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Dec. 28, 2018

Seeing the promise in plant plasticity

Keiko Sugimoto, Team Leader

Please describe your role at RIKEN 

I lead a research group investigating how plants grow and respond to a changing environment. Plants are very clever in deciding how far to grow and when to stop under given conditions—so, I’m trying to understand how they make these decisions. Compared to animals, plants are also very good at making new tissues and organs from wound sites and so I also study how plants regenerate when they’re injured.

Please briefly describe your current research. Why is it important?

My research helps advance our understanding of how plants sense the environment and optimize their growth. I’m trying to understand how plant cells divide and expand to make new organs, as well as how environmental stimuli intervene with these cellular processes to fine-tune organ growth. I hope my research will contribute to fundamental biology and eventually to developing new molecular tools to improve crop yield and quality. 

How did you become interested in your current field of research?

I was fascinated with plants as a child. As an undergrad, I dearly wanted to have my own Arabidopsis mutants. Thanks to my PhD supervisors, Geoffrey Wasteneys and Richard Williamson, I did get a few, even today I still love identifying new mutants and phenotypes.

What excites you the most about your current research?

We are making advances in understanding how plants reprogram their cell fate after injury, a mystery to plant biologists for some time. Only now are we starting to find clear molecular answers, which is very exciting. 

What has been the most interesting discovery in your field recently?

My team has discovered that fully differentiated plant cells retain the capacity to ‘de-differentiate’ and they actively suppress this potential through epigenetic mechanisms during normal development. In the absence of this repression, fully differentiated somatic cells revert to an embryo-like state, which highlights plant cells’ developmental flexibility. We have also learned that plants have an additional mechanism to prevent spontaneous reprogramming, and we aim to uncover how severe injuries can overcome this repression.

Image of Sugimoto at her lab 

"My research is important for society because….”

…we can improve the yield and quality of important plant species. We depend heavily on plants as food and medicine sources. Plants’ capacity to provide these resources is far from being maximized because we don’t know enough about how they produce them. Understanding how plants grow should help, for instance, secure our food supplies through improving agricultural sustainability.

How has being at RIKEN helped your research?

State-of-the-art facilities always help. My lab has also made extensive use of Minami Matsui’s Arabidopsis mutant collections, and Hitoshi Sakakibara’s and Yuji Kamiya’s groups, among others, have helped with characterizing plant hormones. 

How do you balance family life with your work at RIKEN?

Being a mother in science means I get to see both my lab and family develop. I try to stay focused on my research when I’m at work, so I can accomplish interesting things in a limited time frame. But I’m also careful to ask for help, since there’s no way I can do both perfectly.