Protecting plant fertility from stress

Researchers at the University of Warwick have found a molecular mechanism that protects plant fertility from stress.

Plant fertility is massively impacted by spikes in temperature, and with temperatures rising due to global warming, there is a growing need to protect plants from stressful conditions, as stress can result in yield reduction.

Therefore, understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying plant fertility is essential to safeguard food production.

In a new paper published in Nature Plants journal, researchers from the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences have led a study on the molecular mechanisms used by maize plants to protect fertility in high temperatures. They have also discovered two Argonaute-like (AGO) proteins that shield the male sex cells and protect plant fertility from stress.

The researchers found that when maize plants with non-functional AGO proteins were subjected to different growth conditions, an increase in ambient temperature of 5°C drastically decreased male plant fertility.

By implementing a multidisciplinary approach, the researchers discovered that higher temperatures caused small pieces of ribonucleic acid (or small RNAs) to activate in wild-type plants, which bind to AGO proteins and control the activity of stress-activated jumping genes (pieces of DNA that can copy themselves into different parts of the genome). The researchers concluded that the AGO proteins control the activity of jumping-genes, and thereby protect plant fertility from stress.

Professor Jose Gutierrez-Marcos, of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick commented: “We have essentially found that when plants are stressed by high temperatures, they activate an RNA-guided surveillance mechanism in the form of small RNAs and Argonaute proteins, in reproductive cells which are critical to sustain male fertility and ultimately plant survival.

“Understanding the molecular mechanism implicated in safeguarding plant fertility is critical to safeguard future crop production under unpredictable and stressful climatic conditions.”

Dr Charo del Genio, from the study collaborators Coventry University’s School of Computing, Electronics and Mathematics, added: “Modelling the structure of the Argonaute proteins and simulating them at the level of the single atoms revealed how they change their electric charge when subject to thermal stress, initiating the process that brings the jumping genes back under control.”

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