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Biotechnology and Life Sciences in Baden-Württemberg

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The conquest of land by plants

One of the simplest plants on earth has the potential to produce new drugs safely and cheaply and help make crops more resistant to the negative effects of global climate change. Scientists from Freiburg have made a significant contribution to deciphering the moss genome.

Moss plants on a rock on the Isle of Skye/Scotland (Photo: Stefan Rensing)
Moss plants on a rock on the Isle of Skye/Scotland (Photo: Stefan Rensing) 
The moss Physcomitrella patens is very similar to the first plants that moved from water to the land approximately 450 million years ago. In order to successfully survive they had to adapt to a tough climate with extreme temperature fluctuations, aridity, high UV radiation and high salt concentrations. Better insights into these protective mechanisms might help transfer these properties to crops, thus making them more resistant to the negative effects of global climate change.

Physcomitrella patens becomes a model plant

An international consortium of 70 scientists from 45 laboratories, mainly in Germany, Japan and the USA, has deciphered the genome of Physcomitrella patens, and has recently published the results in the renowned journal Science. The moss genome was sequenced at the Californian Genome Institute of the American Energy Ministry. The challenging sequencing job was accomplished using state-of-the-art bioinformatics methods under the leadership of the Freiburg scientist Dr. Stefan Rensing in Prof. Dr. Ralf Reski’s department. The work of the scientists was mainly supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

“In evolutionary terms, the moss genome is located between the algae and flowering plants that are separated by 1 billion years of evolution. The complete genomic sequence of the moss has definitively turned Physcomitrella into a model plant,” explains Stefan Rensing. “When I started doing research on Physcomitrella approximately 20 years ago, this was pure “niche research”, although always funded by the DFG. Back then, I would never have dared to imagine that we would one day be able to sequence its entire genome,” explains Ralf Reski.

Rapidly deciphering the function of unknown genes

In contrast to humans and flowering plants, the moss genome does not have “safety copies” for the genes. In addition, scientists are able to specifically interfere with the moss genome. This technology enables the researchers to quickly identify the function of unknown genes.

BASF AG was the first company in the world to recognize the enormous potential of this research and invested a two-digit million sum into Ralf Reski’s work from 1999 onwards. “This very successful cooperation between a global company and the University of Freiburg was most likely the reason for national funding organizations in the USA, England and in particular Japan to finance moss research with large amounts of money,” said Reski recalling his early years of moss research.

Blueprint for human benefit

Moss biotechnology also has many local supporters. For example, the University of Freiburg, the Freiburg Business Promotion Department and BioRegio Freiburg/BioValley also gave considerable support to Reski and colleagues in establishing the company greenovation Biotech in 1999. greenovation Biotech focuses on the development of a moss bioreactor for the safe and cheap production of proteins for medical applications, for example antibodies for diagnosis and therapy. The optimization of the technology is also funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), which supports collaborative projects between the University of Freiburg, the University of Karlsruhe and greenovation.

“Now that the moss genome is deciphered, we have a blueprint available, which will help us make plant biotechnology even safer and to use it even more efficiently for human benefit,” said Reski. Rensing adds: “The deciphered moss genome is an elementary prerequisite for the modeling of the life processes of this simple plant.” This research direction is also supported by the BMBF, within the framework of the Freiburg Initiative for Systems Biology, FRISYS.

The Physcomitrella Genome Reveals Evolutionary Insights into the Conquest of Land by Plants
Originally published in Science Express on 13 December 2007
Science 4 January 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5859, pp. 64 - 69


Source: Press Office University of Freiburg - December 2007

Further information:
Prof. Dr. Ralf Reski
Dr. Stefan A. Rensing
Plant Biotechnology
Faculty of Biology
University of Freiburg
Schänzlestr. 1
79104 Freiburg
Tel.: +49 (0)761 203 6968
Fax: +49 (0)761 203 6967
E-mail: pbt@biologie.uni-freiburg.de
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28.01.2008

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