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Thursday, October 28, 2021

UC Davis researchers map information encoded in tomato and rice root cell types for the first time

Gene discovery could potentially improve growth and fitness in plants in stressful conditions

After 10 years of embarking on a “very, bold risky project,” UC Davis researchers recently published a paper in Cell, according to Shiobhan Brady, a professor of plant biology and lead author of the study, via email. 

For the first time, researchers mapped information encoded in tomato root cell types and figured out how this information changes when the plant is grown in a controlled environment within the laboratory or in the field, Brady said. Other researchers involved in the project, including Julia Bailey-Serres, professor of genetics, similarly mapped out genes in rice root cell types. 

“By generating an atlas of gene expression in tomato root, we were able to find genes that could potentially improve plant growth and fitness in response to harsh environmental conditions,” said Mona Gouran, a graduate student in plant biology, via email. 

Researchers also analyzed the molecular function of the exodermis, defined to be “an outer cortex layer,” according to the paper. 

“It is supposed to be important in making a plant grow better under drought—and we found the genes and compounds in this cell type that makes the barrier that is supposed to help in keeping water inside the plant,” Brady said.

Roots play an integral role in plant growth, despite being underground, Brady said. 

“Each cell type performs a certain function,” Brady said. “If we can understand how they work and how they adapt to harsh environments, then we can harness this information to grow plants that can better respond to drought.” 

In the future, Brady said she hopes that the discovery of these genes can be used to assist in improved growth of tomato and rice plants in stressful conditions such as drought.

“We hope that this information can directly be used to breed plants better able to cope with climate change,” Brady said. “We are excited about the work in tomato, given the long history of tomato research at UC Davis.” 

    Gouran said that while the tomato plant was used as the model species in this study, these findings can be tested and studied in other closely related crops and vegetables.

“Hopefully the community will embrace and use this knowledge and our extensive public data resources,” Brady said. “We hope that our data will help inform research in other crop species as well.” 

    Lidor Shaar-Moshe, a postdoctoral student affiliated with the Brady Lab, said she carried out the cross-species analysis, which assessed the degree of similarity in gene expression of equivalent cell types across tomato, Arabidopsis and rice plants.  

    Shaar-Moshe said that it is estimated that dicots, like Arabidopsis and tomato, and monocots, like rice, are separated by approximately 180 million years of evolution. Even among the dicots, Arabidopsis and tomato plants are separated by about 150 million years of evolution. 

    “Despite these evolutionary distances, we found that the meristematic zone, a cell population that resides close to the root tip and gives rise to all root types, is conserved among the three species at the level of expression profile and gene function,” Shaar-Moshe said via email. 

    This newfound knowledge can be used to develop better root systems, according to a news article published in the College of Biological Sciences. 

    “Given climate change has created unfavorable conditions for farmers around the world, it is exciting that this study can serve as a great resource for scientists in the plant science community to help breed for crops that could perform better in face of a changing climate,” Gouran said. “This is especially important as plants serve as a major food source for humans, therefore engineering plants that are more resilient will help us to have a more sustainable food system as a result.” Written by: Aarya Gupta —science@theaggie.org

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