Renowned professor lets plants loose and rises to the top

“Just because a plant doesn’t play chess, it’s not an inferior life form,” says the world-renowned professor Michael Palmgren. Illustration: Thomas Djursing

What exactly is a plant? Is it alive? Can it sense?

For most people, plants are probably beautiful, immobile, lower life forms that do not do much other than grow and turn slightly according to the sun and the wind.

But not for Michael Palmgren. To the 64-year-old professor with round glasses, plants are highly evolved beings who sense the world far more than we humans do. The leaf-adorned green creatures are in constant motion to orient themselves and are often seen in combat with other plants and insects.

“Just because a plant doesn't play chess, it’s not an inferior life form. In many ways, plants are more developed than us. Their genome is many times larger, and they have far more sensory receptors. They just live in a different kind of time than us. If you record the life of a plant and increase the speed 5000 times, you will see that it’s in constant motion,” says Michael Palmgren.

Michael Palmgren is a plant biologist and professor at the Faculty of Science of the University of Copenhagen, where he spends much of his time in a small office full of books. He has been collecting plants since he was a child, and he is the type who can pick up a leaf from the forest floor and proclaim its Latin name followed by an anecdote. And when you have that knowledge, you look at plants “differently” than most people do.

When Michael Palmgren buys lettuce and carrots, he is aware that they are teeming with life in the bag on the way home to the fridge. And when he serves salad for dinner, he knows that each leaf is alive and photosynthesizes until our enzymes in the gut finally kill them.

But let’s be clear: Michael Palmgren is more of a pragmatist than an activist. He does not chain himself to trees to preserve them, nor is he vegan or a hippie. The closest is probably an attempt from his youth to become a member of the Communist Marxist-Leninist League (KFML). No, Michael Palmgren is a natural scientist and a pragmatist with great respect for plants—even bishop's weed:

“Imagine how hard of a life it must be to be confined to constantly standing in the same place and coping with attacks from insects and people with weed hooks. And yet it returns because it’s so incredibly smart. When you see a patch of bishop’s weed, that’s one cohesive organism. If you chop off a part, the rest keeps growing,” says Michael Palmgren, and takes a short break followed by a “Yes?” to make sure you have understood. And then he continues:

“Yes, you have to have damn respect for bishop’s weed. Decentralized functions can be incredibly smart and efficient—and necessary for plants. It doesn’t automatically mean that you’re advanced if you just have a brain and a central nervous system,” he says.

World-renowned by chance

In his home in Gentofte, Michael Palmgren is surrounded by plants both inside and outside. In the garden are perennials and fruit trees—and in the window sills there are potted succulents, including jade plants.

The house is Michael Palmgren’s lifelong home awarded to him in the form of a grant by the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, and it is the old home of famous forensic pathologist Knud Sand. Michael Palmgren is a well-known and recognized researcher even beyond Danish borders.

In the greenhouses at the Faculty of Science of the University of Copenhagen, Michael Palmgren works on, among other things, increasing the yield of wheatgrass (the tall green plants), so that it corresponds to the yield of regular wheat by repeating 100 years of mutations in just one year using genome editing tools. Illustration: Thomas Djursing

From the 1990s and for decades onwards, he uncovered how ion pumps in plants are activated. In plain words, Michael Palmgren was the man who suddenly managed to explain how plants regulate their transport of nutrients. And the crucial discovery happened—as is often the case in research—by chance.

During a postgraduate internship at Lund University, he tried—inspired by the late Danish doctor and professor Peter Leth Jørgensen—to add digestive enzymes to an ion pump of a plant. As a result, its activity went through the roof. What Michael Palmgren had done was cut the pump’s brake—and it catapulted his career, which has led to him having over 150 articles published in several major magazines and a so-called h-index of over 70 today.

His research has also opened the door to the honorary residence in Gentofte for him, where he sometimes walks around between his plants and tries to imagine how some of the 360 000 different plant species on Earth experience the world. But every time he has to give up:

“It’s very difficult even with a bat. Imagine sensing the world with echolocation. That’s hard enough, right? So imagine being a decentralized organism that communicates with neurotransmitters. It’s impossible,” Michael Palmgren says and emphasizes that he does not humanize plants.

“We are fundamentally different, but that doesn’t mean that plants don’t sense. We humans have receptors on the surface of our cells to sense with. But a small plant like rockcress has many more, and they are found both on the surface and inside its cells. It lives, so to speak, by sensing and goes on high alert because it can’t escape if a bacterium approaches. And if you remove a single leaf, the whole organism will react. What is it? Pain?” Michael Palmgren asks hypothetically and says:

“If we talk ethics, then I think we are going to reconsider our perception of plants one day in the future. When a vegetarian eats raw food, every single bite is still alive, and we are constantly discovering that plants are far more advanced than we thought,” Michael Palmgren says.

But the professor has long since come to terms with the fact that we humans are just parasites on plants. We live by them or by animals that live by them. And we make them submit to us as if we were gods. Everything we see in the supermarket, from juicy melons to aesthetically pleasing romanesco broccoli, is unnatural deformities. Plants that are all weakened to never be able to survive in nature, but optimized to satisfy us. Just take the cauliflower that has been mutated away from its sister-mutant broccoli. Cauliflower fights in vain to produce new flowers but just creates small white flower buds we can eat.

