Ode to a Weed

Most people are aware of so-called “genetically modified”, or engineered, foods, but the real story of genetic engineering lies with an otherwise unassuming weed. Arabidopsis thaliana, otherwise known as thale cress, has very little to distinguish itself to most people. If anything, it’s at just a weed to be pulled out by gardeners.

And yet, without this weed fields as diverse as cell development and synthetic biology would be all the poorer. Nicholas Provart and his colleagues have reviewed the highlights of 50 years of Arabidopsis in the newest issue of the journal New Phytologist. A quick glance through the article demonstrates the remarkable scope of the research that has relied on the unique traits of Arabidopsis.

What makes Arabidopsis so special, then? It’s odd to think of plant scientists, many of whom speak with such passion about reducing hunger and malnutrition, focussing their efforts on such a comparatively useless plant. But while Arabidopsis might not have the most nutritious leaves, its unique features have made it indispensible to scientists around the world.

Unlike most plants that we grow as crops, Arabidopsis is pretty small, growing up to about a foot in height, definitely a plus when working in often cramped lab conditions. As well as being small in a physical sense, Arabidopsis also has a relatively small genome. This became particularly useful as scientists grew more and more interested in understanding the genetic basis behind biological traits. And it turns out that Arabidopsis spreads like, well, a weed! Large scale projects involving hundreds if not thousands of plants are made a lot easier when each plant itself produces hundreds of seeds.

All these things are well and good, but we were talking about genetic engineering—why is Arabidopsis so useful for that? This comes back to something called the floral dip method—what a remarkable technique. Almost ridiculously easy, since it’s publication in 1998 the paper describing this method has been cited over 7000 times. In plant science (or any science, really) that’s a huge amount.

What’s so exciting about this? Floral dip is, funnily enough, exactly what it sounds like. Arabidopsis can be genetically transformed by literally dipping its flowers into a cloudy solution of bacteria. Sounds pretty easy, and it generally is! It’s this technique that has really supported Arabidopsis’ use as the model plant. Most other plants, if you want to introduce new DNA that will be carried into the next generation, can only be transformed by much more time consuming and labour-intensive techniques. And even in these situations success isn’t guaranteed.

So let’s hear it for the little guy—what a weed! Here’s to the last 50 years of Arabidopsis, and to the exciting 50 to come.

Click here to read the Tansley Review on 50 years of Arabidopsis research

Featured image from INRI

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