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Scientists "stress" plants to learn the secrets of microRNAs

06.09.2017 Nature, Interesting facts
transgenic plant of Arabidopsis. Laboratory test for modification

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Plants exposed to high temperatures or drought immediately regulate the functioning of their genes, which allows them to survive. In the future, knowledge of these processes will allow to grow plants resistant to difficult environmental conditions. But first, researchers must understand the formation and behaviour of microRNA molecules.

Dr. Katarzyna Knop from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań is working on basic mechanisms of gene regulation in plants. As part of her doctorate, she grew model plants Arabidopsis thaliana in special cabinets called phytotrons, on dishes with suitable medium, and then moved them from 22 to 37 degrees. Examination of the samples showed that only half an hour of high temperature exposure mobilized the plant to act - induced stress affected the regulation of gene function in the cell. Drought and salinity had similar effects.


The plant responds to stresses caused by physical factors and thus copes with changing environmental conditions. It turns out that very short microRNAs are involved in this response.


"They bind to their target, full-size RNA molecules, and can cause their cleavage, thus preventing the genes from converting into functional products, that is, proteins in the cell. MicroRNA molecules have very high regulatory potential, which means they can regulate the production of multiple proteins under various conditions" - explained Dr. Knop. The researcher has confirmed that the levels of many microRNAs in the cell changed under the influence of environmental stresses.


"I was particularly interested in the microRNAs located in introns of genes that code for functional proteins" - the researcher explained. "Introns, which are non-coding elements within the genes, have long been considered a junk product in the cell. In the transcription process, introns are removed. Then, coding sequences within the genes - exons - are joined together, and a protein is formed. We now know that introns are not always removed, and when they are not - then changes occur in proteins encoded by genes. This can significantly alter the functioning of the cell.".


Dr Knop discovered that in a cell there is a rivalry between the formation of a functional protein and the formation of a microRNA molecule from the intron of the gene encoding the protein. This rivalry is particularly important when the plant is under stress.


"If we understand these complex mechanisms in the cell, then in the future we will be able to create transgenic plants that will cope better with difficult environmental conditions. Potentially, by manipulating the microRNA levels, we will be able to increase the resistance of plants to stress such as drought or high temperature" - anticipates the biotechnologist.


Katarzyna Knop conducted research at the Department of Gene Expression of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology under the supervision of Prof. Zofia Szweykowska-Kulińska.


Dr. Knop is this year's winner of the START stipend awarded by the Foundation for Polish Science. She is currently a fellow at University of Dundee, Scotland, where she is learning the lastest global RNA and protein analysis techniques. The fellowship is financed by National Science Centre as part of an ETIUDA scholarship.


PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland, Karolina Duszczyk


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Tags: genes , plants
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