Professor Gerhard Leubner

Research interests


Research into Plant, Seed and Food Supply Chain Security and Sustainability

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Seed biology - impactful research into germination, longevity, dormancy and quality of plant seeds

Plant seeds and fruits are at the beginning and the end of all important food supply chains that are central to human existence (food security and sustainability). They are the major means of propagation of important food and feed crops, and their harvest yield and quality determine nutritive value, consumer health and well-being, and beyond (e.g. biofuel crops). Plant seed and fruit germination is the most important adaptive early life-history trait and is timed by dormancy to avoid germination at unfavourable weather conditions for subsequent plant establishment and reproductive growth. Adaptation of germination to abiotic stresses and changing environmental conditions is decisive for fitness and survival of a species. Two opposing forces provide the basic physiological mechanism for the control of seed germination timing and synchrony: The increase in the growth potential of the embryo leading to cell-wall extension growth, and the restraint weakening of the various seed covering layers including endosperm, testa (seed coat), pericarp (fruit coat), and artificial envelopes applied by seed technologists. Our long-term goal is to understand the mechanistic basis underlying seed dormancy, longevity and germination to be able to improve 
seed quality and seedling performance (vigour, timing, uniformity and environmental control of germination) of horticultural and agricultural crops, and to develop effective and environment-friendly weed management strategies to increase the resilience of food supply chains to the climate crisis. Our research-led teaching into these topics includes the Seed Biology Course (BS3520) as well as undergraduate and postgraduate projects. 

Seeds as delivery systems for innovative crop enhancement technologies

Improved crop seed quality and seedling performance achieved by breeding and innovative seed enhancement technologies is the cornerstone for maximum yield potential. Seed refinement technologies including priming, pelleting and the application of beneficial compounds lead to rapid germination, enhanced vigour and uniform seedling establishment even upon abiotic stress. Seeds are therefore the delivery systems of genetic and technological innovation for the sustainable intensification of agricultural systems and for managing environmental change. Improving crop seed quality trough refinement technologies is the topic of our REF Impact Case Study. Seed additives include fertilisers, crop protection chemicals, and biologicals such as plant hormones, allelochemicals and beneficial microbes. High-quality crop seeds resilient to abiotic stresses is at the very core of the 'input plant value supply chain' and involves developing environmental-friendly sustainable seed technologies, identifying molecular marker and novel assays enabling breeding of crop seed quality. The science, engineering and economics of agri-technologies converge at the seed.

 

Royal Holloway's Seed Science and Technology Research Group and Collaborator Network

We ('The Seed Biology Place' - www.seedbiology.eu) use comparative approaches with model, weed and crop species representing diverse phylogenetic clades and distinct seed types for the identification of evolutionary conserved and species-specific mechanisms that control seed dormancy and germination. Molecular mechanisms that are underlying these processes are regulated by plant hormones. Gibberellins (GA), abscisic acid (ABA), ethylene, and jasmonate signaling and metabolism mediate environmental cues and in turn influence developmental processes like seed germination. To quantify responses to environmental cues and abiotic stresses (especially related to temperature and water availibility) we combine population-based threshold modelling, novel biomechanics and engineering techniques, tissue-specific hormone, transcriptome, RT-qPCR, next-generation sequencing, reverse-genetics and mutant analyses to enhance the understanding of seed tissue interactions by an integrated cross-species systems biology approach. The ERA-CAPS Consortium SeedAdapt has 'dimorphic fruits, seeds and seedlings as adaptation mechanisms to abiotic stresses in unpredictable environments' as its research focus. Our impactful research is summarized in reviews and publications available on our website (www.seedbiology.eu), e.g. Steinbrecher and Leubner-Metzger et al. (2017), Linkies and Leubner-Metzger (2012), Weitbrecht et al. (2011), and Finch-Savage and Leubner-Metzger (2006). Seeds are the preferred germplasm that can be conserved and maintained for hundreds of years, and, thus, are central to the conservation of biodiversity of crops and wild species as genetic resources for future crop breeding programs also related to climate change. 'The Millennium Seed Bank Project' of Kew Royal Botanical Gardens (www.kew.org) is the largest ex situ plant conservation project in the world (collaboration), and seed storage at seed companies is an important field for applied research, e.g. our collaboration projects on sugarbeet seed technology with KWS Saat SE (www.kws.de), on vegetable and herb seed quality with Tozer Seeds (www.tozerseeds.com), and on developing novel weed seed and seedling management tools with Syngenta (www.syngenta.com). Our research contributed to the success of the Rocket Science Project of the Royal Horticultural Society (www.rhs.org.uk) and the UK Space Agency. Our Rocket Science publication (Chandler et al 2020) demonstrated that spaceflight caused seed ageing and revealed molecular biomarker for seed quality.

 

 

For further information: 'The Seed Biology Place' - www.seedbiology.eu

 

 

 

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