Unlocking the secrets of plant hormones

Hormones influence plant growth and development, and Dr. Phil Brewer is looking to unlock their secrets to help farmers achieve grow crops more sustainably and with better resilience against climate change. View Halo Profile >>

Tell us about your research.

My research involves the regulation of shoot and root branching and growth by plant hormones. Plant hormones respond to cellular and environmental conditions, which then promotes beneficial changes in plant architecture so that the plant can adapt itself to the conditions. I seek to understand how hormones, in particular auxins and strigolactones, respond to environmental signals and how they interact at the cellular level to achieve growth responses. This knowledge can then be used to solve important agricultural problems, such as how to improve crop nitrogen use efficiency and how to develop crops with better resilience against climate change.

I am working to gain basic information about how hormones are produced and perceived in plants and, in particular, how strigolactones and auxins work together.

Can you explain that to a non-scientist?

Plants have hormones that control the growth and shape of the plant. Their effects depend on conditions such as shade, temperature, plant maturity, time of year, and soil nutrient levels. Auxins and strigolactones are key hormones that work together to optimize plant growth to fit the conditions. I am working to gain basic information about how hormones are produced and perceived in plants and, in particular, how strigolactones and auxins work together. I am also researching ways to apply new information about hormones for improved crop production.

Why did you choose this area of research?

I am fascinated by how the cells of a plant talk to each other to organize their growth and activity. Plant cells coordinate activity by constantly measuring cellular and environmental signals and then adjusting hormone levels. This is a homeostatic mechanism that involves environmental sensors in cells, feedback regulation of gene expression, enzyme and receptor activities, and changes in plant cell growth and development. This cellular biological system helps plants to grow and reproduce as efficiently as possible within the conditions. Understanding this system will unlock new opportunities to optimize cell responses for greater crop productivity.

Greater understanding of plant hormones will lead to the development of better crops and farming practices.

How could your Grants4Ag project someday impact #healthforall #hungerfornone?

Hormone responses influence the growth of plants, which is useful for farmers. However, crop responses do not always align with the farmer’s wishes. Greater understanding of plant hormones will lead to the development of better crops and farming practices. For instance, nitrogen fertilizer often causes plant hormone changes that promote a bushy crop plant. This can result in the nitrogen going into branching rather than grain production. Grants4Ag will be important to help us unlock new ways of reducing nitrogen branching responses so that more nitrogen goes into grains. Thus, we may achieve the same yield with much less fertilizer and thus reduce environmental and economic costs.