Researchers at Michigan State University have identified a new pathway inside plant cells that could prevent them from dying under certain kinds of stress, leading to more resilient plants, according to a new study’s results published on Phys.org.
The study was led by assistant professor Dae Kwan Ko in the lab of Federica Brandizzi, an MSU Distinguished Professor and MSU Research Foundation Professor.
Ko’s team used a plant called thale cress as a “model organism” — a species with traits that are shared or “conserved” by other plants, and even animals and fungi.
“These processes are highly conserved, not just in plants, but in animals and all eukaryotes,” Ko said, as quoted in Phys.org. “Studying these processes in a model system like [thale cress] has the advantage of letting us carry out research fast using ample genomics resources.”
The study focused on a part of the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum, or ER. The ER is one of the structures that living plant, animal, and fungus cells use to create proteins and lipids, Phys.org explained. The ER also folds proteins and becomes stressed when the cell contains too many unfolded proteins.
According to Ko, when that stress becomes too great, “it’s like a switch between life and death.” The cell dies — which isn’t always a bad thing, as it can help stop the spread of some diseases. But cell death can also harm or kill the organism.
“By understanding these biomolecular self-destruct mechanisms in cells, researchers could devise tactics to avoid or delay when a cell activates them in response to certain stressors,” Ko said.
Ko’s team looked at many mutated strains of thale cress and identified a mutation that made it more susceptible to ER stress, Phys.org reported. But then they introduced other mutations and found one that made it easier for the plant to survive again by removing a protein called PIR1.
Most living organisms don’t have the PIR1 protein, per the Phys.org report. But some important crops like soybeans do — so genetic changes that alter that protein might make them more resilient, leading to better crop growth even with Earth’s rising temperatures and less stable weather.
Perhaps more importantly, these findings give researchers a way to identify and control more stress pathways. It could possibly even apply to humans.
“Our research results can potentially influence research on ER stress management also in nonplant species,” Brandizzi said.
Join our free newsletter for weekly updates on the coolest innovations improving our lives and saving our planet.