UNT biology research outlines how plants signal distress

Monday, September 16, 2013 - 20:17

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- University of North Texas Biology Professor Ron Mittler led a research study outlining how plants identify stress factors, such as heat, disease or toxins, and signal to the rest of the plant to defend itself against those incoming stressors.

Knowing how plants signal stress means scientists are one step closer to controlling plant defenses. Being able to control those defenses means farmers and others may one day be able to prepare their crops for threats including droughts or diseases, Mittler said.

“Plants have signaling mechanisms similar to those we have as humans,” Mittler said. “Imagine you are standing in an empty room and something touches your arm. Your body signals to your brain that something has touched you. Now we can see that plants do that, too.”

Mittler also found that triggering a stress signal in a plant gave the plant time to prepare for worse conditions. For example, a plant blasted with a small amount of heat as a trigger to signal its defenses was able to survive longer heat exposure later. Plants immediately exposed to long periods of heat with no time to prepare did not survive.

“Now that we know we can trigger plants to prepare for situations like drought, intense heat or disease, we are one step closer to being able to save many crops that would otherwise die,” Mittler said.

Mittler’s research is the first of its kind to outline the importance of reactive oxygen species in plants for signal production. Reactive oxygen species, or ROS, are molecules containing oxygen. ROS are responsible for propagating a stress signal throughout plant tissue.

Mittler’s research was published in the American Society of Plant Biologists’ “The Plant Cell” on Sept. 13. Mittler worked with Vladimir Shulaev from UNT as well as researchers from Bar-Ilan University on the project.

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