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LSSS 2015-2016


Life Sciences Seminar Series


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Andrew Millar

SynthSys and School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

Understanding life across scales, from biological clocks to daily growth rates

Selected Publications

The Intracellular Dynamics of Circadian Clocks Reach for the Light of Ecology and Evolution.Millar AJ
Annu Rev Plant Biol 2015 Nov 19


A major challenge for biology is to extend our understanding of molecular regulation from the simplified conditions of the laboratory to ecologically relevant environments. Tractable examples are essential to make these connections for complex, pleiotropic regulators and, to go further, to link relevant genome sequences to field traits. Here, I review the case for the biological clock in higher plants. The gene network of the circadian clock drives pervasive, 24-hour rhythms in metabolism, behavior, and physiology across the eukaryotes and in some prokaryotes. In plants, the scope of chronobiology is now extending from the most tractable, intracellular readouts to the clock's many effects at the whole-organism level and across the life cycle, including biomass and flowering. I discuss five research areas where recent progress might be integrated in the future, to understand not only circadian functions in natural conditions but also the evolution of the clock's molecular mechanisms. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Plant Biology Volume 67 is April 29, 2016. Please see for revised estimates.

Multiscale digital Arabidopsis predicts individual organ and whole-organism growth.Chew YH, Wenden B, Flis A, Mengin V, Taylor J, Davey CL, Tindal C, Thomas H, Ougham HJ, de Reffye P, Stitt M, Williams M, Muetzelfeldt R, Halliday KJ, Millar AJ
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2014 Sep 30; 111(39):E4127-36


Understanding how dynamic molecular networks affect whole-organism physiology, analogous to mapping genotype to phenotype, remains a key challenge in biology. Quantitative models that represent processes at multiple scales and link understanding from several research domains can help to tackle this problem. Such integrated models are more common in crop science and ecophysiology than in the research communities that elucidate molecular networks. Several laboratories have modeled particular aspects of growth in Arabidopsis thaliana, but it was unclear whether these existing models could productively be combined. We test this approach by constructing a multiscale model of Arabidopsis rosette growth. Four existing models were integrated with minimal parameter modification (leaf water content and one flowering parameter used measured data). The resulting framework model links genetic regulation and biochemical dynamics to events at the organ and whole-plant levels, helping to understand the combined effects of endogenous and environmental regulators on Arabidopsis growth. The framework model was validated and tested with metabolic, physiological, and biomass data from two laboratories, for five photoperiods, three accessions, and a transgenic line, highlighting the plasticity of plant growth strategies. The model was extended to include stochastic development. Model simulations gave insight into the developmental control of leaf production and provided a quantitative explanation for the pleiotropic developmental phenotype caused by overexpression of miR156, which was an open question. Modular, multiscale models, assembling knowledge from systems biology to ecophysiology, will help to understand and to engineer plant behavior from the genome to the field.

FKF1 conveys timing information for CONSTANS stabilization in photoperiodic flowering.Song YH, Smith RW, To BJ, Millar AJ, Imaizumi T
Science 2012 May 25; 336(6084):1045-9


Plants use day-length information to coordinate flowering time with the appropriate season to maximize reproduction. In Arabidopsis, the long day-specific expression of CONSTANS (CO) protein is crucial for flowering induction. Although light signaling regulates CO protein stability, the mechanism by which CO is stabilized in the long-day afternoon has remained elusive. Here, we demonstrate that FLAVIN-BINDING, KELCH REPEAT, F-BOX 1 (FKF1) protein stabilizes CO protein in the afternoon in long days. FKF1 interacts with CO through its LOV domain, and blue light enhances this interaction. In addition, FKF1 simultaneously removes CYCLING DOF FACTOR 1 (CDF1), which represses CO and FLOWERING LOCUS T (FT) transcription. Together with CO transcriptional regulation, FKF1 protein controls robust FT mRNA induction through multiple feedforward mechanisms that accurately control flowering timing.

