Seed World

Discovery Might Lead to More Efficient Crop Plants

Scientists at Oklahoma’s Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation with colleagues from Germany and Spain have made a discovery that will change the way researchers view messenger RNA (mRNA) and could aid the development of more efficient crops.

Messenger RNAs play pivotal roles during gene expression. They communicate the information encrypted in DNA genes to an organism’s protein factories. Proteins are the ultimate products of the genes, and they carry out the instructions by building, repairing or altering the plant during development or as conditions change.

For decades, researchers believed that mRNAs generally stay within or near the cells in which they were produced, with only a few known exceptions. This new research reveals that mRNA molecules are much more mobile than ever imagined. They not only leave the cell, they travel throughout the plant. The new discovery also shows that mobility of mRNAs is the rule rather than an exception.

“This is the kind of discovery that becomes part of undergraduate biology textbooks,” says Wolf Scheible, professor and leader of the Noble Foundation’s part in the collaborative effort with Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology and the Spanish National Biotechnology Center. “It reshapes a common perception of fundamental plant function. This is an exciting find, one that might turn out to be a game changer for developing more efficient crop plants and advancing agriculture.”

For this research, Scheible and his colleagues used two specific varieties of Arabidopsis — a model plant used globally in plant research. The team took the shoots (stems and leaves) from one variety and grafted them to the roots of the other variety. In one of several different experimental setups, the plants were either placed under phosphorous- or nitrogen-limited conditions or further treated with unlimited nutrients before the shoots and roots were harvested and their mRNA populations analyzed.

The researchers found that many mRNA molecules became mobile exclusively during P or N stress, and moved into other plant parts and organs. The researchers assume that mobility of specific mRNAs is necessary to help the plant adjust and remain productive even in stressful conditions. If placed under other stress conditions, such as drought, additional mobile mRNAs might be found.

This discovery could be the basis for more research that will capitalize on this phenomenon for the purpose of developing or breeding plants that require less inputs to grow strong, healthy plants. The end result is being able to grow more food with fewer resources.

This research is published under the title “Endogenous Arabidopsis messenger RNAs transported to distant tissues” in Nature Plants.