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Project aims to improve plant growth and resilience

Plants are crucial for food security and energy all over the world. However, in order to address the major challenges humanity is currently facing due to the joint impact of climate change and population growth, there needs to be 60 percent more food produced by mid-century, during a critical period where both warm and cold temperature shocks are expected to rise in frequency. To address these challenges, new methods to harness plant growth and resilience to stress are urgently needed.

Recently, Joe McKenna, an expert in Plant Biology at the University of Warwick has been awarded the prestigious Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBRSC) Discovery Fellowship to implement a sustainable way to enhance agricultural practices. His  project will investigate actin, a natural molecule found in plant cells that is responsible for moving other cellular components. 

While it is already known that faster moving actin leads to larger plants with more biomass, the precise mechanism of how this occurs and the variety of interactions that lead to movement within cells is not yet clear.

“At a cellular level, plants display some of the fastest movements known in biology. Organelles show rapid and coordinated movements within plant cells. This movement is critical for normal growth and development as well as responses to environmental conditions – changing shape and moving during hot or cold temperatures,” McKenna explained.

“While we do not know the exact mechanism of how this movement occurs, we know it is driven by the actin ‘cytoskeleton’ – a skeletal-like network supporting the cell – and myosin motor proteins (which act like trains travelling along the actin tracks). When the actin cytokskeleton is disrupted, movement within the cell stops.”

In his project, McKenna will investigate how the Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) – which is responsible for making most of the plant biomass and can rapidly remodel during both normal development and environmental stress – and the cell nucleus interact with the actin cytoskeleton to promote plant growth through DNA replication.

“If we can understand how actin interacts with these organelles and the proteins involved, we can engineer these systems to improve plant growth and develop plants which are much bigger and resistant to temperature stresses,” he concluded.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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