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Poplar trees redirect resources in response to simulated attack

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory have applied some of the same techniques used in medical imaging to track the distribution of nutrients in poplar trees in response to a simulated insect attack. The research provides new insights on a long-debated theory about how plants respond to environmental stress, and shows that radiotracer imaging can be a big help in unraveling plant biochemistry.

Done in collaboration with scientists from Tufts University and Stony Brook University, the research is reported in two articles, to be published in Plant, Cell & Environment (June 2005) and in New Phytologist (August 2005), both now available online.

"Just as we've learned to use radiotracers to image the inner workings of the living human brain, we can now track biochemical and physiological processes within plants using these powerful imaging tools," said Richard Ferrieri, who leads Brookhaven's role in the research. "This enables us to study the effects of external factors like insect attacks, disease, elevated carbon dioxide, soil toxins, and drought on vital plant processes."

Ferrieri says scientists trying to improve plants' resistance to environmental challenges -- or their ability to perform useful tasks such as carbon sequestration, phytoremediation, or the production of bio-fuels -- could also use functional imaging to help track their progress.

In the New Phytologist study, the scientists asked how plants deal with an external stress, such as an insect attack. "We know that plants respond defensively to attacks, for example, by producing chemicals that kill off the attackers or make their own leaves less tasty," said Benjamin Babst, a Ph.D. student in the biology department at Tufts University and lead author on that paper. "But there's a suspicion that plants also respond by building up tolerance, for example by putting aside more carbon into storage so it will be available to help the plant
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Source:DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory


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