SEP 06, 2020 7:14 AM PDT

Can we decrease fertilizer needs by modifiying plant proteins?

Plants have natural fertilizers built into their physiological structures, reports new research published in the journal Current Biology. Proteins in the blue copper proteins family, the Uclacyanins, play a role in absorbing water and minerals from the soil, thus manipulating plant growth. If we could modify these proteins, suggest the University of Nottingham researchers who led the study, we could reduce the need for agricultural fertilizers and potentially make plants more resistant to drought and other side effects of the disease we call climate change.

Lead researcher on the project Guilhem Reyt comments: "This research is important in revealing the molecular mechanisms underpinning efforts to improve mineral nutrient and water use efficiencies and enhanced stress tolerance, making crops more able to withstand flooding, drought, nutrient deficiencies and trace element toxicities.” Reyt is an investigator at the University of Nottingham’s School of Biosciences and Future Food Beacon.

The study looks at how Uclacyanin proteins develop the structures in plants that control nutrient and water uptake – structures called Casparian strips. Casparian strips essentially seal the spaces between plant cells so that water and nutrients cannot leak out. In this way, they are crucial for managing the efficiencies of these important resources for the plant.

What the new study found is that Uclacyanins are imperative for the formation of lignin – both naturally forming lignin and biosynthetic lignin. The researchers say that manipulating these proteins to in turn influence the Casparian stips of different plant species could help make plants more efficient in the face of climate change and have significant implications for global food security while reducing the need for agricultural fertilizers that harm the environment.

“Such improvements in agricultural and horticultural crops could also potentially benefit subsistence farmers with limited access to inorganic fertilizers which include nitrogen, phosphate and potassium and also sulfur and magnesium. This would help to reduce the cost burden such fertilizers impose and reduce the environmental and ecological damage their production and excess use causes. Improved water use efficiency and stress tolerance will also improve yields for subsistence farmers cultivating marginal lands,” explains Reyt.

Photo: Pixabay

The study authors cite the need for crop production expansion, saying that in order to feed our growing population, crop production must expand twofold by 2050. Crops that are better fit for water and mineral uptake could play a central role in that growth.

“An improved understanding of how roots acquire important trace element and minerals should provide an important molecular mechanistic underpinning to efforts to improve food quality by helping to increase the content of essential mineral nutrients and reduce toxic trace elements in food crops,” Reyt concludes.

Sources: Current Biology, Science Daily

About the Author
BA Environmental Studies
Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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