Stress: Plants, Like Animals, Respond To Too Much Tension

First Posted: Jul 29, 2015 06:45 PM EDT

Researchers at the University of Adelaide have made an amazing discovery. For the first time, they've seen signs from plants, though not equipped with a nervous system, that give off signals similar to animals when they encounter stress. The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

"We've known for a long-time that the animal neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is produced by plants under stress, for example when they encounter drought, salinity, viruses, acidic soils or extreme temperatures," said senior author Associate Professor Matthew Gilliham, ARC Future Fellow in the University's School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, in a news release"But it was not known whether GABA was a signal in plants. We've discovered that plants bind GABA in a similar way to animals, resulting in electrical signals that ultimately regulate plant growth when a plant is exposed to a stressful environment."

During the study, researchers reported how plants responded to their environment with a similar combination of chemical and electrical responses to animals, but through the intricate working of plants. By specifically identifying how the plants responded to GABA, the researchers believe that new potentials in modifying how plants respond to stress may indeed be on the way.

"By identifying how plants use GABA as a stress signal we have a new tool to help in the global effort to breed more stress resilient crops to fight food insecurity," said co-lead author Professor Stephen Tyerman.

Furthermore, despite similar function, the proteins that bind GABA and their mammalian counterparts only resemble each other in region in which they interact with the neurotransmitter, according to researchers. However, the rest of the protein looks very different.

"This raises very interesting questions about how GABA has been recruited as a messenger in both plant and animal kingdoms," added co-lead author Dr Sunita Ramesh. "It seems likely that this has evolved in both kingdoms separately."

With these and other studies, the researchers noted how this could potentially explain why particular plant-derived drugs used as sedatives and anti-epileptics work so well in humans, via the interaction of proteins in the GABA-signaling system.

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