Plants think too! Understanding what could help fortify them against climate change


Recent studies have uncovered fascinating new details about the signalling networks used by plants to process information relating to their environments, before responding accordingly.

This knowledge could help develop breeding approaches that will better protect plants as temperatures rise and droughts escalate in the future.

Plants are a lot like us in that they continually need to gather and process information relating to availability of water and nutrients, air temperature, and the presence of pathogens. And as climate change continues, it has never been more vital to understand the mechanisms by which plants process this kind of information.

Various plant hormones trigger different molecular signalling pathways that in turn trigger processes like fruit ripening, seed production or drought responses. These signalling pathways have long been recognised and observed, but exactly how information is exchanged between them has so far remained a mystery.

Using cutting-edge methods and technologies, a team of researchers from the Ludwig Maxmilian University in Munich charted the molecular protein network of plants by testing the physical interactions of more than 17 million protein pairs.

More than 2,000 interactions were observed and analysed, with mathematical approaches and graph theory then employed to identify potential information exchange points. The researchers were able to uncover hundreds of these exchange points, all of which were previously unknown.

Dr Melina Altmann, lead author of the study, said the most striking new insights came after additional genetic testing revealed most proteins function in multiple signalling pathways.

“In contrast to single-gene analyses, our results revealed the high degree to which different pathways are physically and functionally intertwined,” Altmann said.

“We believe this is a fundamental principle and we need to pay more attention to it.”

Professor Pascal Falter-Braun, Director of the university’s Institute of Network Biology, which led the research, said these insights have the potential to inform new strategies for breeding plants to better withstand the challenges of climate change.

“We might be able to redirect the information in crops such that the plants require less fertiliser or pesticides, or are more resistant against droughts,” Falter-Braun concluded.

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