(Embargoed) CHAPEL HILL - Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, working with colleagues at Pennsylvania State University, have identified a gene responsible for controlling water retention and cell division in plants.
Their discoveries, announced in two papers appearing in the June 15 issue of the journal Science, raise the possibility of making crop plants more resistant to drought, a goal agronomists have pursued for decades.
"When I was born in 1957, there were 4 billion people on Earth, and if I die a natural death sometime around 2030, there will be about 10 billion," said Dr. Alan M. Jones, professor of biology at UNC. "That's an enormous increase in just one lifetime. If we are going to be able to feed all these people, we're going to figure out ways of improving and increasing the food supply by nontraditional means. We think this work is an important step toward doing that because researchers should be able to modify this gene to make crops hardier."
Besides Jones, UNC authors of the papers are biology graduate student Hemayet Ullah, research associate Jin-Gui Chen and former UNC postdoctoral fellow Kyung-Hoan Im. Penn State authors are postdoctoral fellow Xi-Qing Wang and Dr. Sarah M. Assmann, professor of biology.
In Chapel Hill, Jones' team, as part of a new multidisciplinary genome sciences initiative, created a mutation in a gene from a common laboratory plant, Arabidopsis, that rendered the gene nonfunctional. Mutant plants wilted more readily than normal plants because they were unable to retain water as well.
The UNC scientists suspected that the gene they targeted encodes a critically important molecule called a G protein that plays a central role in regulating the various signals such as light and hormones that control plant development. Their experiments showed they were right. But because the mutant plants wilted, they thought the gene probably also controlled water retention.