Study: Circadian Clock in Plants May Boost Water Efficiency

Study: Circadian Clock in Plants May Boost Water Efficiency

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We’re accustomed to thinking of circadian clocks as an exclusively animal kingdom phenomenon. But a team of researchers from Texas A&M AgriLife are taking a look at how the same mechanism works in plants. The discovery has significant implications for water efficiency.

The team won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for its work on how circadian rhythm is controlled at a molecular level.

The current research focuses on how the circadian clock regulates high water-use efficiency in some plants, and how others, including food plants, might be improved for the same efficiency, possibly to grow in conditions uninhabitable for them today.

“This is an important step in understanding the overall circadian regulation of water-efficient photosynthesis and how that efficiency might be replicated in other plants, namely food crops,” says Dr. Qingyi Yu, AgriLife Research Associate Professor of Plant Genomics in Dallas and part of the research team.

In their study (published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution), the scientists identify 1,398 transcription factors, proteins that regulate expression of certain genes in pineapple. Of those, nearly half exhibited time-of-day specific or diurnal gene expression patterns, which could be important in uncovering the genetic controls for water use in plants.

Yu’s group focused on pineapple, a water-efficient tropical plant that uses crassulacean acid metabolism or CAM photosynthesis. During photosynthesis, CAM plants open their stomata at night to facilitate water-efficient gas exchange compared to C3 plants, whose less water-efficient gas exchange occurs during the day. The majority of food crops, including rice, wheat, soybean, and cotton, use C3 photosynthesis.

Researchers found certain genes regulated by the biological clock to express similarly in two tissue types of the pineapple plant: those that contribute to photosynthesis and those that do not. The finding represents a new paradigm for identifying core clock genes, Yu said. The method revealed what might be components of the circadian clock or oscillator that regulates CAM activity.

The discovery is a leap in understanding the genetic mechanisms of highly water-efficient CAM photosynthesis and using the knowledge for crop production in the future, Yu said.

“We believe at some point we can improve water intensive C3 plants to the extent that they also employ CAM photosynthesis,” she says. “By understanding these genetic controls, we can help plants adapt to changing climates, possibly growing food in environments where it would be impossible today.”

Yu said the next step in the ongoing research is to confirm the functions of the prospective circadian oscillator.

This article was compiled from a Texas A&M report written by Gabe Saldana.