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Distant Relatives: TOR Protein Regulates Cell Growth in Plants and Animals

Plant researchers study gene which – if out of control – can contribute to cancer spread

Two such different organisms as plants and humans developed from a common precursor cell. Traces of this over one-billion-year kinship remain anchored in the genetic material of both organisms. An international team of plant researchers led by Dr Markus Wirtz and Prof. Dr Rüdiger Hell of Heidelberg University has looked more closely into one such trace – the TOR protein. In human and animal cells, TOR acts as a signal generator that controls both survival and cell growth. The Heidelberg researchers have now discovered how this protein also functions as a growth regulator in plants.

The TOR protein sets the stage for growth only when there is sufficient sulphate available to nourish the plant. The information on the sulphate content of the soil is transmitted to the cells via sugar but not via amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. "This finding can contribute to cultivating nutrient-efficient crops which can then be used in sustainable agriculture," states Prof. Hell.

But knowledge about the TOR protein's regulatory function is important not only for plant researchers. Medical researchers have long been investigating the growth regulator. Whereas TOR is active in healthy human cells only in the presence of sufficient amino acids, an out-of-control TOR protein in cancer cells contributes to rampant tumour proliferation. That is why TOR is a critical target for tumour medications.

In cooperation with researchers from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), the Heidelberg plant researchers proved that despite millions of years of evolution, nothing has really changed about the basic function of TOR as a growth regulator. "Since separation from the common precursor, only the regulation mechanisms of the TOR protein have adapted to the different ways of life of humans and plants," explains Markus Wirtz.

The results of this research were published in the journal “Nature Communications”.

Read the paper: Sulfur availability regulates plant growth via glucose-TOR signaling.

Article source: University of Heidelberg.

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