University of California, Davis, biologists have brought a seed-building gene to life in a plant's leaves instead of its blossoms, a novel feat that could lead to valuable innovations in food crops.
The biologists first isolated LEC1, a widely sought gene believed to be key to seed development. Then they engineered plants that would put the gene to work much earlier than usual in the plant's life cycle.
One result of the gene's rescheduled activity was particularly striking: Some leaf surfaces sprouted tiny clusters of glove-shaped, embryonic tissue. And some of those embryos, while still attached to the leaf surfaces, even grew roots.
The new research, described in the June 26 issue of the journal Cell, was the work of researchers in the laboratory of UC Davis plant biologist John Harada and collaborators at UC Berkeley and UCLA. It was led by Tamar Lotan, a post- doctoral researcher with Harada.
"The discovery of LEC1 is very exciting," said Terry Thomas, a plant biologist at Texas A&M University who was not involved in the study. "It's an important step toward understanding the complex problems of seed development."
Harada said LEC1 will be useful in figuring out the coordination between the early, tissue-building stage of embryo development and the late, seed-maturing stage.
"The LEC1 gene is teaching us a great deal," he said. "And the research also has implications for some important applications."
For instance, making LEC1 function in a plant's leaves could revolutionize the production of oils and proteins from corn, canola (rapeseed) and soybeans -- essential food supplies for people and livestock.
"Mature seeds contain lots of those oils and proteins. They nourish the developing plant in the period after the seed germinates and before photosynthesis begins," Harada said. "Traditionally, we've had to wait for those products a long time -- until the plant matures, blooms and sets seed.