Even a decade ago, our understanding of the molecular mechanisms by which plants control their growth, cell biology and development was relatively poor, and lagged behind the equivalent subjects in animal and microbial biology. Since that time there has been an almost exponential growth in research, knowledge and interest in plant molecular and cell biology. The growth in activity is reflected by increased research funding, increased numbers of research groups using plants as model systems for study, and growing numbers of journals and international conferences devoted to plant science.
Why has this subject emerged as one of the most active areas of biological research? In the past, plant molecular studies were largely overshadowed by microbes, which offer substantial technical advantages, and animals (particularly mammals), with their potential clinical applications. The trigger for the wave of activity in plant molecular science is two-fold: (i) the successful transfer to plants of genetic and genomic technologies pioneered in other areas of biology and (ii) the recognition that genetically manipulating plants can be of agricultural benefit in a time of global food crisis.
The most significant advance in the last few years has been the acquisition of enormous amounts of plant DNA sequence data, especially in model species and crop plants. This has culminated in the release of the entire genomic sequences of Arabidopsis thaliana, rice and other species. Nowadays we have computer- and web-based access to huge amounts of valuable data. A major current challenge is to understand the function of all the genes whose sequences have been determined. This endeavour is named ‘functional genomics’, and the experimental approaches used will be explained in this course. The development of plant transformation techniques (the introduction of novel genes, or the re-introduction of altered genes, into plants) has also been enormously beneficial to experimental programmes. These advances have enabled a substantially increased understanding of how plants control their growth, development and responses to the environment, particularly via cell signalling and signal transduction.
Alongside these revolutions in technology, there has been a recognition that plant systems are of interest in their own right. Plants clearly possess many unique structures and developmental processes: some of these have become the focus of intensive recent research. In addition, an interest in plant evolution has been sparked by available genomic data. In some cases, data from plants is now informing new directions in animal cell biological research. There is still much that we do not know, and this makes plant science a fast-paced and exciting research area to work in.
We cannot cover the whole field of molecular plant science in this course. Instead, we will ensure that students understand basic aspects of plant molecular, cellular and developmental biology. We will introduce you to key experimental techniques and use some exciting areas of current research as case studies to explain how specific developmental processes are controlled