Oh I do like to grow beside the seaside: understanding how and why plants produce DMSP

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Biological Sciences


Billions of tonnes of the organosulfur compound dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) are made each year by marine algae, corals and bacteria, but some plants also make this important molecule. DMSP is a key marine nutrient pivotal in global sulfur cycling, as it is the main precursor of the climate-active gas dimethylsulfide (DMS). DMS gives the seaside its distinctive smell and is used by many animals and birds as a chemoattractant associated with their algal food. In the atmosphere, DMS is oxidised to sulfates that accelerate cloud formation over the oceans. These clouds affect the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface and this in turn affects the climate. Sulfur is returned to land in the form of rain, completing the cycle.

Production of DMSP and DMS is concentrated at the coast, with saltmarshes being hotspots for DMSP/DMS synthesis and predicted to contribute up to 10% of global DMS emissions. We have recently identified different bacteria and algae in saltmarsh mud that make DMSP, but plants in these habitats (particularly the perennial grass Spartina) are believed to be the major DMSP and DMS producers in saltmarshes. In fact, Spartina has the highest intracellular DMSP concentration of all known plants, which is far in excess of that in most DMSP-producing bacteria and algae. DMSP production likely protects plants from environmental stresses associated with growing at the seaside, such as salinity and nutrient limitations, but this has not been fully tested or established. Interestingly, some Spartina species cannot make DMSP (even though they grow well at the coast), while some crop plants (such as tomato and maize - which don't usually grow at the coast) are able to produce DMSP when grown under particular environmental stresses like high salinity or drought. Our understanding of why plants produce DMSP is therefore lacking and this is something we will investigate here, focussing on specific Spartina species that either produce DMSP or do not and the crop plant tomato. We will establish which developmental triggers and environmental conditions cause plants to synthesise DMSP and will determine what benefits DMSP production confers to plants. Furthermore, we will study the natural production and turnover rates of DMSP and DMS by Spartina growing in saltmarshes over a season. This will allow us to better understand and predict the significance of such environments for the production of these influential compounds.

It is also unclear how plants actually produce DMSP. Our work with bacteria and algae identified different biosynthetic routes for DMSP synthesis and the key genes and enzymes involved. Based on this previous work, we have now identified candidate genes responsible for DMSP production in plants. We will mutate these genes and characterise their enzyme products to confirm their function in the plant DMSP synthesis pathway. We will also study how these plant genes are expressed, i.e. when and in which specific tissues and cellular compartments, and regulated by which environmental conditions. Currently the contribution of plants to global DMSP and DMS production is likely vastly underestimated since few plants have been tested for DMSP under appropriate conditions. Knowing key plant DMSP synthesis genes and factors regulating them will allow us to evaluate better the diversity of plants capable of this process and their potential impacts on environmental production.

Overall, this work will allow us to understand how, why and where plants produce DMSP and how plants contribute to global DMSP and DMS production. This will allow us to predict better the impacts of DMSP and DMS on the natural environment and climate. Harnessing the protective effects of DMSP production in plants may also allow us to improve crop growth and productivity under stressful conditions and thus enhance food security in the future.

Planned Impact

Exploitation of our results will have broad impact across different industrial and public sectors. This project will also provide excellent opportunities for outreach, public engagement and training early career scientists. The RCo-I and Technician will be closely involved in realising all of these, together with the PI and Co-Is:

- Public sector, society & the environment: establishing how and why plants produce DMSP is critical to understanding the global sulfur cycle. Furthermore, determining whether other plants produce DMSP (and to what levels) is essential for accurate estimates of DMSP and climate-active DMS production in the natural environment, which can be used for improved climate modelling. Our findings about how DMSP production allows plants to better tolerate environmental stresses, such as salinity, may also allow new farming and environmental mitigation strategies to be developed to improve land practices, soil health and crop yields. Longer term, our work will therefore contribute to global food security and benefit society more widely by decreasing food production costs and improving our understanding of ways to mitigate against factors that change the global sulfur cycle, the natural environment and ultimately the climate.

- Agri-Tech & biotechnology industry: salinisation of agricultural soils is a worldwide problem, affecting approximately half of all existing irrigated soils, and this is predicted to only become worse with climate change, future rising sea levels and limitations on fresh water for irrigation. Our work will identify plant DMSP synthesis genes that could be used as new plant breeding markers and biotechnological targets to generate crops with improved salt tolerance. We have held initial conversations with potential stakeholders (e.g. Marine Knowledge Exchange Network and Agri-TechE) and these discussions will be extended during the project to investigate opportunities for potential commercialisation and/or leveraging business partnership funding. UEA's experienced Commercial Relationships Manager will support all commercialisation opportunities.

- Teachers & school students: we have established links with local schools (e.g. Framingham Earl High, Norfolk) through the Teacher-Scientist Network and STEM Ambassador scheme, and will continue developing these links during the project. We will visit schools to explain our research (e.g. practical demonstrations) and will use these opportunities to highlight that the excellence of future science (particularly in plant-environment interactions) depends on inspiring and training a next generation of scientists with the confidence and ability to interact across different scientific disciplines.

- Members of public: this project directly aligns with current public interest in climate change and our natural environment. This project thus offers excellent opportunities to discuss the findings of our research with members of public. We will develop a Science, Arts and Writing (SAW) Trust workshop exploring global food production and environmental sustainability. We will also participate in science fairs (e.g. Norwich Science Festival) and local shows (e.g. Royal Norfolk Show) to explain our research more widely using a project-specific "Oh I do like to grow beside the seaside" display. We will use social media, press releases and specific webpages to publicise our research to general audiences.

- Early career scientists: the training opportunities in environmental physiology and plant stress, DMSP/DMS biology and biochemistry, saltmarsh ecology and bioinformatics for the RCo-I and RA employed on this project will benefit other researchers and under/postgraduate students in the local research environments. This will contribute to generating the skilled, flexible research base required to maintain the UK's world-leading position in research and realising the economic benefits that accrue from performing such research.


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Description We have sampled DMSP production in saltmarsh plants, including the saltmarsh grass Spartina, and have discovered some of the components that regulate how plants make DMSP in this environment. We have also identified some of the key genes involved in this process. These findings have opened up new areas to explore how and why plants produce DMSP and how DMSP is used in the saltmarsh. This research is continuing as the award is still active.
Exploitation Route This research is continuing as the award is still active.
Sectors Environment

Description NERC Environmental Omics Facility de novo pilot competition
Amount £9,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NEOF1369 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2021 
End 06/2022