Carnivorous plant genes could lead to tougher plants
They won’t gobble up insects with leafy pines, but with the help of carnivorous plant genes, tomatoes, tobacco, and other crops might one day better defend themselves against disease-causing fungi and insects.
An international team of researchers has received a grant from the Human Frontier Science Program to study how carnivorous genes, which are involved in digestive processes, for example, could help plants not only avoid pests but also thrive in nutrient-poor environments. Ultimately, the team’s goal is to reduce reliance on pesticides and fertilizers.
“The study of plants can offer novel solutions to human wellbeing through improved crops,” said Tanya Renner, assistant professor of entomology at Penn State. “A key challenge is to efficiently select traits and underlying genes that perform similar functions when they are transferred from a donor plant to a recipient.
“We believe that some of the genes involved in carnivores – such as those involved in insect digestion and preserving the leaf surfaces that prevent insects from escaping – could help or improve plant pest resistance To create varieties that can grow on increasingly widespread eroded and sterile plants soils. “
According to Renner, carnivorous plants developed the ability to digest insects for nutrients in nutrient-poor environments. In a process called convergent evolution, these traits developed separately in different plant lines – with more than 800 species – living in different parts of the world.
“One of our goals with this project is to identify and characterize the convergent genes for carnivores for three types of carnivorous plants: sundew, butterwort and pitcher plant,” says Renner. “It will be the very first large-scale study of the most important genetic bases of plant meat.”
Sundew and butterwort, according to Renner, are flypaper-like plants that trap prey in sticky hair on their leaves, while pitcher plants contain trap traps for trapping insects. Pitcher plants, she noted, have a sticky, glue-like digestive fluid.
“We call this liquid, which is secreted by specialized glands at the bottom of the jug, viscoelastic because it is both viscous and elastic,” says Renner. “We are interested in identifying genes that underlie the adhesive and see if viscoelasticity can be introduced into crops with glandular hair, such as tomatoes and tobacco.”
Renner notes that although carnivorous plants rely on nutrients from insects, certain proteins found in the digestive fluids of carnivorous plants can provide additional nourishment. These proteins also have antimicrobial and insecticidal properties. Therefore, another goal of the team is to determine whether the proteins can repel pests and improve the nutrient supply of crops grown in soils with low levels of essential nutrients.
The researchers want to test the performance of the transgenic crops in various experiments. For example, to measure the plants’ ability to deter insects, they will allow tobacco and tomato hornworms to feed on the leaves of the plants and then weigh the insects.
“Previous experiments have shown that insects gain less weight when they try to feed on leaves that contain these proteins,” explains Renner.
In another experiment, the team will grow the plants in low-phosphate soils and then measure their biomass to see if the digestive proteins improve transgenic plants nutritionally.
In the United States, millions of pounds of pesticides and fertilizers are applied to crops each year, which are both costly and potentially harmful to ecosystems and human health.
“Overall, our goal is to achieve a proof of concept for trait transfer from carnivorous plants to crops in order to reduce the need for insecticide and fertilizer applications,” says Renner.
The Human Frontier Science program promotes innovative basic research on fundamental biological problems, with a focus on novel and interdisciplinary approaches that involve scientific exchange across national and disciplinary boundaries.
Other main scholarship researchers are Kenji Fukushima from the Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg in Germany and Ulrike Bauer from the University of Bristol in the UK.
Source: Penn State