Scientists are talking to plants with light-based messages to see if they can warn them in advance of impending dangers and trigger defense mechanisms that can mitigate the damage. Working with the tobacco plant Nicotiana benthamianaThey were able to activate the plants’ immune response by using light as a catalyst in an achievement that could revolutionize our relationship with plants.
Dr Alex Jones, co-author of the study, said: “If we can warn plants of an impending disease outbreak or pest attack, the plants can then activate their natural defense mechanisms to prevent widespread damage.” statement.
“We can also inform plants about approaching extreme weather events, such as heatwaves or drought, allowing them to adjust their growth patterns or conserve water. This could lead to more efficient and sustainable agricultural practices and reduce the need for chemicals.”
The study used a new technology called Highlighter to activate the expression of the target gene in plants. The tool was designed by Bo Larsen, who originally created it for prokaryotes — simple organisms whose cells lack a nucleus and other organelles — but has since developed it for use in plants.
Using light to manipulate a biomolecular process such as gene activation falls within the field of science known as optogenetics. It can either activate or deactivate a targeted process, and is a convenient methodology because it is non-invasive, non-toxic and does not cost much.
Photoreceptors were a crucial and difficult part of the discrimination methodology. They were designed to control target processes so that they would be triggered when activated by a photocatalyst, but doing so was not easy because plants have many photoreceptors. After all, light is how we coordinate growth and development and even how we eat.
After successfully adapting the highlighter for use on the tobacco plant, the team was able to demonstrate that it could affect the plant’s immunity, as well as pigment production. Research will continue, but the discovery already opens many doors to what could now be possible with this alternative approach to talking to plants.
Dr Jones added: “The highlighter is an important step forward in developing optogenetic tools in plants, and its high-precision genetic control can be applied to study a wide range of fundamental questions in plant biology.”
“The growing toolkit for plants, with diverse visual properties, also opens up exciting opportunities for crop improvement. For example, in the future we could use one light condition to stimulate an immune response, and then a different light condition to precisely time a particular trait, such as flowering or maturity.”
The conversation doesn’t always have to be one-sided. Did you know that plants can scream? We just can’t hear them.
The study is published in PLoS Biology.
[H/T: Irish Examiner]
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