Western Mail Profiles: Dr Jeroen Nieuwland

‘Meeting our need to make more food’

Jeroen Nieuwland is a research fellow in plant science at Cardiff University and a senior lecturer in biology at the University of South Wales.

In the next 40 years we will have to produce more food than we have in the last 8,000 years together.

This is a massive challenge and we are utterly dependent on plants to pull this off. My research is focused on plant growth and I am working to understand how plants grow and, importantly, how and why they stop growing.

Plants, like animals, are built of tiny cells and all these cells come from one single “mother cell” which is the fertilised egg cell. Humans and most animals develop their body plan during embryo development and they cannot change it after; for example, we cannot grow an extra arm. Plants however are able to do this.

The first part of plant development happens in the seed when the embryo is formed with a basic root-stem-leaf structure. After a seed germinates, the plant can adapt its body plan to a certain extent; it can grow more roots if it wants to reach for water or it can grow extra branches to catch more light.

Even though plants from the same species look similar, they differ much more in design and size than, for example, animals from the same species.

Plant growth is powered by the production of more cells (by cell division) and cell expansion. Interestingly, the molecular basis (the genes) for cell division in plants is the same as in humans and other animals. In human biology, scientists are interested in these genes because if they do not work properly they could cause uncontrolled cell division which could be the start of cancer.

Plants are able to switch cell division on and off in a very controlled way and that makes their growth very flexible and enables them to adapt so well to different environments.

My current research focuses on genes that are molecular switches for cell division and I am trying to understand how cell division controls growth and development in plants. Although my research is fundamental, the basic understanding of plant growth is very important for agricultural applications.

If we understand how plants can activate and inactivate growth, we will start to understand why plants stop growing when they are stressed, for example by drought, and we can increase the production of food in the next four decades.

Jeroen may be contacted at: nieuwlandj@cardiff.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail on 17th February 2014, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.