Plant size morphs dramatically as scientists tinker with outer layer

LA JOLLA, CA Jack's magical beans may have produced beanstalks that grew and grew into the sky, but something about normal, run-of-the-mill plants limits their reach upward. For more than a century, scientists have tried to find out which part of the plant both drives and curbs growth: is it a shoot's outer waxy layer? Its inner layer studded with chloroplasts? Or the vascular system that moves nutrients and water? The answer could have great implications for modern agriculture, which desires a modern magical bean or two.

Now, in the March 8 issue of the journal Nature, researchers in the Plant Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies provide the answer. They succeeded in making tiny plants big and big plants tiny by controlling growth signals emanating from the plant's outer layer, its epidermis.

These findings could eventually be used by agronomists to manipulate plant growth pathways to maximize crop yield, or even reduce leaf size or leaf angle in plants that need to be spaced closely together, says the study's lead author, Joanne Chory, Ph.D., professor and director of the Plant Biology Laboratory and investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Chory and her laboratory team have spent years helping to define how a plant "knows" when to grow and when to stop which is a "big question in developmental biology," she says. For their experiments, they rely on the model system Arabidopsis thaliana, a small plant related to cabbage and mustard whose genome has been decoded. Over the years, the researchers have built up a whole tool kit, learning how to add and subtract genes in order to determine form and function. Among their discoveries is a class of dwarf plants whose size is about one-tenth the size of a single leaf of the full-sized plant.

Over the past decade, Chory's laboratory and others have shown that these dwarf plants are defective in making or responding to a steroid hormone ca

Contact: Gina Kirchweger
858-453-4100 x1340
Salk Institute

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