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Scientists control plants using nothing but light

Scientists at the University of East Anglia are describing a method of controlling plant biological processes using only colored light. The researchers have demonstrated that light can be used to switch genes on or off in plants to manipulate the timing of a specific activity, such as flowering or growth.

The experts hope the findings will ultimately lead to advances in how plants grow, flower, and adapt to their environment, which could greatly improve crop yields.

The research was led by Heinrich Heine University and the Cluster of Excellence on Plant Sciences (CEPLAS) in Düsseldorf, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Freiburg and UEA.

“Our team has been working on optogenetics – using light to precisely control biological processes – in plants,” said Dr. Ben Miller. “Using optogenetics in plants hadn’t been possible before because plants naturally respond to light as they grow. Any genetic switches controlled by light would therefore be constantly active.”

“But we have developed a special system which overcomes this problem and allows us to control different cellular processes in plants using light.

“We can now use a red light to cause gene expression at a precise moment, while an ambient white light can be used as an ‘off switch’ to reverse the process. This can be repeated any number of times.”

“We can use this system to manipulate physiological responses in plants, for example their immune response, and perhaps their development, growth, hormone signaling and stress responses.”

The research combines optogenetics with synthetic biology, another groundbreaking field of science. The new tool, Plant Usable Light-Switch Elements (PULSE), can be applied to plants growing under normal day and night cycles.

“In the future, this research might mean that we can modulate how plants grow, and respond and adapt to their environment, with light cues,” said Dr. Miller.

“For example, we have shown that plant immune responses can be switched on and off using our light-controlled system. If this system was used in crops, we could potentially improve plant defences to pathogens and have an impact by improving yields.”

“Using light to control biological processes is far less invasive and more reversible than using chemicals or drugs, so this new system in plants is a really exciting new tool for us to answer fundamental questions in plant biology.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Methods.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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