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Arabidopsis thaliana flower

How plants respond to heat stress

By | Climate change, News, Plant Science

Feeling the heat: Steroid hormones contribute to the heat stress resistance of plants. Plants, like other organisms, can be severely affected by heat stress. To increase their chances of survival, they activate the heat shock response, a molecular pathway also employed by human and animal cells for stress protection. Researchers from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have now discovered that plant steroid hormones can promote this response in plants.

It may be hard to remember in winter, but July 2021 was the hottest month ever documented. In the USA, the mean temperature was higher than the average for July by 2,6 degrees Fahrenheit, and many southern European countries saw temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius including an all-time high temperature of 48,8 degrees Celsius recorded on the eastern coast of Sicily in Italy.

Prof. Brigitte Poppenberger and her team have elucidated the molecular signaling pathway for heat resistance in plants. Credit: A. Heddergott / TUM

The past few decades have seen increased incidences of heat waves with record highs around the globe, and this is seen as a result of climate change. Heat waves have been occurring more frequently, have been hotter, and have been lasting longer with severe consequences not only for humans and animals but also for plants. “Heat stress can negatively affect plants in their natural habitats and destabilize ecosystems while also drastically reducing crop harvests, thereby threatening our food security,” says Brigitte Poppenberger, Professor for Biotechnology of Horticultural Crops.

Cells activate a molecular defense pathway for heat stress protection

To survive short periods of heat stress, plants activate a molecular pathway called the heat-shock response. This heat-shock response (common to all organisms) protects cells from damage inflicted by proteotoxic stress, which damages proteins. Such stress is not only caused by heat but can also result from exposure to certain toxins, UV light, or soil salinity.

The heat shock response protects cells in various ways, one of them being production of so-called heat-shock proteins, which serve as molecular shields that protect proteins by preventing misfolding.

Brassinosteroids can increase the heat stress resistance of plants

Plants respond to heat stress by activating heat shock factors and also other molecular players. In particular, hormones as chemical messengers are involved. Among the hormones that plants produce are the brassinosteroids, which primarily regulate their growth and developments. But, in addition to their growth-promoting properties, brassinosteroids have other interesting abilities, one of them being their ability to increase the heat stress resistance of plants, and researchers at TUM have recently discovered what contributes to this protective ability.

Using the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a research group led by Prof. Brigitte Poppenberger has been able to elucidate how a specific transcription factor – a special protein responsible for switching certain sections of the DNA on or off – is regulated by brassinosteroids. This transcription factor, called BES1, can interact with heat shock factors thereby allowing genetic information to be targeted towards increased synthesis of heat shock proteins.

When BES1 activity is increased, plants become more resistant to heat stress, and when it is decreased, they become more sensitive to it. Furthermore, the group has demonstrated that BES1 is activated by heat stress and that this activation is stimulated by brassinosteroids.

Potential applications in agriculture and horticulture

“These results are not only of interest to biologists trying to expand our understanding of the heat shock response but also have potential for practical application in agriculture and horticulture,” says Prof. Poppenberger.

Bio-stimulants containing brassinosteroids are available and can be tested for their ability to increase heat stress resistance in plants. Such substances are natural products that are approved for organic farming and thus could be used without problems. Alternatively, BES1 may be an interesting target for breeding approaches. This could be used to create varieties that are more resistant to heat stress and thus provide more stable yields in the event of future heat waves.


Read the paper: The EMBO Journal

Article source: Technical University of Munich (TUM)

Image credit: Wikipedia

Leaving gaps in the genome to breed maize plants with low susceptibility to frost and drought damage

By | Agriculture, News, Plant Science

The use of genetic information is now indispensable for modern plant breeding. Even though DNA sequencing has become much cheaper since the human genome was decoded for the very first time in 2003, collecting the full genetic information still accounts for a large part of the costs in animal and plant breeding. One trick to reduce these costs is to sequence only a very small and randomly selected part of the genome and to complete the remaining gaps using mathematical and statistical techniques.

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Shoots and roots respond differently to climate change

By | Climate change, News

Most organisms follow a timetable – when to reproduce, when to migrate, so on so forth! The timing of such key periodic life events is known as phenology and is crucial for organism’s survival and their contributions to ecosystem functions. One of the most reported responses of organisms to contemporary climate change is shifts in their phenology. Ecologists have already shown that phenology of many plants are advancing due to climate change, for instance, many plants are flowering earlier during the growing season. But little was known how plant phenological changes aboveground matches with plant phenological changes belowground due to climate change.

