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Key Gene Allows Plants To Survive Drought

May 1, 2009
University of Toronto
Scientists have identified a key gene that allows plants to defend themselves against environmental stresses like drought, freezing and heat.

This is a hypothetical model of what abscisic acid (ABA) looks like when bound to the receptor protein, PYR1. The yellow molecule is ABA and it is bound inside a pocket of PYR1. The colored regions in PYR1 (blue red, connected by dashed lines) show parts of PYR1 that are predicted to contact ABA. The distances between contacts points are shown with numbers (units = angstroms).
Credit: Cutler lab, UC Riverside

A team of scientists from Canada, Spain and the United States has identified a key gene that allows plants to defend themselves against environmental stresses like drought, freezing and heat.

"Plants have stress hormones that they produce naturally and that signal adverse conditions and help them adapt," says team member Peter McCourt, a professor of cell and systems biology at the University of Toronto. "If we can control these hormones we should be able to protect crops from adverse environmental conditions which is very important in this day and age of global climate change."

The research team, led by Sean Cutler of the University of California, Riverside, has identified the receptor of the key hormone in stress protection called abscisic acid (ABA). Under stress, plants increase their ABA levels, which help them survive a drought through a process not fully understood. The area of ABA receptors has been a highly controversial topic in the field of plant biology that has involved retractions of scientific papers as well as the publication of papers of questionable significance.

A receptor is a protein molecule in a cell to which mobile signaling molecules may attach. Usually at the top of a signaling pathway, the receptor functions like a boss relaying orders to the team below that then executes particular decisions in the cell. "Scientists have been trying to solve the ABA receptor problem for more than 20 years, and claims for ABA receptors are not easily received by the scientific community," says Cutler.

This team used a new approach called chemical genomics to identifying a synthetic chemical, designated pyrabactin, which specifically activates an ABA receptor in the model laboratory plant Arabidopsis. With pyrabactin in hand it was now possible to directly identify the ABA receptor. "This approach not only found a gene that had been long sought by the plant science research community but also showed that chemical genomics can identify new chemicals like pyrabactin that may have profound impacts on the way we farm in both the developing and developed world," says McCourt.

The study results will appear April 30 in Science Express and in the May 22 issue of Science magazine. Lead author Sean Cutler is a former University of Toronto scientist who is now an assistant professor of plant cell biology in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at the University of California, Riverside. In addition to the University of Toronto and the University of California, Riverside, team members were from University of California, San Diego, Universidad Politecnica, Spain, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, University of California, Santa Barbara; and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Research was funded by the Canada Research Chair program, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Toronto. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Sang-Youl Park, Pauline Fung, Noriyuki Nishimura, Davin R. Jensen, Hiroaki Fujii, Yang Zhao, Shelley Lumba, Julia Santiago, Americo Rodrigues, Tsz-fung F. Chow, Simon E. Alfred, Dario Bonetta, Ruth Finkelstein, Nicholas J. Provart, Darrell Desveaux, Pedro L. Rodriguez, Peter McCourt, Jian-Kang Zhu, Julian I. Schroeder, Brian F. Volkman, and Sean R. Cutler. Abscisic Acid Inhibits Type 2C Protein Phosphatases via the PYR/PYL Family of START Proteins. Science, 2009; DOI: 10.1126/science.1173041

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University of Toronto. "Key Gene Allows Plants To Survive Drought." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 May 2009. <>.
University of Toronto. (2009, May 1). Key Gene Allows Plants To Survive Drought. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 24, 2017 from
University of Toronto. "Key Gene Allows Plants To Survive Drought." ScienceDaily. (accessed March 24, 2017).