To celebrate the “International Day of Girls and Women in Science”, Botany One highlights six exceptional female researchers who greatly contributed to shed new light on Plant Photobiology – a scientific discipline that studies the effects of light on biological processes in green organisms.

In 2016, UNESCO declared the 11th of February the International Day of Women and Girls in Science – an initiative aimed at filling the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEMs). The main goals are promoting access of girls to education in scientific disciplines and recognising the role of women in Research & Development.

Inspired by the work of Prof. Silvia E. Braslavsky, we dedicate the Women in Science Day 2024 to exceptional researchers who greatly contributed to our knowledge in Photobiology. This research field tackles the complex interaction between light and living organisms.

In a recently published article, Silvia identified more than 20 women born before 1955 who carried out pioneering studies on biological photoreceptors (i.e., specialized structures involved in light sensing) in different organisms. This post focuses on some of them who deciphered the intricated mechanisms underlying light perception in plants. Their findings “illuminated” the effects of light on key biological processes such as photosynthesis, photomorphogenesis (i.e., light-mediated development), or circadian rhythms.

No doubt about the great relevance of their research as “Plants are the connecting link between the Sun and the Earth”, according to the Russian botanist Kliment Arkad’evic Timizjarev.

FROM PHOTOMORPHOGENESIS TO CARBON DIOXIDE REMOVAL

Considered the most influential plant biologist of our time, Joanne Chory has worked for decades on the optimization of plant growth. Her experimental approach relies on the use of molecular genetics in the model species Arabidopsis thaliana to understand how plants modulate their shape and size in response to environmental changes, including different light conditions.

Currently, she serves as Director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences (California, US), where she leads innovative projects aimed at mitigating the impact of climate change by increasing the removal of carbon dioxide through storage of CO2 in roots.

“If we can optimize plants’ natural ability to capture and store carbon, we can develop plants that not only have the potential to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but that can also help enrich soils and increase crop yields.”

To know more about the project, check the website of the harnessing plants initiative and see the short video on CO2 removal strategy.

CONNECTING LIGHT AND CIRCADIAN RYTHMS IN PLANTS

Elaine Munsey Tobin obtained her PhD degree in Biology at the Harvard University and later moved to the University of California, Los Angeles (US). She has focused her research on the regulation of circadian rhythms (i.e., daily oscillations) in plants. The circadian clock is essential for the coordination of developmental programmes with external conditions such as light/dark periods. Indeed, plants have evolved complex mechanisms to better adapt their growth to daily changes (e.g., dawn and dusk in 24-hour cycle) and seasonal progression (e.g., increasing/decreasing daylength in 365 day cycle).

Her team first demonstrated that the activity of phytochromes greatly affects the expression of several genes by activating/repressing them: for example, sequences encoding chlorophyll a/b-binding proteins are more abundant in response to light than in darkness. Moreover, her research group showed that the Circadian Clock Associated (CCA) gene mediates phytochrome response, thus linking circadian rhythms and light signalling in plants.

CHEMICAL RESEARCHERS WITH ARGENTINIAN ROOTS

Chemists Silvia Elsa Braslavsky and Ana Lorenzelli Moore, both original from Buenos Aires, received the RAICES* prize (*roots in Spanish) in 2011 and 2012, respectively. This recognition is awarded by the Argentinian Minister of Science and Technology to exceptional researchers who are working abroad but have established fruitful collaborations with the national research and innovation system. Over time, Silvia and Ana not only maintained cooperation with Argentina-based research groups but have also hosted several Argentinian PhD and postdoc fellows in their laboratories. Let’s know more about their personal and professional lives…

Silvia Elsa Braslavsky moved to Chile in 1966 after the violent “Night of the Long Sticks” to finish her PhD project, and then to Penn State University (US) for post-doctoral work. In 1976, she migrated to Germany to investigate the function of phytochromes – plant photoreceptors that mediate light signalling in key developmental processes (e.g., seedling growth and flowering). She has spent more than 30 years at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion, also advancing our understanding of photoprotection mechanisms that plants use to dissipate excess of the absorbed energy.

Ana Lorenzelli Moore obtained her PhD degree at the Texas Tech University and later moved to the Arizona State University (US), where she established her research team together with Dr Tom Moore and Dr Devens Gust. Since the 1980s, the group has been deciphering the principles underlying the collection and storage of photosynthetic energy. Specifically, they focused on “artificial photosynthetic constructs” – designing, synthesizing, and measuring the properties of those molecules that mimic photosynthesis upon irradiation. Their work has been instrumental to increase our knowledge about Photo-induced Electron Transfer (PET) and Proton-Coupled Electron Transfer (PCET).

EUROPEAN INNOVATORS: from monoclonal antibodies to sustainable fuels

Our homage to outstanding women in plant science closes with two European researchers who employed their talent to boost innovation in the field of photobiology.

The French scientist Marie-Michèle Cordonniere-Pratt, biologist by training with great experience in plant photosensors, pioneered the production and purification of monoclonal antibodies for plant research. In fact, she first generated antibodies able to discriminate the two conformations of plant phytochrome: the Pr (red absorbing) form and the Pfr (far-red absorbing) form. Precisely, light affects the function of photoreceptors by inducing conformational changes: phytochromes are in the inactive Pr state in the darkness but convert to the active Pfr state upon light absorption, thus triggering biological responses in plants. In the last decades, these molecular tools have been fundamental to elucidate the functioning of photosensors in plants. 

The Finnish scientist Eva-Mari Aro, with great expertise in Plant Molecular Biology, specialised in the regulation of photosynthesis during acclimation to fluctuating environments as well as in response to stressful conditions. Her research group has increased our knowledge on photosystem II (PSII), its stability and recovery from damages. Moreover, she has a great interest in synthetic biology approaches, such as the production of sustainable fuels through the application of photosynthetic principles (see the EU funded CSA initiative “SUNRISE: Solar Energy for a Circular Economy”),

ROLE MODELS: increasing participation of young women in science careers

In her article, Silvia summarises the lives and works of 24 women scientists who started their academic careers in the 1960s-1970s, when the access of girls to higher education in prestigious universities was limited “because women do not get a Nobel Prize”. She also highlights the difficulties that these women faced in being taken seriously in academia or balancing personal life with professional career.

Nonetheless, most of these outstanding researchers served as valuable role model for next generations and supported younger female students and scholars, thus contributing to increase the participation of girls and women in higher education and scientific disciplines.

By the way … in the last decade, 10 women have been awarded the Nobel prize: 3 in Physiology or Medicine, 3 in Physics, and 4 in Chemistry!

TO KNOW MORE ABOUT SILVIA BRASLAVSKY

Silvia Braslavsky: sembrar y cosechar | by Julieta Alcain | Científicas de Acá | Medium

SUGGESTED READING:

Outstanding women scientists who have broadened the knowledge on biological photoreceptors | Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences (springer.com)

Frontiers | Photobiology: introduction, overview and challenges (frontiersin.org)

Frontiers | Girls in STEM: Is It a Female Role-Model Thing? (frontiersin.org)

Light Regulation of Gene Expression in Higher Plants | Annual Review of Plant Biology (annualreviews.org)

Molecular mechanisms underlying phytochrome-controlled morphogenesis in plants | Nature Communications

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