The gene, called RESURRECTION1 (RST1), has revealed a previously unknown genetic connection between lipid development and embryo development in plants, said Matthew Jenks, lead author of the study and a Purdue plant physiologist.
Lipids play a role in preventing plant dehydration in forming cells' membranes, in molecular signaling and in energy storage. A still-to-be revealed lipid associated with formation of the cuticle that coats plant surfaces may signal whether a seed develops to maturity or is aborted early due to a defective embryo.
"This is interesting because in crop production a number of plants have a problem of reduced yield due to seed or fruit abortion," Jenks said. "It's thought that plants may abort some of their seeds, especially under stress, to conserve and divert resources to the remaining seeds. So, in a drought situation, for example, plants will get rid of some seeds so that they can support growth of at least a few healthy seeds."
In the November issue of Plant Physiology, Jenks and his team of researchers from the Purdue Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture report on the normal gene RST1.
They found the gene while studying a unique surface wax mutant of Arabidopsis, a common laboratory research plant. All plants have a certain amount of wax overlaying leaves and stems.
The abnormal plant, a mutant of RST1, had short, rounded leaves that turned purple during development, and then before flowering, the plant quickly browned and looked dead. It also had a large proportion of small, wrinkled, non-viable seeds with aborted embryos. These contained only 34 percent of the normal amount of lipids.
"It appeared to have died, and I left it in a room for two or three weeks. I was just slow in throwing it away," said Jenks, who also is a member of the Purdue Center for Plant Environmental Stress Physiology. "When I went to throw it away, I noticed it had small shoots coming up as if it had returned to life."
The surprising finding in studying the mutant was that a single gene could affect so many diverse traits, Jenks said. Another somewhat similar mutant Arabidopsis showed alterations only in wax and seed development, but not in the other mutated RST1 traits. This was a major clue that changes in lipid synthesis were somehow altering seed development.
Scientists already know that lipids play an important role in signaling developmental changes in plants and animals, and that other plants and animals, including humans, have genes similar to RST1. Jenks and his team now want to determine the exact role of RST1 in lipid signaling that affects plant development, particularly its role in crop seed self-thinning mechanisms through embryo abortion.
Unlike some other mutants that abort all of its seeds, the mutant RST1 plant aborts only about 70 percent of the seeds, he said.
"RST1 is not required for seed development, but it does influence how seeds develop, perhaps playing a role in regulating the number of seeds a plant will support to maturity," Jenks said. "Seed abortion by plants likely is a tightly regulated process that necessitates allowing some seed loss to conserve resources in a stressful environment without aborting all seeds, which would leave the plant with no healthy offspring."
If researchers learn how to control plant embryo abortion, they may be able to increase yield by helping plants shed fewer seeds, grains or fruits, especially under drought conditions and in other stressful environments.