The Model Plant Arabidopsis

Understanding plant growth and development in molecular terms is a prerequisite if one wishes to understand, rather than to just observe, how an ecological community is established, functions and deteriorates. It is also a prerequisite for engineering economically improved plants that are better adapted to a human-dominated environment. Collecting and collating this knowledge has been and still remains a huge task.

Up until ten years ago, very few plant genes had been cloned. As a result, the molecular mechanisms underlying physiological processes could only be advanced in a few instances, and the concepts of plant signal transduction pathways or plant cell cycle had not even been considered. The basic molecular research into such processes has been carried out by science faculties and in some far-sighted companies, but rarely in Schools of Agriculture or public or private Plant Breeding Stations. Indeed, when molecular biologists proposed to concentrate their research efforts on a model plant, such as Arabidopsis thaliana (L.) Heynh, many remained skeptical, pointing out that it was a weed, not a crop plant. However, Arabidopsis thaliana has particular advantages: It possesses a small genome (only 120,000 kb), a small size, a fast growth cycle and a large seed set (many thousands). In retrospect, the choice of this small crucifer, a close relative of some Brassica species, was an excellent one. Nearly all plant molecular biology laboratories have joined the Arabidopsis effort and results have been generated at an ever increasing pace. Today, it is possible to buy "filters" carrying 12,000 different expressed sequences of Arabidopsis genes. As a result, several steps of some important events in plant development, such as flower formation, are becoming understood at the level of molecular interac-tions.1 Although directed gene displacement is still not possible due to constraints in homologous recombination, efficient seed mu-tagenesis allows the construction of many mutant alleles. Even banks of temperature-sensitive mutants are now becoming available. Map-based cloning technology, which again was principally elaborated with Arabidopsis, enables rapid cloning of the mutated alleles and is the start of a future understanding of aspects of plant biochemistry.

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