ROOT DEVELOPMENT: branching out for nutrients
I received my master’s degree in Botany from the University of Ghent, Belgium, in 1985 and completed the Belgian interuniversity postgraduate education in Marine Biology in 1989. In 1997 I obtained a PhD with a study on embryogenesis and lateral root formation in the model species Arabidopsis making use of a combination of microscopical techniques and genetic tools. After performing postdoctoral research at the Laboratory of Genetics (Ghent University), I became Group Leader of the Root Development Group at the Flanders Institute of Biotechnology (VIB) in 2001. I became a Professor at Ghent University in 2007, teaching plant developmental biology. For more details on the early days I refer to "Q&A: Tom Beeckman" published in Current Biology (Current Biology 29, R1055–R1069, October 21, 2019).
My early work focused on the activation of the cell cycle during lateral root initiation and my group established an experimental set-up to synchronize the activation of pericycle cells for lateral root formation. This system laid the foundation for a number of transcriptome studies that profiled lateral root initiation and development, revealing several novel signaling components. My current work aims to understand how the branching pattern of roots becomes established by disentangling the molecular basis of lateral root spacing mechanisms that guarantee an optimal uptake of water and nutrients from the soil. We contributed the first and major discovery towards the elucidation of "the root clock", an endogenous mechanism to induce new lateral roots at regular intervals in a growing root axis and unmasked the role of the root cap in this process. During the entire duration of this project, we stay alert to extrapolate our findings to crop species and have contributed with studies on lateral root formation in maize and rice, whether or not in collaboration with academic and industrial partners. Furthermore, we created a rhizotron platform enabling to study root growth and developmental in more natural conditions and to monitor root branching in adverse conditions or in the presence/absence of nutrients. For nitrate and phosphate, we designed high content chemical screen assays and identified compounds with the potential to promote their availability for uptake by plant roots.
Finally, we recently delved into the evolution of roots with the emphasis on the branching mechanisms. This evo-devo project has the potential to surface the fundamental mechanisms currently at play in higher plants that provide them with a strong level of flexibility to cope with ever changing soil conditions, knowledge that will be crucial in the search of methods to increase climate resilience of our crop plants.
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