Plants underpin all aspects of our everyday life – from the food we eat to the air we breathe. Like fungi, only a tiny fraction of plant species on the planet have had their genome sequence determined.
Most plant species with genomes sequenced to date are crops, including the major cereals - rice, wheat and maize, as well as fruits and vegetables. Commercially important crops that make our favourite drinks like coffee, grapes and hops have also had their genomes sequenced. Studying these genomes helps enhance yield, as well as shedding light on the mechanisms of taste and quality.
Studying the genomes of relatives of crop species is also important. These plants harbour important genetic diversity, often lost in the domesticated crops that dominate world agriculture. 75 per cent of the world’s food supply depends on just 12 species of plants. Their wild relatives harbour essential genetic diversity which can be used for breeding resilience to disease and to climate change.
Plants are a hugely diverse group of organisms, from trees with 5,000 year lifespans to unicellular green algae. Their uses are equally diverse, from medicines to biofuels and materials.
Plant sciences have a vital role in addressing some of the most critical global challenges, such as climate change and food security. Plant science can provide the fundamental research required to protect biodiversity, as well as mitigate and adapt to climate change. Whole genome sequence data will enable researchers to drive the understanding of plant development and evolution and their potential contribution to sustainable agriculture. And new, detailed insights from genome sequences may help us understand medicinally important compounds.
Dr. Gaya is particularly interested in the genomes of lichenised fungi – whose orange pigment acts like a sunscreen, protecting them from UV damage and allowing them to grow in some of the driest places on Earth. Image Credit: The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew