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Shine a light on plant growth

Researchers have discovered how plants respond to changes in light 
at the molecular level

Plants crave light and even grow towards it. Now researchers understand how they do that.

Plants don’t have eyes, but it would seem they do “see” their surroundings using light.

That’s made possible by proteins called photoreceptors that absorb light and convert it into a signal that turns genes on or off.

Until now, scientists haven’t fully understood the molecular mechanism underlying that process, which allows plants to recognize when they’re in the shade and grow toward the sun, and to sense what season it is so they can bloom in spring.

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside have identified the portion of a plant photoreceptor responsible for light-dependent changes in gene expression, as illustrated in a paper published recently in Nature Communications.

The study was led by Meng Chen, an associate professor of cell biology in UCR’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.

Chen and his colleagues have been studying a group of photoreceptors called phytochromes that are sensitive to red and far-red light, and are conserved in plants, fungi, and bacteria. The research was done in Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant that is widely used by biologists as a model species because it is easy to grow and study.

Phytochromes control plant growth and development by changing the amount or stability of another group of proteins called transcription factors whose job is to turn genes on and off.

While the findings are highly technical, what the researchers found was two areas which shared responsibility for sensing light, possibly paving the way for producing more crops on less land, as they won’t compete for light in the same way.

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