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Issue 470, 8 October 2001

Gene holds key to how plants cope with stress

Scientists at Leeds believe they have found the key to making agriculture more productive in harsh conditions, through research into how plants deal with stress. Plants and mammals have a similar chemical reaction to stress at a cellular level, so the research could also have implications for the treatment of degenerative diseases which affect humans.

Drs Alison Baker, Eduardo Lopez Huertas and Wayne Charlton of the Centre for Plant Sciences, have identified a gene, PEX1, involved in regulating plant responses to different types of stress. Plants rarely grow in perfect conditions – light levels, temperature or soil conditions can be wrong, they might be eaten or suffer fungal or bacterial infections. How effective plants are in combating such problems will affect the speed and strength of their growth.

The scientists attached a reporter molecule which emits light, to the PEX1 DNA, so that it would be visible whenever the gene was active. Plants with this DNA were then placed under different kinds of stress. The scientists found that the gene was activated in areas of plants which had been wounded, and in response to the introduction of non-fatal bacteria. A similar reaction to stress was noted in mammalian cells, which also have the same gene.

The scientists have recently been awarded over £150,000 to try to determine how the expression of PEX1 is controlled, and whether it is a universal mechanism in plant cells to combat stress. In the future, this could lead to more stress-resistant plant strains, able to produce higher yields in countries with difficult growing conditions, and reducing the need for pesticides by using their own defence systems to survive disease and predators.

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