How a gene tells plant to reject its own pollen

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Over a century ago, scientists discovered that some plants don't permit fertilization by their own pollen. And for the past quarter-century, scientists have known that cellular communication exists between the female stigma and the male gamete, or pollen, it receives. But no one knew how the stigma could tell the difference between the plant's own pollen and that from other plants.

Now, Cornell University researchers have unlocked this basic, long-standing botanical mystery in a report in the Nov. 26 edition of the journal Science. They have discovered that the answer lies in a gene that tells the stigma-based receptors which pollen to accept or reject.

Plants have several ways to reproduce. Some self-pollinate, others cross-pollinate. In the case of kale, which is a member of the crucifer family, the plant's stigma, the receptive surface at the tip of a plant's carpel, accepts only pollen from a genetically unrelated kale plant. Because kale will not fertilize itself, it is called "self-incompatible."

The fate of pollen in self-incompatible plants can be thought of as the opposite of the fate of organ transplants in animals. A transplanted organ will be rejected if its genetic makeup is different from that of the host but is more likely to be accepted if the genetic makeup is similar. In the case of self-incompatible plants, genetic relatedness between pollen and stigma results in rejection of pollen, and genetic unrelatedness results in acceptance.

The Cornell scientists, led by June and Mikhail Nasrallah, Cornell professors of plant biology, set out to learn what makes a plant self-incompatible. Almost a decade ago, the Nasrallah group identified a receptor on the surface of the stigma that allows it to distinguish between self and non-self pollen, but the label on pollen that identified it remained elusive.


Contact: Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Cornell University News Service

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