And again, make no mistake about it. Michael Palmgren has—according to him, of course—deep respect for plants, but is also on the forefront of the art of plant breeding. And in recent years, he has worked with plant breeding in countless forms, including Crispr, which he strongly argues should be legalized for food. Not just for the sake of humans. But also for the plants.

“If I were a plant, would I rather be dipped in chemicals until I mutated the way humans wanted me to, or be exposed to a single, controlled cut? Today, it’s as if we let surgeons operate with rusty saws instead of giving them a scalpel,” says the professor, but draws a clear line at transgenesis, in which genes from other alien plants or animals are inserted.

“Transgenesis and the idea of adding genes are gradually becoming an outdated way of thinking. It’s so much harder to add a new trait than to remove one. It’s rarely enough to add a single gene, it’s typically an entire house of cards of genes that control a trait. But if you want to remove a trait, one clip will suffice; removing a single card may be enough. Being a destroyer is easier,” Michael Palmgren says.

Centuries of plant breeding

Today, Michael Palmgren is both a destroyer and a creator. He is involved in several research projects, all of which have the breeding of drought and climate resistant plants as their goal. For example, he is collaborating with researchers from Aarhus University to create drought-resistant barley. And there is actually a type of barley that naturally grows in the Sinai desert. Its yield, however, is miserable. But Michael Palmgren believes that it will be possible to carry out hundreds of years’ worth of breeding in a few years with Crispr, so that the drought-tolerant barley will give a high yield. And the easy way is to cut into genes. Not to add properties, but to remove them. History has shown us that this could be the key to higher yields.

One of the crucial differences between the original grass species and the grain of our time is, for example, that they lost one of two genes, BTR1 and BTR2, that cause them to shed grain, and have it fall on the ground. And Michael Palmgren and his research team believe that they can increase the yield of a large number of grass species by adjusting just those genes:

“We believe very strongly in our hypotheses, and the work is in full swing while we talk,” says Michael Palmgren, who is himself involved in breeding of perennial wheatgrass and quinoa. Together with Carlsberg Research Laboratory, he is also trying to achieve it without the use of Crispr. He also leads a number of large plant breeding projects involving researchers from Copenhagen and Aarhus universities.

But Michael Palmgren’s eagerness to cut into genes was completely absent until eight years ago, when he was still sitting in his “ivory tower” at the University of Copenhagen, researching without a specific purpose, just because “more knowledge about pumps in plants must be useful for something,” as he puts it.

In 2013, Thomas Bjørnholm, prorector of the University of Copenhagen at the time, believed that the time had come for a new approach in an attempt to create more interdisciplinarity. He promised a number of large grants for large “highly” interdisciplinary projects that could result in new ground-breaking ideas.

And Michael Palmgren signed up. He called his project Plants for a Changing World. Crispr (and other precision gene editing tools) was on everyone’s lips at the time, but because the method was associated with GMO, its application was met with opposition from citizens, politicians, and EU legislation. The researchers’ frustrations of not being able to use the growing knowledge for the good of society grew.

He gathered everyone from molecular biologists to lawyers, philosophers, and economists to find a way out of a deadlocked debate so that knowledge could be used for better and more sustainable future agriculture, and began researching precision breeding intensively. And that resulted in “a number of fairly frequently quoted articles” in the years from 2015 to 2017.

“They were damn right”

But Michael Palmgren’s new career path brought him back to Lund. The city where he had previously found the stepping stone of his career. He did not stare into the microscope this time, but into the curious eyes of predominantly Americans from the Land Institute in Kansas, who listened to a speech Michael Palmgren gave on plant breeding during a conference on perennial crops at the university’s interdisciplinary Pufendorf Institute.

And as a spectator of lectures held by those same Americans, Michael Palmgren experienced a kind of revelation—they were, in his own words, “damn right”.

The Land Institute NGO was established back in 1970s, and the researchers still carried some of their hippie goods with them in their luggage to Lund. Among other things, a couple of banjos, which they played during the breaks between the presentations.

But unlike many ecologists and biodynamicists, the people from the Land Institute were very open to e.g. Crispr. And they were very determined. They wanted to see results, Michael Palmgren says.

Quinoa is also one of the plants Michael Palmgren and his research team are working on making hardy and fruitful. Illustration: Thomas Djursing

“They wanted to grow wheatgrass, and they wanted to grow it as a kind of permaculture, where they would plant it once, and then would take care of itself. No tillage. No erosion. Just wheatgrass mixed with legumes to provide nitrogen through the roots—and my thought was just: They are damn right,” Michael Palmgren says.

“Our way of farming today is crazy. We use inbred plants that are grown in monocultures and are susceptible to disease. And the whole time, we are torturing the ground and driving around it, which results in erosion. I could go on.”

But there was a problem.

“Their progress was pathetic. Since 1970s, they achieved a yield of wheatgrass that was 20 percent of our wheat in Denmark. It’s not sustainable. We would need four times as much area in Denmark to cultivate the same amount. That would mean saying goodbye to Dyrehaven, Gribskov, and Amager Fælled,” Michael Palmgren says.

But wheatgrass has the same problem as our native wheat. It loses its seeds very easily. Therein lies a great loss of yield for the Land Institute. But the good news is that wheatgrass also contains the BTR1 and BTR2 genes.

So now the destroyer Michael Palmgren, who descended from his ivory tower, has a new idea again.