The role of the oxylipin OPDA in the seasonal sensitivity of seed dormancy

Lead Research Organisation: John Innes Centre
Department Name: Crop Genetics


Seasonal plant growth, typically initiated with the onset of bud burst or seed germination in the spring and terminated with the onset of dormancy in the progression through autumn to winter, is a well recognised natural phenomenon that can affect annual atmospheric gas exchange on a global scale. Environmental cues such as day-length and temperature are well known to directly affect plant growth and development, but much less is known about how such cues are used by plants to establish dormancy in advance of major seasonal change. There is a growing interest in understanding the underlying mechanism responsible for these predictive responses, not least because such knowledge will help us to predict how wild plants and crops will respond to environmental change. We have recently made two important discoveries that point to a lipid signalling molecule, OPDA, having a central role in controlling dormancy in seeds and being involved in the transfer of information governing seasonal growth control from one generation to the next. Both of these discoveries were made in the model plant species Arabidopsis thaliana, but knowledge gained will be applicable to other plant species. In the first discovery we found that elevated OPDA is responsible for increased seed dormancy in several Arabidopsis mutants. Exogenous OPDA application inhibits germination and we have evidence to show it involves at least one downstream target, a transcription factor protein called ABI5 that increases in abundance in the presence of OPDA and is essential for the OPDA imposed dormancy in beta-oxidation mutant seeds. In the second discovery we found that the day-length in which Arabidopsis plants are grown has a dramatic effect on the levels of OPDA in vegetative tissues and the dormancy state of seeds in the next generation. This effect on OPDA and seed dormancy is dependent on a protein called Flowering Locus T (FT) that is involved in regulating expression in vegetative tissues of a key gene involved in the synthesis of OPDA. A major question that now needs to be addressed is how the 'memory' of day-length in vegetative tissues is transmitted to the next generation and manifested in the dormancy status of seeds. Our preliminary studies indicate that OPDA plays a central role in the memory retention across generations from vegetative material to seeds. Furthermore, other recent work suggests a similar mechanism involving the FT protein controls dormancy in vegetative buds in perennial species such as poplar trees. The aim of our research is to establish the mechanism by which environmental signals influence seasonal growth by modification of the dormancy state of vegetative buds and seeds. To achieve this aim we will first establish how the FT protein regulates OPDA levels in vegetative tissues and establish the mechanism by which FT-dependent information is transferred from one generation to the next. The most likely mechanism is one involving epigenetic non-permanent modification of DNA that can affect gene expression and hence traits and phenotypes from one generation to the next. In parallel with this work we will establish how environmental signals during seed development influence dormancy state and OPDA levels. We will also elucidate the signal transduction pathway involved in the OPDA mediated control of seed dormancy. Finally, building on our remarkable observation that the environment experienced during seed set influences the growth rate of plants derived from that seed, we will investigate if an epigenetic OPDA-dependent memory of the seed maturation environment is involved. The outputs of this research will impact on the way we predict how plant ecosystems respond to environmental change. It may also impact on the development of improved agronomic practice for the production of seeds that are less dormant and/or give rise to crops that grow more vigorously.

Technical Summary

Our recent published data have led us to propose a new model for dormancy control in plants in response to seasonal cues that places the oxylipin intermediate 12-oxophytodienoic acid (OPDA) as a central player. To test this model we will first establish the mechanism by which the FT protein that we have shown to be important in regulating dormancy in seeds regulates OPDA levels in response to daylength in vegetative tissues. We also aim to establish how the FT-dependent 'memory' of environmental cues experienced in vegetative tissues is transferred to the next generation. We have preliminary data to suggest an epigenetic process and this will be investigated by analysis of candidate genes with altered expression in seeds. We have also shown that OPDA synthesised directly in developing seeds is responsible for the increased seed dormancy found in Arabidopsis mutants altered in lipid metabolism and we now need to establish the effect of environmental cues on OPDA levels in developing seeds by metabolite profiling. We have demonstrated that the ABI5 transcription factor is a downstream target involved in the OPDA inhibition of seed germination and we will elucidate the other components in this important, new signalling pathway. One other player appears to be MFT, a close relative of FT with a recently revealed role in integration of the ABA and GA- germination response of imbibed seeds and which directly regulates ABI5 expression. We will perform a series of molecular genetic and gene expression studies to elucidate this pathway. We will also perform a suppressor screen on one of the lipid metabolism mutants that is dormant because of elevated OPDA levels and select non-dormant seeds. We are confident of this strategy since double mutants that lack ABI5 are no longer dormant. Finally, we will investigate the remarkable observation that the environment during seed set influences growth rate of resulting plants and establish if an OPDA mediated process is also involved.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of this Research This research will provide new understanding of how a lipid based signalling molecule is used by plants to control whether or not they enter a dormant state in response to environmental factors such as day-length and temperature. These results will open up a new field of research activity on how plants use environmental signals to influence future growth state in the same or subsequent generation. Commercial Organisations As well as being of obvious interest to the relevant research community this research will also give rise to results that will have impact with organisations involved in commercial production of seed and possibly also commercial production of plants by vegetative propagation. Seed production companies that employ agricultural biotechnology such as Syngenta are one type of commercial organisation that could benefit from this research, since it will produce candidate gene targets that could be manipulated to alter dormancy state and growth vigour in both vegetative and seed material. Thus these companies could use the outputs of the research to develop improved crops that are not as subject as their predecessors to environmental conditions and are higher yielding. Such an approach to realising these benefits would involve the use of transgenic technology and it is expected that due to the time it takes for development of the technology in crops plus regulatory approval we predict a 5 to 10 year time frame following the completion of this research before the benefits to the company are realised in terms of return on investment. We expect that there could also be a second path by which seed and vegetative production based companies could also realise the benefits of this research that does not involve transgenic technology and would have a much shorter timeline to realising benefits in the order of 2-3 years. This is because the results of the research could inform such companies of best environmental conditions for production of seed or vegetative materials. In addition, seed coating technology is an industry in itself, with companies such as the UK based Germains Seeds ( The results of this research could benefit such companies by assisting in the development of new treatments that improve seed performance and subsequent plant growth. The development and deployment of such technology is likely to occur within a 2-3 year time frame from proof of concept. The results of this research could therefore lead to an increase in the economic competitiveness of the UK. Public and third sector beneficiaries The Knowledge Based BioEconomy (KBBE) is now recognised as one of the main routes for the UK and other Western economies to recover from the current recession. The lead applicant, Ian Graham, has been involved in informing UK Government and EU policy with respect to how plant biology can impact on the KBBE. Most recently this has been through the Department of Business Innovation and Skills Horizon Scanning and Roadmapping Report for Industrial Biotechnology 2010-2025, which recognises the importance and impact of plant biology research. The results from the current research will be used to inform such policy forming documents, which in turn influence future government funding to research councils and other organisations. Third sector beneficiaries of the results outputs will include charities such as the Syngenta Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, both of which are committed to improving developing world agriculture. CNAP has existing collaborative research programmes with both these organisations. The benefits described above for commercial organisations would also be of relevance to the aims of both these charities in terms of developing world agriculture. We will showpiece the results of this research to these organisations to gauge interest and attract additional funding for development work in relevant crops.


