The Project

At a basic level the rules that govern life is defined by an organism’s genetic code (like the text of a book) and the signals it receives from the environment (like the interpretation of the reader of the text). The combination of these two (the genetic code and the signals) makes an organism behave and develop the way it does. At a molecular level there are several critical systems that control the way an organism responds to its environment. These can be (1) long-term responses through the silencing of the genetic code (like removing parts of the text in the book so it can’t be interpreted) or (2) more rapid responses through modifications of the system (like annotation to parts of the text of a book which changes the way it is interpreted). Understanding these responses is essential to our understanding of how an organism functions and how an organism changes based on their environment. Here we are focusing on the second type of response, which at a molecular level are initiated by “post-translational modifications (PTMs)” (this a way of changing the function of the existing machinery in a cell). PTMs act at the core of every biological system. Taking signals from outside the cell and “coding” molecular interactions to change the way cells function. This is critical in every biological process. There are several types of PTMs, but one of the most important but whose code is not defined is SUMOylation. Here we aim to take a holistic approach to understanding the SUMO code.

In this programme we will develop a SUMO machinery cell atlas (a resource that will characterize each part of the machinery), how, in which cells and when it works, so that a map of the key events that trigger a SUMOylation response to environmental cues can be revealed. We will use the model plant, Arabidopsis, arguably the best non-human, multicellular organism for this scale of interrogation. It has a plethora of tools and resources that will allow us to dissect the SUMO code in detail and across different cell types, different stages of development and across different response times. This mapping of SUMOylation will reveal the ‘hubs’ that the SUMO machinery targets to cause a cellular response, revealing how the pathway functions and how it can be manipulated to combat environmental challenges or disease.

SUMOylation has already been shown by our group and others that it is important for the way a cell responds to environmental stresses. For example, plants adapt to changes in their environment (heat, water availability, salt, etc) by modifying their growth and development (to enhance their ability to survive and flourish), through PTMs like SUMOylation. Therefore, a key output of this programme will be a set of tools that will translate the SUMO language across the plant kingdom and provide insights into animal and human health and disease. Our ultimate goal is to ‘enable’ researchers from a range of disciplines, plant breeders, chemical companies and beyond to edit the SUMO code discovered here to improve crop resilience, future proofing them against ongoing climate instability and change, and to catalyse new insights across plants and animals into the rules that govern an organisms behaviour and responses to the environment that surrounds them.