his research on the clock in plants, which integrates experimental genetics and molecular biology, plant physiology, ‘omics, mathematical modelling and computer science. Andrew grew up in Luxembourg and studied Genetics at Cambridge University, followed by a Ph.D. in Plant Molecular Genetics at The Rockefeller University, New York. After postdoctoral research at the NSF Center for Biological Timing in Virginia, he joined University of Warwick. Growing interest in Systems and Synthetic Biology contributed to a move to the University of Edinburgh in 2005, where he co-founded and directed the SynthSys research centre (2007-2012; His past roles include serving as Director of Systems Biology for the Scottish Universities Life Science Alliance (2007-2009;, and P.I. for GARNet (2004-2009), which represents roughly 200 laboratories of the UK’s Arabidopsis research community. He currently serves as Director of Research for Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, on BBSRC Council, and as a Non-Executive Director of the James Hutton Institute. His interests include research data management, Open Research and the macro-economic impacts on science.

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.