Plants are very finicky about when they decide to bloom. In their constant quest for sunlight, they put all their energy into growing upward and only produce fruits and flowers if they are in full sunlight. In high-density orchards, this imposes a limit on crop yield in a given space. One of the largest goals in agriculture today is to increase crop yield, as we saw earlier this year with the UIUC researchers seeking to optimize photosynthesis. Now researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison are trying their hand at increasing agricultural production by removing plants’ inhibitions to flower.
Believe it or not, plants actually have color vision. Or at least a light-sensing molecule called a phytochrome. According to Madison professor of cell biology Richard Vierstra, “Plants use the molecule to sense where they are in the canopy; they use the phytochromes for color vision — to sense whether they are above, next to or under other plants.” If the plant sees that it is too crowded, it will focus into growing out its stems and leaves instead of producing fruit in an effort to gain more sunlight. While this might make sense in the competitive natural world, in a controlled agricultural environment every plant should be focusing on yield.
With this goal in mind, Vierstra and his team set out to unravel the structure of the previously enigmatic phytochrome molecules. Once they determined the structure, they realized they could change the signals the phytochrome sends back to the plant. Vierstra explains the implications of this in a UW-Madison article: “By mutating the phytochromes, we created plants that think they’re in full sun, even when they’re not.” That is, they will have no reservations about flowering or producing fruit as long as they are actually getting the required nutrients to do so.
(Mutating the phytochrome can have a great effect on the growth of a single plant species. Image courtesy UW-Madison)
The ramifications of Vierstra’s work are numerous. First, most obviously and most importantly, plants with mutated phytochromes can be grown in much closer proximity to each other, greatly increasing crop yields. Also, the newly revealed structure of the phytochrome will help the field of optogenetics, which uses light as a tool to drive biological change, and can aid in the creation of new fluorescent markers that respond to light stimuli.
The work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the University of Wisconsin College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. The University of Wisconsin, Madison has a thriving research and development sector which attracts $1 billion in grants each year. For further reading regarding funding for the University of Wisconsin, Madison and its studies, click on the link below:
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