Roots are fascinating, studying them is a challenge - Catrin

Roots are fascinating, studying them is a challenge

From rose fragrance to cereal roots. This is how Véronique Bergougnoux-Fojtik, head of the Plant Genetics and Engineering research group, could sum up her career so far. Her mission is to improve the characteristics of economically important crops so they can produce higher yields while respecting the environment. She believes this can be achieved without excessive use of chemicals or wasting water.

As a research assistant at the University of Angers, she moved from her homeland 15 years ago on a date that is symbolic for the French – 18 June. „On this day in 1940, General de Gaulle called on the French to resist the enemy and fight for changes. This coincidence was interesting. Since then, I took that day as a call for change in my life and scientific development,” she said laughing.

While in France she had been studying the fragrance and the effect of light on the development of roses, in Olomouc she “switched” first to tomatoes and later to cereals, especially barley and rice. “My team and I are trying to understand how plants tolerate drought stress, which is now probably the most important cause of yield decline worldwide. Our main focus is on understanding the development of roots, which not only anchor the plant in the soil but are responsible for water and nutrient uptake”, she explained.

Studying roots in their natural environment is a big challenge, she said. This is also why she describes these underground plant parts as fascinating. “Once we understand how they develop, we can use transgenesis and new genome editing methods to modify the root system. We can also design molecular markers that will be used for selection in breeding programmes. Modern agriculture has conducted to a bottle neck in terms of genetic diversity, limiting our possibilities for improvement. The ideology of “de novo domestication” has been raised in the scientific community. This means that using new genome editing methodologies, such as CRISPR, we could turn in a few years (instead of centuries) a wild species into a new crop adapted for the fast-evolving harsh climatic conditions. However, challenging this may be, it could be the future of agriculture,” added the scientist, who is also involved in teaching young scientists and gets the greatest joy when she sees their passion for science and that the baton has been passed to the next generation.

She appreciates the multidisciplinarity of her work. She says she has strived for this approach since the beginning of her career. “I try to see the plant as a whole, I don’t limit myself to one gene. Considering this, I need to be in contact with people who are experts in their field so that I can learn from them. This brings collaboration, a new environment, and enrichment,” she concluded.

Martina Šaradínová
Karolina Zavoralová
July 26, 2022