Plants can’t get up and run away when they’re being attacked by insects or harsh weather conditions. So they need mechanisms to rapidly respond to a stressful event – being eaten by a bug, for example – and then quickly transition back to “normal” conditions when the stress level subsides.
In a paper published in the journal Cell, North Carolina State University researchers show how plants handle – at the molecular level – the release of ethylene, an important gaseous stress hormone that, among other functions, regulates plant growth and stimulates the fruit ripening process. The findings could pave the way to new techniques to engineer plants to produce better crops or to turn off certain genes.
In the paper, plant geneticists Anna Stepanova and Jose Alonso show that ethylene triggers a process that begins, but doesn’t complete, one of the cell’s most basic functions – gene expression.
At issue are the plant cell’s transcription and translation processes, in which genetic instructions encoded in DNA are transcribed into messenger RNAs, which are then translated into amino acids to create proteins that carry out specific functions.
The researchers show that, when ethylene is perceived, transcription of certain genes that function as circuit breakers of ethylene signaling occurs, but protein production becomes restricted until ethylene is removed.
“Essentially, that means the messenger RNA is being made and stored, but the flow of information does not continue into protein synthesis,” Stepanova said.
“This is a mechanism for the plant cell to respond very quickly to ethylene but then very rapidly return to normal when the hormone is withdrawn,” Alonso added.
Specifically, the paper shows that a key signaling molecule, EIN2, is an essential component in the ethylene-response process. EIN2 protein binds to the messenger RNA of the ethylene circuit breaker EBF2, incapacitating its protein synthesis, and thus allowing for a full activation of plant ethylene responses.
Alonso and Stepanova say that although the results are specific to ethylene, the findings provide a blueprint for examining other plant hormones and their effects on genes.