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Use of miRNAs as tools to control plant development

Principal Supervisor: Stephen Jackson, School of Life Sciences

Co-supervisor: Yiguo Hong, Hangzhou Univ., China

PhD project title: Use of miRNAs as tools to control plant development

University of Registration: Warwick

Project outline:

It is known that miRNAs control many aspects of plant development, including the juvenile-adult developmental phase change and also the induction of flowering by miR156 and miR172 respectively. Such miRNAs are mobile and travel via the phloem throughout the plant acting as intercellular signaling molecules (Brosnan & Voinnet, 2011). We will investigate the possibility of using exogenous application of these mobile signaling molecules to control plant development, in particular flowering time.

We have a virus-based expression system which we have already used successfully to induce flowering in tobacco plants by infecting plants with this virus vector expressing the FLOWERING LOCUS T (FT) floral inducing protein (Li et al. 2009). This, however, only worked with an infectious virus particle that could move around the plant. We have a non-infectious virus vector in which the coat protein has been deleted so that it can’t spread and move around the plant. The aim of this project is to develop the system using this non-infectious virus vector to express the mobile miRNAs which themselves can move around the plant to control flowering time or other aspects of plant development. Other means of getting the miRNAs into the plant will also be investigated in the project, eg. through the use of nanoparticles (through interaction with Prof O’Reilly, Dept. of Chemistry)

Our collaborators at Hangzhou University are using a technique that enables visualization of RNA localization within the plant using RNA fluorescence, we will use this to visualise the movement of the miRNA once they are in the plant. There may be the possibility of spending some time at Hangzhou University during the course of the project for the successful applicant.


  • Brosnan CA, Voinnet O (2011) Cell-to-cell and long-distance siRNA movement in plants: mechanisms and biological implications. Curr Opin Plant Biol 14: 580–587
  • Li, C., Zhang, K., Zeng ,X., Jackson, S., Zhou, Y., and Y. Hong (2009). A cis-element within FLOWERING LOCUS T mRNA determines its mobility and facilitates trafficking of heterologous viral RNA. J.Virology 83:3540-3548.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Food security

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

  • Plant growth & physiological assays
  • Molecular cloning & gene expression analysis (including for miRNAs)
  • Virology
  • Bioimaging
  • Nanoparticle technology

Contact: Dr Stephen Jackson, University of Warwick