That process begins with the phytochrome, which senses the wavelength of light shining on plants. Plants in full sun absorb red light while shaded plants receive only the leftover, far-red light. The type of light the phytochrome "sees" tells the plant whether to stretch out and become taller or to flower and make fruit. Based on the light available, the phytochrome cycles between an inactive and active state.
"Photoconversion between the active and inactive states of phytochromes is arguably the most important twitch on this planet, as it tells plants to become photosynthetic and consequently make the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe," says Vierstra.
Vierstra and his team found that by making specific changes to the light sensor, they can dupe it into staying in its active state longer.
"By mutating the phytochromes, we created plants that think they're in full sun, even when they're not," Vierstra says.
Three decades ago, while a postdoctoral researcher at UW-Madison, Vierstra was the first to purify the phytochrome protein. Now, his work has come full circle. He hopes the research team's findings become the scaffold for a toolkit others can use one that might fundamentally alter agriculture.
In addition to growers, the research also has implications for other scientists, as the technology could be used to create new fluorescent molecules for detecting minuscule events inside cells, and in the field of optogenetics, which uses light as a tool to drive biological change.
|Contact: Richard Vierstra|
University of Wisconsin-Madison