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The Partnership no. 8

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Science Product Plants

Science Product Plants true seed factories Developments in science and technology succeed one another at top speed. Nevertheless, we still actually know very little about precisely how seeds work and respond to environmental clues. Seed physiologists perform extensive research into the processes that take place inside seeds during and after development, and how breeders and seed producers may take advantage of that knowledge to deliver best quality seed. Plants are seed factories and, like any factory, they need to adequately use all available resources to generate a high-quality product. At the same time, numerous processes and interactions influence the quality of the end result. “Multiple interactions occur not only between the plant and all surrounding organisms but also within the plant itself” explains Senior Seed Physiology Researcher Fernando Goffman. “Plants compete with one another for the available light, water and minerals, and then there is also a competition taking place within the plants themselves, in which the absorbed nutrients and the plant generated organic compounds are distributed among the various plant organs. Together with Wageningen University and other Enza Zaden research teams we are trying to find out precisely how all those processes are regulated, and how we can help plants to make the most of the seeds’ intrinsic – genetic – quality.” Quest In some cases the basis of quality is to be found during the actual production of the seed. The big question is then in which phase of the plant’s life cycle, and in which part of the plant the best seed is produced. “For us it’s a quest to find ways of influencing that, and to determine the best balance between yield and quality. Something that we already know, for instance, is that the fruits that are better timely and spacially located in the plant to capture phytonutrients produce the best seed.” Warm-up The seed that is approved for sale after all required quality inspections may be subjected to various treatments to further enhance its quality. An example of those treatments is priming, which is done to activate the so-called pre-germinative metabolism of the seed, which ultimately will allow it to germinate faster and more uniformly. However, as Goffman explains, those treatments cannot turn inferior seed into top-quality seed. “The seed’s basic quality must be good right out of the mother plant. The priming is intended to prepare the seed for the start. You can compare it to top athletes warming up before a contest so that they’ll be able to achieve top results. Their heart rate goes up and their muscles warm up, ready for action. But that warm-up costs energy, and things are no different where seed is concerned. The priming warms the seed up, ready for immediate, optimum performance, but as it also involves the consumption of stored energy, primed seed cannot be stored for as long as unprimed seed. So it’s a matter of finding the right balance between generating immediate energy for germination and keeping quality throughout storage. And that balance varies from one crop to another, from one variety to another and even from one seed lot to another. So what we’re actually doing is constantly developing new priming recipes, trying to cope with the actual needs of the seed.” Predictability And just like athletes, seed needs more than a good basic quality and a ‘warm-up’ alone to ensure good performance. Ambient factors such as sub-optimal temperatures and soil-borne microorganisms may affect the seed’s performance. Especially in outdoor crops, such ambient factors may have a strong influence on a plant’s development. The aim is to ensure that the seed performs as uniformly as we want it to, in spite of those factors, which we can barely influence. Priming treatments are also meant to make seeds' performance more predictable, with a higher tolerance to environmental challenges such as high or low temperatures. Dormancy Plants don’t produce all their seeds of the same quality. Each single seed from a seed batch is unique in its properties and may have a different capacity to respond to the environmental factors that lead to germination. Because of this, the behaviour of seeds belonging to the same lot may differ, affecting the lot’s uniformity and predictability. “A single seed batch is actually a mixed population of seeds having different degrees of dormancy and vigour. Some seeds in a lot may respond better to environmental signals than others, germinating faster. Our aim is to make seeds’ ability to respond to those triggers as uniform as possible. When we prime the seed we add substances that remove seed dormancy in all seeds. Priming also greatly increases the range of environmental conditions under which seeds are able to germinate. Which temperature is most ideal for priming depends on the crop and variety concerned. The dormancy of spinach seed, for example, is broken at a low temperature. Why? Seeds are little engines designed to start only when the conditions are favourable for further growth, allowing them to reach maturity and disseminate themselves over time. In the case of spinach, a cold requirement is a mechanism by which the seeds ensure that the cold period has been left behind so that they may germinate in the right season: spring. In other words, spinach seeds won’t germinate until those low-temperature triggers are activated.” Senior Seed Physiology Researcher Fernando Goffman: "What we’re doing is constantly developing new priming recipes, trying to cope with the actual needs of the seed.” 14 | The Partnership The Partnership | 15

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