Spontaneous spatiotemporal waves of gene expression from biological clocks in the leaf.Wenden B, Toner DL, Hodge SK, Grima R, Millar AJ
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2012 Apr 24; 109(17):6757-62


The circadian clocks that drive daily rhythms in animals are tightly coupled among the cells of some tissues. The coupling profoundly affects cellular rhythmicity and is central to contemporary understanding of circadian physiology and behavior. In contrast, studies of the clock in plant cells have largely ignored intercellular coupling, which is reported to be very weak or absent. We used luciferase reporter gene imaging to monitor circadian rhythms in leaves of Arabidopsis thaliana plants, achieving resolution close to the cellular level. Leaves grown without environmental cycles for up to 3 wk reproducibly showed spatiotemporal waves of gene expression consistent with intercellular coupling, using several reporter genes. Within individual leaves, different regions differed in phase by up to 17 h. A broad range of patterns was observed among leaves, rather than a common spatial distribution of circadian properties. Leaves exposed to light-dark cycles always had fully synchronized rhythms, which could desynchronize rapidly. After 4 d in constant light, some leaves were as desynchronized as leaves grown without any rhythmic input. Applying light-dark cycles to such a leaf resulted in full synchronization within 2-4 d. Thus, the rhythms of all cells were coupled to external light-dark cycles far more strongly than the cellular clocks were coupled to each other. Spontaneous desynchronization under constant conditions was limited, consistent with weak intercellular coupling among heterogeneous clocks. Both the weakness of coupling and the heterogeneity among cells are relevant to interpret molecular studies and to understand the physiological functions of the plant circadian clock.

Proteasome function is required for biological timing throughout the twenty-four hour cycle.van Ooijen G, Dixon LE, Troein C, Millar AJ
Curr Biol 2011 May 24; 21(10):869-75


Circadian clocks were, until recently, seen as a consequence of rhythmic transcription of clock components, directed by transcriptional/translational feedback loops (TTFLs). Oscillations of protein modification were then discovered in cyanobacteria. Canonical posttranslational signaling processes have known importance for clocks across taxa. More recently, evidence from the unicellular eukaryote Ostreococcus tauri revealed a transcription-independent, rhythmic protein modification shared in anucleate human cells. In this study, the Ostreococcus system reveals a central role for targeted protein degradation in the mechanism of circadian timing. The Ostreococcus clockwork contains a TTFL involving the morning-expressed CCA1 and evening-expressed TOC1 proteins. Cellular CCA1 and TOC1 protein content and degradation rates are analyzed qualitatively and quantitatively using luciferase reporter fusion proteins. CCA1 protein degradation rates, measured in high time resolution, feature a sharp clock-regulated peak under constant conditions. TOC1 degradation peaks in response to darkness. Targeted protein degradation, unlike transcription and translation, is shown to be essential to sustain TTFL rhythmicity throughout the circadian cycle. Although proteasomal degradation is not necessary for sustained posttranslational oscillations in transcriptionally inactive cells, TTFL and posttranslational oscillators are normally coupled, and proteasome function is crucial to sustain both.

Circadian rhythms persist without transcription in a eukaryote.O'Neill JS, van Ooijen G, Dixon LE, Troein C, Corellou F, Bouget FY, Reddy AB, Millar AJ
Nature 2011 Jan 27; 469(7331):554-8


Circadian rhythms are ubiquitous in eukaryotes, and coordinate numerous aspects of behaviour, physiology and metabolism, from sleep/wake cycles in mammals to growth and photosynthesis in plants. This daily timekeeping is thought to be driven by transcriptional-translational feedback loops, whereby rhythmic expression of 'clock' gene products regulates the expression of associated genes in approximately 24-hour cycles. The specific transcriptional components differ between phylogenetic kingdoms. The unicellular pico-eukaryotic alga Ostreococcus tauri possesses a naturally minimized clock, which includes many features that are shared with plants, such as a central negative feedback loop that involves the morning-expressed CCA1 and evening-expressed TOC1 genes. Given that recent observations in animals and plants have revealed prominent post-translational contributions to timekeeping, a reappraisal of the transcriptional contribution to oscillator function is overdue. Here we show that non-transcriptional mechanisms are sufficient to sustain circadian timekeeping in the eukaryotic lineage, although they normally function in conjunction with transcriptional components. We identify oxidation of peroxiredoxin proteins as a transcription-independent rhythmic biomarker, which is also rhythmic in mammals. Moreover we show that pharmacological modulators of the mammalian clock mechanism have the same effects on rhythms in Ostreococcus. Post-translational mechanisms, and at least one rhythmic marker, seem to be better conserved than transcriptional clock regulators. It is plausible that the oldest oscillator components are non-transcriptional in nature, as in cyanobacteria, and are conserved across kingdoms.