Unraveling the mystery of how plants store energy

arabidopsis-plantsAnyone who has dabbled in the most basic gardening or even pondered a field of wildflowers has taken for granted that plants turn light into energy. And though science has accepted this fact for years, researchers have only just begun to unravel the mystery of how plants regulate energy to grow and thrive.

Scientists now know there is an innate energy-sensing system at work in the structure of plant life.

“Plants utilize some of the same energy sensing and metabolic processes that we do,” said Glenda Gillaspy, professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Gillaspy’s focus is on the main energy expenditure for plants — creating cellulose. Plant cell walls are composed of cellulose, which is where energy made from light is stored. Her research builds upon what scientists now know, that plants don’t continually store energy; they go through periods of energy deprivation and surpluses, just like animals and other complex organisms, even humans.

The similarity between humans and plants lies in one of the major controlling proteins that occurs in plant signaling — the same protein found in animals and yeast.

This protein interacts with the fuel gauge that regulates how much energy the plant uses. The fuel gauge talks to the signaling network, and there is crosstalk that happens that indicates to the plant how it should spend its energy. Researchers still don’t know how, they just know it occurs.

Consider the importance of the 10 a.m. coffee break for someone who hasn’t eaten breakfast.

While a plant is not going to raid the break room for a donut, an intricate level of signaling that turns certain cell responses on and off means plants experience metabolic changes in much the same way as humans.

Ultimately Gillaspy’s work could help engineer plants that can adapt to an increasingly warming world plagued by drought and nutrient-poor soil.

By discovering more about how to manipulate a plant’s ability to synthesize cellulose for energy use, we’ll certainly learn a lot about our own biological processes, and the concrete connection between all living organisms as well.

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