Saturday 16 December 2017

Spare a thought for your stressed-out sunflower - plants can have bad days too

Sunflower (stock)
Sunflower (stock)

Sarah Jane Murphy

New research has revealed that plants display signs of stress in a very similar way to humans and animals.

Scientists have found that plants use the animal neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to signal that it is in a stressful environment.

Over the past 20 years speculation among scientists has been rife that GABA was used by plants.

For example, it was known that GABA concentration in plants increases rapidly when an insect crawls up a leaf.

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The scientific team tested wheat, grape vine, rice and barley and discovered that all of the plants tested responded similarly to simulated stresses such as acidic soil, flooding and intense heat.

Matthew Gilliham, associate professor at the University of Adelaide, said plants seem to have recruited GABA to regulate electrical signals that can then control their growth.

"It's a parallel between animals and plants that we didn't know existed," he said.

The team are now testing if plants use of GABA can help them cope with unfriendly conditions.

"By understanding GABA, we could start to understand the factors that impinge on the yield of plants like wheat or barley," he explained.

GABA is used by the pharmaceutical industry in drugs used to treat depression and sleep disorder.

Professor Gilliham said that the new finding could explain why plant-derived drugs work so well in humans.

"Plants may look different, but they still use some of the same messengers, and that's fascinating," he said.

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