Plant biology: Growth industry

To learn the chemical language of plants, Ian Baldwin has built up a German research empire that engineers seeds and a field station in the Utah wilderness to grow them.

Rooted and unable to flee, plants have evolved many ingenious ways of repulsing their enemies, from generating noxious chemicals in their leaves to emitting complex, volatile bouquets to attract predators that will pick off the plant’s attackers. It is a highly sophisticated chemical language undetectable by the human nose and largely undeciphered by science. But if and when it can be understood, it might open the way to modifying plants’ signals to give them stronger protection, or to developing environmentally friendly mimics of natural signals as alternatives to herbicides.
In his efforts to understand this language, Ian Baldwin has embarked on a project unique in its ambition and scale, carried out along what he calls “the longest lab corridor in the world”. Working in Jena, Germany, where he is a director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, he and his team develop powerful genetic tools to systematically knock out, or knock down, genes involved in making the chemical signals. Then they observe the effects by growing the modified plants in the wild — 8,844 kilometres away, next to the Utah ranch. The fastest journey from Jena to the field station takes 27 hours. The researchers have little choice, however. In Germany, with its populist aversion to anything genetically modified, such trials cannot proceed…

Alison Abbott. (2010) Plant biology: Growth industry. Nature 468: 886-888 doi:10.1038/468886a