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Plant biologists dissect genetic mechanism enabling plants to overcome environmental challenge
Date:8/3/2011

Cold Spring Harbor, NY -- When an animal gets too hot or too cold, or feels pangs of hunger or thirst, it tends to relocate to where it's cooler or hotter, or to the nearest place where food or water can be found. But what about vegetative life? What can a plant do under similar circumstances?

Plants can't change the climate and they can't uproot themselves to move to a more favorable spot. Yet they do respond successfully to changes in environmental conditions in diverse ways, many of which involve modifications of the way they grow and develop.

Plant biologists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) have now discovered at the genetic level how one species of grass plant responds to the challenge to growth posed by shade. Central to this work is the team's identification of the role played by a gene called grassy tillers1, or gt1, whose expression, they confirmed, is controlled by light signaling.

The discovery of gt1's role is full of implication, for it occurs in maize, one of the world's most important food crops, and the genetic trick it performs, which results in changing the plant's shape, suggests how maize's ancestor in the grass family was domesticated by people in Mexico and Central America thousands of years ago. The discovery also suggests a present-day strategy for improving yield in switchgrass, a biofuel source.

In maize or corn, as it is commonly referred to in North America it has long been known at the level of effects, but not causes, how an unimpressive grass plant called teosinte was improved upon genetically through trial and error to become a prime source of food for the human race. As anyone who has seen a corn field knows, modern maize plants grow in close proximity, in long rows, and tend to produce robust, branchless stalks which yield one or two large ears apiece.

"The domestication of maize from its wild ancestor teosinte resulted in a striking modification of the plant's
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Contact: Peter Tarr
tarr@cshl.edu
516-367-8455
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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