If scientists can fully understand plant growth, they may be able to find a cure for cancer
To increase agricultural yields, it is important to understand how plants process light. Plants use light to determine when to grow and bloom. Plants find light using proteins called photoreceptors. However, understanding plants has implications in areas other than agriculture. Ullas Pedmale, an assistant professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), and his colleagues have discovered how the proteins UBP12 and UBP13 regulate the activity of a CRY2 photoreceptor. Their finding could clarify new strategies for growth control, with potential implications well beyond agriculture.
There are CRY photoreceptors in both plants and humans. They are linked to a number of conditions, including diabetes, cancer, and several brain disorders. CRY2 helps regulate growth in both humans and plants. Uncontrolled development in plants reduces their viability, while it causes cancer in humans. “If we understand growth,” says Pedmale, “we can cure cancer.”
Plants need the right amount of CRY2 to know when to grow and flower. Pedmale and former postdoctoral researcher Louise Lindbäck found that manipulating UBP12 and UBP13 can alter the amount of CRY2 in plants. They found that increasing UBP12 and UBP13 decreases CRY2 levels. This made plants think that there was not enough light. In response, they grew taller, abnormal stems to reach more. pedmale says:
“We have a way here to understand growth — and we can manipulate growth by simply manipulating two proteins. We’ve found a way to actually increase flower yield. You need blooms for food. If there’s no flower, there’s no grain, no rice, no wheat, no corn.”
Pedmale and Lindbäck were unsure exactly how UBP12 and UBP13 regulated CRY2. When the researchers took a closer look, they made a surprising discovery. In humans and other organisms, versions of UBP12 and UBP13 protect CRY photoreceptors from degradation. But with plants, the team saw the opposite. UBP12 and UBP13 instead helped break down CRY2. Lindbäck, currently research and development engineer at Nordic Biomarker in Sweden, explains:
“It is known from the literature that if you find such an interaction, it protects you from degradation. At first we saw the opposite, and we thought, ‘Okay, maybe I’ve done something wrong’, but when I did it a few times, we realized, ‘Okay, this is true.’ Instead of protecting CRY2, it causes CRY2 to degrade.”
Pedmale hopes their discovery will help plant researchers and plant breeders improve crop yields. He also hopes his work will help inform cancer research. “My colleagues at CSHL are working hard to understand cancer,” he says. “With plants, we approach it from a different angle.”
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Reference: “UBP12 and UBP13 deubiquitinases destabilize the CRY2 blue light receptor to regulate the growth of Arabidopsis” by Louise N. Lindbäck, Yuzhao Hu, Amanda Ackermann, Oliver Artz, and Ullas V. Pedmale, June 13, 2022, Current biology.
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