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Chen M (2014) Maternal temperature history activates Flowering Locus T in fruits to control progeny dormancy according to time of year. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
BB/J000949/1 20/02/2012 30/09/2014 £344,258
BB/J000949/2 Transfer BB/J000949/1 01/10/2014 28/02/2015 £95,380
Description In this grant we discovered that mother plants pass environmental information to progeny seeds that tells them what time of year it is. We showed that if you give different temperature treatments to plants, it affects the performance of the seeds they produce at a later date. We began to look into the mechanism by which this transfer of information from mother to progeny occurs. Our findings show that genes formally described as having a role in flowering time control play an important part in the transfer of information. We discovered that these genes are expressed in the fruit tissues and the carpel before the flowers are fertilised. The activity of these genes in fruits was found to be dependent on the temperature that the mother plant had previously experienced earlier in its life. We could show this through a number of means. This reveals that fruit tissues are much more environmentally plastic than people initially realised, and that the fruits contain genetic memories of past temperature. This was the first description of a transgenerational signalling pathway in plants by which the parent plant controls traits of the progeny, such as dormancy. We also began to look into what changes occurred in seeds in response to temperature signals arriving from the mother plant. We showed that the seed coat tissues and endosperm change in permeability in response to the maternal temperature. The ability of seeds to uptake water and oxygen from the environment is known to affect their germination performance so this might be very important in the process. We could also show that there were resultant hormone level changes in seeds, and some of these hormones are known to be involved in germination control. These require more investigation to find out whether they are intimately involved in the dormancy-regulating process.
Exploitation Route Plant breeders can use this information to improve seed quality and to understand how breeding for altered flowering time can affect seed quality.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink

Description Environmental effects on seed quality are known by seed companies the world over. Our research showed that this is a biological response originating from the mother plant encoded in the genes. This means that breeding for less variable seed quality is possible, and this is now an objective for many seed companies.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Economic

Description BBSRC CASE studentship
Amount £35,000 (GBP)
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 09/2015
Description UNiversity of Geneva collaboration 
Organisation University of Geneva
Country Switzerland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We provided a scientific problem that we could not address without external expertise.
Collaborator Contribution Our partner has developed new techniques for conducting epigenomic studies of small tissues in arabidopsis seeds, particularly the endosperm. To briung these techniques into out lab they hosted the postdoctoral researcher in Geneva and taught her how to separate large volumes of endosperm tissues and the protocols for chromatin extraction. they also performed some experiments that were necessary for the publication.
Impact One publication came from the collaboration. doi: 10.1111/tpj.14211
Start Year 2016
Description collaboration with Enza Zaden BV 
Organisation Enza Zaden
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We have been analysing mechanisms behind processes in seed enhancement.
Collaborator Contribution They have provided materials, training and advice, and collaborated in the research goals.
Impact no outcomes yet to report
Start Year 2013
Description Presentation at Syngenta Seeds 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact I was invited to spend a day with syngenta seeds, presented our work and took part in a debate.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Press release on transgenerational effects on seeds 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Press release accoimpanying publication was picked up by several online media outlets and led to an article in scientific americam magazine and in the agricultural press.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description scientific american article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact My work was featured in an article in Scientific American magazine.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015