Harnessing plants’ sun-sensing protein could increase crop yields for food and biofuels

By Chelsea Whyte on June 5, 2012 6:46 PM EDT

Flower
Flowers sense sunlight duration through a photoreceptor protein that tells them when to bloom. (Photo: Fir0002)

Blooming at the right time of year is crucial to a plant's survival. And until now, it's been a puzzle just exactly how plants coordinate between molecular changes, circadian rhythms and sunlight in order to know when to flower. But scientists at the University of Washington have identified the specific mechanism that brings about a blossom.

Studying a small plant in the mustard family called Arabidopsis, researchers found that the urge to bloom comes down to a protein called Flowering Locus T. All flowering plants produce this protein and once it is formed in the plant, it travels to the shoot apex, where cells have yet to differentiate into leaf cells or flower cells. It's this protein that begins the molecular change that puts some of the cells on the path to becoming flowers.

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The Flowering Locus T protein is a photoreceptor, which is activated by sunlight. So in this particular process, timing is everything.

"The FKF1 photoreceptor protein we've been working on is expressed in the late afternoon every day, and is very tightly regulated by the plant's circadian clock," said corresponding author Takato Imaizumi, as reported by Futurity.org.

"When this protein is expressed during days that are short," he said, "[It] cannot be activated, as there is no daylight in the late afternoon. When this protein is expressed during a longer day, this photoreceptor makes use of the light and activates the flowering mechanisms."

This differentiation means that plants bloom in spring and summer, when their survival is most likely. Understanding how plant's recognize seasonal change could have have big impacts on yields of crops used for food or those grown for biofuels.

"If we can regulate the timing of flowering, we might be able to increase crop yield by accelerating or delaying this. Knowing the mechanism gives us the tools to manipulate this," Imaizumi said, according to e! Science News.

To apply their findings from the mustard plant to other species, the researchers plan to use the mathematical model they create to validate their findings. They say that the operating principles of the sun sensor should hold true with other crops like corn and rice. 

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