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Student hauls in NWO grant for research into 'rejuvenating gene'

Master's student Thalia Luden receives an NWO grant for her research proposal about a gene that brings flowering plants back into a growth phase. Companies in floriculture and vegetable seed breeding also contribute to the research.

Thalia Luden

Her graduation is yet to come, but she has already arranged her PhD project: Thalia Luden wrote her own research proposal, which NWO honoured with around 280,000 euros. Various vegetable seed and floriculture breeding companies also contribute financially to the research. Thalia wrote the proposal together with Remko Offringa, Professor of Plant developmental genetics at the Institute of Biology Leiden. In his lab, she will research a gene that can rejuvenate plants. Applicant and forthcoming researcher Thalia Luden talks about her project, which she will start early 2020.

How did you come across this research?

‘During my Masters in Green Life Sciences at the UvA, I participated in the graduate program of the Interuniversity Graduate School Experimental Plant Sciences. That allowed me to write a research proposal for the NWO Graduate School Green Top Sectors program. I knew that I wanted to do something with the developmental biology of plants. I visited various labs, and Leiden interested me the most. Professor Offringa's group had the opportunity to research a rejuvenating gene. That appealed my imagination.’

Thale cress

A rejuvenating gene?

‘That gene, it was discovered, suppresses the flowering of a plant. If the so-called REJUVENATOR/AHL15 gene is switched “on”, it rejuvenates the plant by producing new leaves instead of flowers. This also happens with annual plants. Normally an annual plant dies after flowering. In the lab, we can switch on the rejuvenating gene of the annual plant Arabidopsis thaliana, the thale cress.  The plant then produces new leaves and can become perennial. Also, environmental factors such as temperature and day length influence which life stage a plant enters: the growth phase or the flowering phase. I'm going to investigate how that works and how we can use that to make a plant bloom or grow.’

Various companies contribute to this research. Why is that?

‘One of those companies is a breeder for chrysanthemum cultivation. That company sells chrysanthemum vegetative cuttings, which are cuttings that have not yet flowered, to chrysanthemum growers. These vegetative cuttings are now grown in countries such as Ethiopia and Colombia, where the weather conditions are more constant compared to the Netherlands. Despite the constant environmental factors, regulating the vegetative phase is also a challenge there: if cuttings start to flower before they are fully grown, it results in financial losses. The companies are therefore looking at its application, but my research is mainly about mapping the system and discovering the fundamental aspects of the rejuvenating gene.’

Within the NWO Graduate School Green Top Sectors program, excellent Master's students can submit a proposal for PhD research, in collaboration with knowledge institutions and companies. The program aims to promote innovative and high-quality scientific research within the top sectors Agri & Food and Horticulture & Propagation Materials and to attract and train talented scientists. The NWO committee assessed the Leiden research proposal as 'very good'. Candidate Thalia Luden and Professor Offringa’s research group were rated ‘excellent’.

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