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Gene to Help Plants Beat the Heat

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 10/3/2009

Further investigations of part of a plant genome have uncovered a gene that helps plants to survive extremes of heat. The finding could help farmers to breed crops that will flourish in warmer climates.

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    Arabidopsis thaliana

    When the weather gets too hot to handle, we humans can dive into a pool or seek refuge in an air-conditioned building. Obviously plants are stuck where they are, so what stops them from shrivelling up and dying?

    A new study of the basic genetics of Arabidopsis thaliana, a member of the mustard family, has found a gene that controls how the plants respond to high temperatures.

    The work on this particular part of the plant genome was carried out by scientists at Michigan State University and published in the October 6th 2008 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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    Basic genetics of Arabidopsis

    432px-Arabidopsis thaliana - GNU Free Documentation License Previous investigations had found that the nucleus and cytosol (fluid inside cells) play some role in helping plants to beat the heat. This new plant genome research found a gene called bZIP28 that's important for heat tolerance.

    The protein product of the gene is anchored to an organelle known as the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). This is the first time that the ER has been implicated in the mechanics of heat tolerance.

    According to the researchers, when a plant is stressed by heat, one end of the protein (which has been tethered to the ER) falls away and migrates to the nucleus. Here it turns on genes that are involved in heat tolerance. Basically it's a genetic switch that controls a plant's response.

    Plants that had the bZIP28 gene inactivated soon died when temperatures reached certain levels.

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    Heat tolerance

    There is still a lot more work to be done before the basic genetics of heat tolerance in plants is fully understood. Though that's not to take away from the advances that have been made so far. The research opens up the tantalising prospect that a gene such as bZIP28 could be used to help plant breeders develop and grow species in hot and harsh environments. Such a major advance would be welcomed by farmers whose crops are sometimes wiped out by drought and excessive temperatures.