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Starving plants can help feed the world

Plants reprogramme their metabolism in response to energy scarcity in order to conserve resources. Scientists studied the mechanisms behind restricting energy usage to enhance plant survival in light of food demands from a growing global population and the threat of climate change.
Starving plants can help feed the world
All organisms regulate their energy balance with conserved signal transduction pathways in which kinases, enzymes, (proteins) mediating phosphorylation, play an important role. Organisms modulate the rate of capture (by feeding or photosynthesis), storage and use of energy resources to sustain growth and development.

When limited energy sources are available, eukaryotic organisms restrict energy usage. Prolonged starvation induces large-scale programming of metabolism in a response called low energy syndrome (LES). This is characterised by the repression of biosynthetic activities and growth and by induction of catabolic processes that break down stored molecules to release energy.

Scientists studied LES in plants with the support of the EU-funded MERIT (Metabolic reprogramming by induction of transcription) project. The aim of MERIT was to understand the mechanisms regulating energy balance in plants and their impact on plant survival under conditions of stress.

Project partners were able to identify key regulatory steps and generated many tools for improving the use of plant genomics data. Particular focus was given to data concerning transcriptomics, proteome sequencing and translatomes. Researchers discovered the first transcription factor(s) (the basic region, leucine zipper (bZIP) proteins) were directly regulated via phosphorylation by the plant protein kinase SnRK1.

These kinases are crucial to the energy balance of the organism and regulate primary metabolism by controlling transcription factors, which control the expression of genes encoding key enzymes. They also identified distinct metabolic profiles associated with LES, paving the way to uncovering the molecules involved in metabolic reprogramming.

MERIT showed that SnRK1 signalling and reprogrammed metabolism is crucial to establishing tolerance and growth during plant growth, therefore the project’s finding will help to improve yield and stress resistance in crops. In addition, the consortium explored the commercial potential of this work by conducting highly controlled experiments under reproducible conditions. Furthermore, active participation by industry leaders in plant productivity and crop will enable the effective exploitation MERIT’s scientific discoveries with major benefits for the world’s population.

Related information


Energy scarcity, energy balance, kinases, phosphorylation, low energy syndrome, MERIT, leucine zipper, bZIP, SnRK1
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