Researchers at The University of Western Australia have discovered that plants and animals use the same signalling process to manage their nutrient levels. The knowledge could help improve the use of energy in crops, leading to better yields in the future.
The study, published in the journal The Plant Cell, showed plants and animals balance their nutrient and energy in similar ways through the use of a protein called Target of Rapamycin (TOR).
Dr Brendan O’Leary from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at UWA, who led the study, said just as human bodies decide whether to store nutrients for growth, or burn them for energy, plants needed to do the same.
“While feeding plants different nutrients and measuring metabolism changes we observed that the plants’ cells were reacting in a remarkably similar way to animal cells,” he said.
“Obviously plants and animals are very different in how they obtain food, so we were surprised to discover that the same protein, TOR, drives the decision to burn or store nutrients in both plant and animal cells.”
TOR is a well-known controller of growth and metabolism in animals, and even helps control lifespan. While it was known that plants also use TOR, it was not thought to control the same nutrient sensing processes as in animals.
“We knew that plants were using TOR to sense nutrients like carbohydrates or sugars, but we didn’t know they were doing the same for amino acids,” Dr O’Leary said.
“Amino acids are important because they’re the building blocks for making proteins, which lead to growth, but they can also be burned for energy.
“When we began to suspect that plants were using TOR to sense amino acid nutrient levels we needed to devise a way to be sure.”
The researchers fed plants with a chemical that disabled TOR and their suspicions were confirmed when the effect of amino acids on metabolism disappeared. However as some questions were answered, new ones arose.
“The genes that allow TOR to sense amino acids in animal cells aren’t present in plants. So there is more to be uncovered about exactly how plants are able to achieve this,” Dr O’Leary said.
“In the future, it will be exciting to figure out how exactly the TOR is sensing amino acids in plants.”
There is hope that as scientists improve their understanding of how plants use energy, the information might be used to boost crop yields.
“Now that we know TOR is in charge of deciding what to do with the amino acids, it could be possible to develop ways to control these decisions,” Dr O’Leary said.
“This could lead to crop plants that are able to spend more of their energy on growth, leading to better yields in the future.”
Image of Dr O'Leary courtesy of Plant Energy Biology