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Space and time: how to better understand biological processes in plants

By | News, Plant Science

If the perspective of space and time is not properly applied to plant research, the understanding of biological processes is limited as well as the response to the threats that endanger the life of plants worldwide. This is one of the main conclusions of an article published in the journal Trends in Plant Science  by Professor Sergi Munné-Bosch, from the Faculty of Biology, the Biodiversity Research Institute (IRBio) and the Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety (INSA) of the University of Barcelona.

A spatiotemporal framework for plant research

In the global change scenario, methodological limitations in the field of plant biology are not helpful to obtain a full image of the processes that affect the plant life. Improving the level of knowledge on plant species requires adding a spatiotemporal framework using integrative and scalable data that capture the biological processes (such as germination, senescence, or plant stress responses), from molecular, biochemical, cellular and populational approaches.

At the moment, understanding and describing the life of plants through the different organizational levels is one of the most complex challenges in this field. Therefore, it is necessary to do research from an integrative perspective —with disciplines such as physics, chemistry, mathematics— and between individuals (intraspecific variability), as well as the variations between the different organs, tissues and organelles.

“In particular, we mainly focus on how and why physiological processes take place, and we do not put emphasis on when and where. As a result, the space and time reference is often lost or misapplied”, notes Sergi Munné-Bosch, recently awarded the ICREA Academia Award for the third time, and member of the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences of the UB.

The spatiotemporal scale in which the research activities are unfolded —specifically the interactive effects between space and time—are the main limitation that hardens this integrative view of research. “Our time scale does not match the real scale of how our planet works. This affects directly our ability to make long-term real actions that persist during several generations (time) and that are effective globally (space)”, notes Munné-Bosch, listed among the 2% of most influential scientists in his science disciplines —the leading one in Spain in Plant Biology— regarding production and impact, according to the database published by Elsevier.

“It is difficult to capture simultaneous images at different organization levels and follow a physiological process without leaving any details behind. In a movie, for instance, if we miss a frame, we might not be able to understand the essence of the whole movie. The same happens in research: depending on the experimental design we make, we may not be able to understand biological processes in their complexity”.

Changing times for plant biology 

Applying new technologies for the knowledge progress that fully involve the spatiotemporal context is the inflection point for future researches. “We need to promote methodological approaches that include the real-time and continuous obtention of images, including studies at different organization levels, from a molecular level to ecology, going through all the intermediate levels”.

Choosing the right time framework for the study of plant physiology processes will contribute to provide more precise and useful data in basic and applied research. Otherwise, how can it be possible for us to know the resistance mechanisms of long-lived trees? Or the soil seed germination process?

“Certainly, the time factor adds a substantial complexity to the study of biological processes. However, it is not always a good reference as an individual factor. Therefore, it needs to go together with other reference frameworks to better understand the biological processes in their complexity”, notes the researcher.

At the moment, there are many studies that add spatiotemporal approaches of scientific interest in order to improve the understanding of the functioning of living beings and the ecosystems, “but they are not enough. We need to invest more in research, specially in quality research that covers not only those biological processes of great basic and applied research, but that understands these with real spatiotemporal approaches despite its difficulty. Science should be able to understand life in all its complexity”.

The researchers expect to see a future investment in new technologies —specially in the application of artificial intelligence programmes in plant biology— that enables them to decipher the enigmas of the complexity of biological processes, “and consequently, we hope this helps us to better coexist with the other species we share the planet with”, concludes Professor Sergi Munné-Bosch.


Read the paper: Trends in Plant Science

Article source: University of Barcelona

Image: Methodological limitations in the field of plant biology are not helpful to obtain a full image of the processes that affect the plant life. Credit: Sergi Munné-Bosch (UB-IRBio-INSA)

Uncovering the mysteries of methylation in plants

By | News, Plant Science

Growing up is a complex process for multi-celled organisms — plants included. In the days or weeks it takes to go from a seed to a sprout to a full plant, plants express hundreds of genes in different places at different times. In order to conduct this symphony of genes, plants rely in part on an elegant regulatory method called DNA methylation. By adding or removing small molecules called methyl groups to the DNA strand, the plant can silence or activate different regions of its genetic code without changing the underlying sequence. 

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