Plant Biology
Plant Biology
To match human population growth, world agricultural production must double over the next quarter century. At Salk, we study plants so that humans will have the food, clothing, energy and medicines they need now and in the future.

Plant Biology


Here Comes The Sun: Cellular Sensor Helps Plants Find Light

Despite seeming passive, plants wage wars to outgrow each other and absorb sunlight. If a plant is shaded by another, it becomes cut off from essential sunlight it needs to survive. Scientists in Joanne Chory’s lab have discovered a way by which plants assess the quality of shade to outgrow menacing neighbors, a finding that could be used to improve the productivity of crops. The work, published December 24, 2015 in Cell, shows how the depletion of blue light detected by molecular sensors in plants triggers accelerated growth to overcome a competing plant.

The work upends previously held notions in the field. It was known that plants respond to diminished red light by activating a growth hormone called auxin to outpace its neighbors. However, this is the first time researchers have shown that shade avoidance can happen through an entirely different mechanism: instead of changing the levels of auxin, a cellular sensor called cryptochrome responds to diminished blue light by turning on genes that promote cell growth. This study is the first to show how cryptochromes promote growth in a shaded environment.

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Grafted Plants’ Genomes can Communicate with Each Other

Agricultural grafting dates back nearly 3,000 years. By trial and error, people from ancient China to ancient Greece realized that joining a cut branch from one plant onto the stalk of another could improve the quality of crops. Now, Joseph Ecker and collaborators have combined this ancient practice with modern genetic research to show that grafted plants can share epigenetic traits, according to a paper published the week of January 18, 2016 in PNAS.

The work showed that epigenetic information in the form of tiny molecules called sRNAs is transferred between the two plants and can change one another’s gene expression. sRNAs contribute to a gene silencing process called DNA methylation, where molecular markers bind along DNA to block the cell’s machinery from expressing the genes under the markers. It turns out that thousands of sites along the Arabidopsis thaliana genome were silenced by transferred sRNAs. The team plans to continue to explore the epigenetic effects of mobile RNA in other plants, pursuing revelations that could eventually help growers better manipulate crops.

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