Azolla HS Lab
The overarching goal of the Azolla HS Lab research is the domestication of the Azolla ferns. Yet, to reach this goal will require fundamental advances in understanding the molecular biology of ferns, a land-plant lineage that has been little studied. It will further require advances in understanding plant adaptations to colonizing the water surface or to hosting phototrophic dinitrogen fixating bacterial consortia.
The position of ferns as the sister lineage to seed plants is particularly interesting: insights gained with ferns will allow to investigate processes known from seed plants from an evolutionary perspective whether they are developmental, physiological or metabolic. Understanding how processes evolved in seed plants helps predict the underlying networks of control in a wider variety of plants for domestication purposes.
Henriette Schluepmann is a well-traveled plant biologist leading the Azolla domestication program with a great respect for the achievements of young scientists.
- "After a Masters researching homologous recombination in the lab of Jerzy Paszkowski at ETH (Zuerich, Switzerland), I completed my PhD on pollen tube cell wall biosynthesis in the laboratory of Tony Bacic (Melbourne, Australia). Since 2004, I am Assistant Professor at the Utrecht University where I uncovered the regulatory role of trehalose metabolism in Arabidopsis thaliana before developing the innovation-driven Azolla research. I am very much hands-on, both in the laboratory and in bio-informatics, in spite of the visionary ambitions in sustainability of my research."
About the research
This line of research started in 2013 after a decade of work studying how plants decide where to invest the CO2 that they fixate: I discovered the role of the trehalose metabolism in regulating sugar status and development in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana1. I learnt that metabole regulation actually overrides sensing/signalling networks because metabolism is wired so as to preempt shortages. This is unlike the idea I had initially of simple feedback-regulation.
The rationale for the switch to working with the floating and symbiotic ferns from the genus Azolla is based on my realization that agriculture sustainability is primarily limited by nutrient cycles. In addition, I still wonder how plants relate growth to the availability of carbon fixed and other nutrients. The Azolla ferns productivity competes well with established crops yet, yields are obtained without any nitrogen fertilizer. Moreover, the ferns unusual productivity and mat formation have potential for soil-building in subsiding lowlands, such as in The Netherlands, and for plant-protein production whilst re-cycling nutrients.
Rapid domestication of novel crops, such as for example Azolla ferns, will permit the development of sustainable primary production systems adapted to a wider variety of environments. Domestication entails full control over phases of the life-cycle of the plants for dissemination, storage and breeding; it also means that yield potential is turned into yield stability. Advances in molecular biology have recently rendered the rapid domestication feasible, which now permits to exploit botanic diversity, including that of the under-studied seed-free plants.
The lab is currently further embedded in research at the Geosciences faculty of Utrecht University, Department of Aquatic Ecology and Environmental Biology of Radboud University Nijmegen and at Wageningen Research.
As of very recently, we joined the global community aiming to accelerate the development of aquatic symbioses model systems, supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation's Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems Initiative.