University of Dundee

BBSRC EASTBIO PhD Programme: Tuning the signal – manipulating plant Receptor-like kinases for agronomic gain

Receptor-like kinases are the principal means by which plants perceive their physical extracellular environment. As a result Receptor-like kinases regulate many aspects of development, pathogen perception, interaction with nodulating bacteria and cell wall remodelling and as a result are of particular interest for improving plant responses to environmental perturbations such as climate change and emerging pathogens or improving food yield. We recently discovered that Receptor-like kinases become S-acylated in response to ligand perception (Hurst et al, unpublished data), providing entirely novel insights into how this crucial protein family operates.

S-acylation is a poorly studied post-translation lipid based modification of proteins [1]. We have identified S-acylation as a central regulatory factor affecting all receptor like kinases in plants. Information on the molecular details of how S-acylation regulates Receptor-like kinase function is therefore applicable to any Receptor-like kinase acting in any process in any plant. You will use a range of Receptor-like kinases involved in plant development to examine how S-acylation can be manipulated to alter signalling outputs and how these altered outputs affect key developmental processes such as seed yield, plant stature, stem branching, stomatal number/patterning and meristem size/organisation/maintenance.

Taking a protein structure guided approach you will use site directed mutagenesis to change the sequence surrounding the S-acylation site in a number of Receptor-like kinases and assess each mutant form for altered S-acylation efficiency, ability to complement Receptor-like kinase loss-of-function mutants and quantify their effects on plant development. To support this work you will also determine which of the known 24 enzymes S-acylates Receptor-like kinases. This will allow for biochemical investigation of enzyme-substrate interactions, provide mechanistic explanations for changes in S-acylation efficiency and enable refinement of strategies for modulating Receptor-like kinase outputs.

These data will provide novel information to the plant developmental, S-acylation and Receptor-like kinase fields and provide new means to manipulate plant architecture and development. These data can be subsequently used to inform crop improvement strategies.

To perform this work you will acquire expertise in molecular biology, biochemical analysis of S-acylation, plant developmental biology, protein biochemistry, structural biology, protein-protein interaction methods, mass-spectrometry, and generation of transgenic Arabidopsis and barley.

[1] Turnbull & Hemsley P.A. 2017. Curr Opin Plant Biol. 40:63-70