Led by an interest in plant biology and agriculture I graduated in 2019 as a bio-engineer at Ghent University, with a specialisation in plant biotechnology. During my masters, classes in plant breeding and molecular plant biology sparked a particular interest in plant reproduction and the molecular and practical aspects of plant breeding. This interest culminated in my master’s dissertation on the characterisation of sweetpotato parental material for the breeding program in West Africa, for which I collaborated with the International Potato Center (CIP), a CGIAR research centre. My enthusiasm for plant sexual reproduction was picked up by the Horticell lab, where at the end of 2019 I started a PhD project on the effects of heat stress on male meiosis, pollen development, and plant fertility.
Sexual reproduction generates variation and creates offspring that undergoes natural selection leading to species adaptation to a changing environment. Meiosis, the process during which genetic variation is created, is itself also under the influence of the environment and appears to be highly sensitive to temperature stress. High and low temperatures or sudden temperature shifts during meiosis cause various defects resulting in reduced fertility. In plants, heat stress causes reprogramming of gene expression, alterations in chromosome structure, aberrant organization of the cytoskeleton and defects in cytokinesis. Given the importance of fertility for grain production and the persistence of natural populations, understanding how climate change affects meiosis is vital for the assessment of future food production and biodiversity impacts. My PhD project explores natural variation in temperature sensitivity to identify genetic factors and alleles responsible for defects in male meiosis and reduced fertility in Arabidopsis and rice caused by temperature stress.