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Understanding how crops deal with stress -- yield's biggest enemy

Date:
April 26, 2011
Source:
Iowa State University
Summary:
Researchers have discovered a new arm of the pathway by which plants activate a response to environmental stress caused by adverse environmental conditions, such as drought, flood and heat. These stresses affect yield more than crop pests and diseases. Finding a way to maintain high yields for plants under stress is a goal of plant breeders and other agriculture stakeholders.

Like people, plants experience stress. And also, like people, the response to that stress can determine success.

People can exercise, or rest, or talk about the problem.

For plants, ways to deal with stress are internal. And ISU researchers are trying to understand how they do it.

Stephen Howell is a professor of genetics, development and cell biology and former director of the Plant Sciences Institute at ISU. His research is featured in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We've discovered a new arm of the pathway by which plants activate a response to environmental stress," he said.

Adverse environmental conditions, such as drought, flood, heat and other stresses, affect yield more than crop pests and diseases. Finding a way to maintain high yields for plants under stress is a goal of plant breeders and other agriculture stakeholders, said Howell.

"These are environmental stresses that the farmers can't control," Howell said. "They are acts of nature. And now seed companies are interested in trying to equip plants with the ability to tolerate stress."

Plant cells produce proteins and ship them to different parts of the cell. During production and shipment, these proteins move through an area of the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum (ER).

Under normal conditions, these proteins are folded into their normal, healthy three-dimensional structures as they are produced.

When a plant is under stress, its cells produce poorly folded or unfolded proteins. Inside the ER, a built-in, quality-control system senses this and "sets off an alarm in the cell," said Howell.

In response to the alarm, another protein (IRE1) cuts apart an important RNA molecule, but then splices it back together to create a different sequence.

This cut-and-splice event activates a cascade of stress response genes whose products bring about internal defensive measures that help the plant survive.

"As it turns out, responses that are activated under stress conditions actually inhibit the growth of plants," said Howell. "This allows them to conserve their energy to survive the stress conditions."

For plants in the wild, this response is a survival tactic, he said.

In production agriculture crops, however, these responses reduce yields.

"You don't want crop plants to [stop growing]," Howell said. "You want them to continue to grow and produce even though they are under stress."

With the new understanding of this stress response pathway, Howell says, the next step may be to silence the alarm system.

"What may be important is to disable some of these stress responses," said Howell. "That may make the plant be more productive under stress conditions."

Howell's research team included Yan Deng and Renu Srivastava, both of the Plant Sciences Institute, Ames; Sabrina Humbert and Steven Rothstein, both of University of Guelph, Canada; and Jian-Xiang Liu formerly of the Plant Sciences Institute and now a faculty member at Fudan University, China.

Howell is currently on leave from ISU and is director of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences for the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Iowa State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Yan Deng, Sabrina Humbert, Jian-Xiang Liu, Renu Srivastava, Steven J. Rothstein, and Stephen H. Howell. Heat induces the splicing by IRE1 of a mRNA encoding a transcription factor involved in the unfolded protein response in Arabidopsis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1102117108

Cite This Page:

Iowa State University. "Understanding how crops deal with stress -- yield's biggest enemy." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 April 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110425173844.htm>.
Iowa State University. (2011, April 26). Understanding how crops deal with stress -- yield's biggest enemy. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 17, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110425173844.htm
Iowa State University. "Understanding how crops deal with stress -- yield's biggest enemy." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110425173844.htm (accessed September 17, 2014).

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