Biologists solve 30-year-old mystery about why touch stresses plants

(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists have long known that touching plants can trigger a stress response in them, but until now it hasn’t been fully understood how this happens at the molecular level, and a new study hopes to shed some light on it.

Researchers have identified certain genetic clues within plants that lead to two separate signaling pathways that explain why plants are so sensitive to touch.

Understanding how this process works at a fundamental level can help researchers in fields ranging from improving plant health to getting higher yields from the same crop.

“We subjected the thale cress plant to gentle combing, after which thousands of genes were activated and stress hormones were released,” says biologist Olivier Van Aken from Lund University in Sweden.

“We then used genetic screening to find the genes that are responsible for this process.”

Genetic screening has found mutant forms of the plant that are known to respond differently to repeated physical touch.

Previous studies of the anatomy of these plants, especially their roots, have shown that special protein channels respond to distortions in cell membranes, facilitating the transmission of chemical signals.

Less was known about how this process occurs in other parts of the plant, such as leaves. There have been hints that compounds such as jasmonic acid play an important role in translating these early chemical signals into changes in behavior or growth, but here too there were many gaps that needed to be filled.

The researchers found six separate genes that play a role in the touch response, three in the jasmonic acid signaling pathway, and three in a separate signaling pathway.

This gives biologists a lot more room to work when it comes to understanding how and why this reaction happens, and moves us towards potentially manipulating it in the future.

“Our results solve a scientific puzzle that has eluded molecular biologists for 30 years,” says biologist Essam Darwish of Lund University.

We have identified a completely new signaling pathway that controls the plant’s response to physical contact and touch. “Now the search for new pathways continues.”

From knife cuts, animal bites to torrents of rain, every touch of a plant results in a protective molecular response, though these responses can be quite varied. For example, they can cause plants to become more stress tolerant and flower at a later date.

The idea of ​​using this reaction is not new: scientists are already studying how carefully controlled “mechanical wounding” can make crops stronger and more abundant, as plants develop greater resistance to stress.

As climate change puts even more pressure on agriculture and wheat production, these processes are becoming even more important, and the latest study provides scientists with important insights into how all of this is controlled.

“Given extreme weather conditions and pathogen infections brought about by climate change, it is critical to find new environmentally responsible ways to improve crop productivity and resilience,” says Van Aken.

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