Scientists find protein at the intersection of genetics, development, and environment

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- Environmental stress can reveal hidden genetic variation in plants, resulting in novel traits that might provide an alternative to genetic modification of crops, researchers report in the journal Nature. They have linked this phenomenon to the actions of a particular molecule, the heat stress protein Hsp90. These findings place Hsp90 at the interface of environment and genetics and potentially provide an explanation for a long-standing evolutionary puzzle: how do multiple genetic changes requiring the synchronous alteration of several features occur during evolution?

The scientists from the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and the University of Chicago knew that Hsp90 helps other proteins fold properly. They found that it acts like a buffer for naturally occurring subtle mutations, allowing them to accumulate without visible effect. Then when stress compromises the ability of Hsp90 to fold its critical target proteins, these variations are revealed in other words, they lie dormant until a stress event, and then are exposed all at once. Most of these changes will be bad. But a few unusual combinations could produce valuable new traits, spurring the pace of evolution.

This mechanism might be harnessed to create better crop plants by conventional breeding methods, without the need for transgenic manipulations of crop germplasm, said team leader Susan Lindquist, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and senior author on the study. This would circumvent the public controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms, which derive their traits from exotic genes transplanted into them. Manipulating the Hsp90 buffer may identify useful naturally-occurring variants, such as plants which grow better in poor soil or have increased pest resistance. "Our data suggests that there may be a wealth of genetic variation out there right now that we cant see because the plants havent been grown in the right conditi

Contact: Nadia Halim
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

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