Scientists announce in the current issue of the journal Nature their discovery that plants respond to environmental stresses with a sequence of molecular signals known in humans and other mammals as the "G-protein signaling pathway," revealing that this signaling strategy has long been conserved throughout evolution. Because a large percentage of all the drugs approved for use in humans target the G-protein signaling pathway, the team’s findings could also be used in the search for plant compounds that regulate the pathway in mammals, possibly leading to new drugs for human diseases.
In addition, the research identifies the enzyme in plants that triggers the production of an important molecule, S1P, in this signaling system. The enzyme in mammals is known to play a critical role in regulating the proliferation and death of cells. "Our research also indicates that the S1P-G-protein signaling pathway is the previously unknown genetic basis of characteristics that regulate a plant’s ability to withstand drought," says Sarah M. Assmann, the Waller Professor of Plant Biology at Penn State University and leader of the group of researchers from Penn State and Virginia Commonwealth University. Its discovery in plants could be used to develop crop varieties with higher yields and greater drought resistance, in addition to helping to identify plant sources for new pharmaceuticals.
Like team members in a relay race, molecules in the G-protein signaling pathway, well known in human cells, swing into action one after another when activated by a hormone. However, the identities and roles of the signal relayers in the G-protein pathway in plants were essentially unknown before the current findings. Assmann and her fellow researchers did know that a molecule important in the G-protein-signaling pathway in human cells, the molecule S1P (sphingosine-1-phosphate), also exists in plants, but they did not know much about its origin and function in plant cells. "The questions we sought to answer were what is the enzyme in plants that produces S1P and does S1P cause the same kind of G-protein signaling cascade in plant cells as it does in mammals," Assmann says.
Barbara K. Kennedy | PennState University
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